"Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you About a strange young man called Dylan with a voice like sand and glue His words of truthful vengeance, they could pin us to the floor Brought a few more people on and put the fear in a whole lot more"
One of the most influential living songwriters in popular music, and an American cultural icon. Music critics refer to him by last name alone (sometimes even just his first name will suffice), and references to his life and career seem to pop up everywhere. That Other Wiki is a great place to learn the particulars, so we'll stick to the tropetacular.Bob Dylan (1941-), born Robert Zimmerman (no, you can't call him that), moved from Minnesota to New York City at age nineteen with a guitar, some flannel shirts, and not much else. Adapting his new surname in homage to Dylan Thomas, he performed folk songs in bohemian Greenwich Village coffee shops and bars with an affected accent, and became a fixture of the local "folk scene"—which doubled as a leftist political circle deeply interested in the Civil Rights Movement. Dylan wrote songs specifically for this group, the most famous being "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Although these two protest songs are still his biggest claim to fame today—he's the guy who "brought politics" into music, somehow—this "topical" phase of his career lasted little more than twelve months.In the summer 1965, he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with some rock musician buddies and an electric guitar. They plugged in, played very loud rock music with crazy-ass lyrics to some angry college kids, and thereby "went electric." It was not a popular decision at the time. His image from this period is the most enduring — dark sunglasses indoors, a giant dome of frizzy hair, mod wardrobe, and baked as a Belgian waffle.His most famous song from this "electric" period is "Like a Rolling Stone." Twice as long or loud as anything else on the radio at the time, with snarling lyrics about chrome horses and cat-loving diplomats, the song somehow rose to number two on the U.S. charts. This is about the time the Beatles were singing "Yesterday."After a long world tour, full of combative press conferences and booing crowds, Dylan dropped off the radar in 1966, one year prior to the ''Summer of Love." He did not perform at Woodstock (despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that it took place basically down the road from his house), and he did not protest the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan closed out the Sixties via duet with Johnny Cash. He nonetheless remains synonymous with said decade's "turbulence": Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower" plays over about 70% of all Sixties montages.The other major Bob Dylan reference you might encounter is to his "born again phase," which began with his conversion to Christianity in the late 70s (he was born into a Jewish family and raised Jewish). Attendant to this were a few nostalgic, audience-baiting tours and some angry but lyrically intricate Christian Rock albums. Dylan eventually returned to more secular themes, but has never quite abandoned the doomsaying street preacher point of view. On the other hand, in his personal life, he's been seen celebrating the High Holidays at various Chabad Lubavich Hasidic congregations; make of that what you will.Dylan still records music, which people still don't really "get," and is once again sacrosanct among music critics and record store employees. As ever, this is mostly on the strength of his lyrics—Dylan is nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature almost every year. Nonetheless, his nasal growl of a singing voice remains a point of contention among listeners. The stock Bob Dylan joke is that nobody can understand a word he says, and he is usually depicted as talking exactly as he sings.Bob Dylan albums with their own page:
Altum Videtur: In the most bizarre moment on Christmas in The Heart (which is saying a lot), he opens "O Come All Ye Faithful" with the original "Adeste Fideles" verse. His pronunciation isn't bad, but it's still Bob Dylan singing Latin.
Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: From the song "Shot of Love" - "Why would I want to, take your life, you've only murdered my father, raped his wife, tattooed my babies with a poisoned pen, mocked my God, humiliated my friend."
Artist Disillusionment: After his motorcycle crash, and with the Summer of Love occuring without him in the spotlight for a year, Dylan merely wanted to quietly recuperate and rekindle his broken relationship with his wife and kids in his home in Woodstock, NY. He was constantly accosted and harassed by the local hippies and countercultural leaders, who wanted him to lead the hippie revolution and go back on the rockstar treadmill again. He came to resent his role as a "voice of a generation", particularly after they (unsuccessfully) tried to get him to play the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and started to write throwaway albums like Dylan and Self Portrait to fulfill his contract and deliberately derail his legacy.
A Storm Is Coming: So many songs, but most notably "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," "All Along The Watchtower," "The Times They Are A'Changin," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Shelter from the Storm," "When the Ship Comes In" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Bikini Bar: The "topless place" in "Tangled Up in Blue."
Blackface: He never donned it directly, but rather wore ironic whiteface makeup during the Rolling Thunder Revue. He has also been open about the influence of minstrelsy on his music, including naming his album Love and Theft after Eric Lott's academic book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. A minstrel named Oscar Vogel appears in Masked and Anonymous.
Blasé Boast: Played for Laughs (probably) by the introduction he used for years, starting in 2002. It's originally from an article about him, which Dylan apparently either found flattering or so hilarious he had to turn it into a Running Gag.
Breather Song: On The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, the comical "Bob Dylan's Blues" and "I Shall Be Free" are there to help offset the album's heavier songs. While not quite as comical, the lyrically wry and uptempo "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" serves a similar role on Blood On The Tracks.
Brick Joke: Responsible for possibly the longest brick joke ever. In 1964, when asked by a reporter what what product might entice him to sell out, Dylan replied, "Ladies' undergarments." Forty years later in 2004, he appeared in a Victoria's Secret ad.
Butt Monkey: The narrator of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues".
He quotes the opening line of "Positively 4th Street" ("You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend") at the end of its follow-up single, "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?"
"Stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' for you" ("Sara")
During a 1979 concert on his first "Christian" tour:
I told you "The Times They Are A-Changing" and they did! I said the answer was "Blowin’ In The Wind" and it was! And I'm saying to you now, Jesus is coming back.
Canon Discontinuity: For a while after his conversion to Christianity, he refused to play any of his pre-Gospel songs.
The 1973 album Dylan is largely this.
Chekhov's Gunman: "Brownsville Girl". The narrator and his girlfriend stop at the house of someone named Henry Porter, only to find out he's gone out for a while. Later in the song this trope gets thoroughly averted and Lampshaded: "The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter was that his name wasn't Henry Porter", and Porter is never mentioned again.
Cover Album: A bunch. Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong consist of solo acoustic performances of old folk standards, Dylan is an album of cover version outtakes, and Christmas In The Heart has him covering Christmas Songs. Also, Bob Dylan, Self Portrait and Down In The Groove have more covers than original material.
The Cover Changes The Gender: He famously averted this in his take on "The House of The Rising Sun". He also retained the female perspective of the original when he covered the British folk song "Young But Daily Growing" during the Basement Tapes sessions.
The Cover Changes The Meaning: Ray Price's 1968 country hit "Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)" is addressed to a lover who the narrator thinks is trying to make him "a stand-in for an old love." When he covered it on Self Portrait two years later, the subtext of Dylan sending a message to listeners who believed that He Changed, Now He Sucks was glaring almost to the point of Anviliciousness:
Why must you always try to make me over?
Take me as I am or let me go...
You're trying to reshape me in a mold...
In the image of someone you used to know
Cover Version: For an artist often praised more for his songwriting than his performances, Dylan loves doing other people's material - ranging from folk and blues songs to Frank Sinatra and The Clash. After Warren Zevon announced he had cancer, Dylan started playing 2-3 Warren Zevon covers at every show for an entire tour.
Crapsack World: Many of his songs, especially from the early '80s onwards.
Well, God is in his heaven
And we all want what's His
But power and greed
And corruptible seed
Seems to be all that there is ("Blind Willie McTell")
Pretty much the entirity of 1997's Time Out of Mind might be counted under this trope: Dylan sounds so depressed and sick of life on the album that some people expressed mild surprise that after recording it he didn't just go and jump off a bridge somewhere.
Full Name Ultimatum: At least two other artistsnote John Lennon in "God" and David Bowie in "Song for Bob Dylan" have used the name "Zimmerman" to express their disillusionment with him. The Byrds, on the other hand, used it as a joking retort to Dylan's joking Take That in "You Ain't Going Nowhere" ("Zimmerman" fit the melody and rhyme better than "Dylan").
Greatest Hits Album: Several, with many of them helping to codify different approaches to this trope. 1967's Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits is still many listeners' gateway into his work and also gave "Positively 4th Street" its first album appearance. The double album Greatest Hits Volume II (1971) was probably the Trope Maker for the now-almost universal practice of including newly-recorded bonus songs on a Greatest Hits Album. It's also notable because Dylan chose the songs and did the track sequence. 1985's Biograph was a 5-record (and 3-CD) mix of hits, studio outtakes and live cuts that helped lay the groundwork for the CD box set boom. For a while those were it, but starting in the mid-90s there have been numerous career-spanning sets released.
Hanging Judge: In "Seven Curses" and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts".
Have a Gay Old Time: "Standing In The Doorway"—"I'm strumming on my gay guitar." But since it was written and recorded in 1997 it's a case of Dylan purposely using the old meaning to convey anachronism.
A deliberate Double Entendre in "Caribbean Wind", where the line "as the gay night wore on" is immediately followed by "where men bathed in perfume."
It Will Never Catch On: After Columbia Records executive John Hammond signed Dylan and produced his debut album, the album only sold 5,000 copies in its initial release. Other Columbia executives started calling Dylan "Hammond's Folly".
Jerk Ass: He comes across as a major one in Dont Look Back, as Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film's 20th anniversary reissue:
"What a jerk Bob Dylan was in 1965. What an immature, self-important, inflated, cruel, shallow little creature, lacking in empathy and contemptuous of anyone who was not himself or his lackey. Did we actually once take this twirp as our folk god?"
Just Like Robin Hood: The title character in "John Wesley Harding", though the real life John Wesley Hardin didn't fit the role at all.
Karma Houdini: "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" tells the story of an upperclass white man who kills a poor black woman. This being Baltimore in the 60s, he receives only a six-month sentence.
Very much inverted in "Percy's Song", in which the singer relates the story of a friend who was in a car accident that killed four people, and got a 99-year prison sentence for manslaughter.
Jakob Dylan: I got to watch my heroes meet him and saw how they reacted, whether it was Joe Strummer or Tom Waits. It was peculiar. I'm so stoked to meet Tom Waits, and he's so nervous to meet my dad. It's a head spin.
Lyrical Dissonance: "Positively 4th Street" and "Like A Rolling Stone" (bright, happy music accompanied by bitter words).
"Oxford Town" is a jolly-sounding uptempo song (in the liner notes Dylan calls it "a banjo tune I play on the guitar") about the riots at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith enrolled there.
Messy Hair: Especially during the late 60s. He's the page picture.
New Sound Album: Several. Bringing It All Back Home definitely qualifies, marking his transition to electric (which, as noted above, pissed off a substantial portion of his fan base). Prior to that, Another Side of Bob Dylan marked his transition from protest songs to impressionistic, expressive lyrics (which, as noted above, also pissed off a substantial portion of his fan base). Then there was the late 60's John Wesley Harding, which took a step back from the heavy pop instrumentation of the previous three albums and went for a much more sparse and accoustic country vibe - followed by Nashville Skyline, which was pretty much full-on country with very straight-forward, unambiguous lyrics (which didn't as much piss off as mystify a substantial portion of his fan base: the albums were part of Dylan's plan to rid himself of said gigantic fan base, as he was getting quite annoyed with it). Significantly, the late 70's Slow Train Coming marked Dylan's short-lived venture into gospel and Christian rock (which both pissed off and mystified a substantial portion of his fan base). 1997's Time Out Of Mind saw Dylan shift towards a more blues folk style that has to some extent characterized all his output for the past 15 years.
Non-Actor Vehicle: His attempts at acting in Hearts Of Fire, Flashback and Masked & Anonymous.
One Woman Song: "Absolutely Sweet Marie", "Angelina", "Farewell Angelina", "Hazel", "Isis", "Jolene", "Maggie's Farm", "Nettie Moore", "Peggy Day", "Queen Jane Approximately", "Rita May", "Sara", "To Ramona", "Visions of Johanna", "Winterlude" (yes, that's the name of the woman in the song).
Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: He was at the receiving end of this once, as he was almost arrested in 2009 for loitering in New Jersey. At the time he wasn't carrying ID and the officers that accosted him had never heard his name before.
Princess in Rags: "Like a Rolling Stone". The trope could have almost been named "Napoleon in Rags", this song is one of the most iconic portrayals of that trope.
Production Foreshadowing: In 1963, two years before switching from folk to rock, he released two songs where he was backed by a band: "Corrina Corrina" and "Mixed-Up Confusion".
Protest Song: Again, too many to list. Though the most famous would have to be "Hurricane," "The Times They Are A-Changin," and "Masters of War." Many critics believe "Only a Pawn in Their Game" to be this trope's standout example. Dylan eventually became disillusioned with protest songs, and distanced himself from them in "My Back Pages":
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth “Rip down all hate,” I screamed Lies that life is black and white Spoke from my skull. I dreamed Romantic facts of musketeers Foundationed deep, somehow Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.
Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: His band for the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76 had this flavor. There was David Bowie's ex-guitarist (Mick Ronson), a guitarist who had previously written a couple songs for The Monkees (Steve Soles), a tall skinny guy from Texas (T-Bone Burnett), the guy who played bass on Don McLean's "American Pie" (Rob Stoner), a boyish-looking guy who'd previously been in a band called Quacky Duck & His Barnyard Friends (David Mansfield), a Latin violinist who Dylan had hired after he saw her walking down the street (Scarlet Rivera), and Andrew Wyeth's nephew (Howie Wyeth) on drums, among others.
Rearrange the Song / Evolving Music: Constantly, throughout his entire career. Being a folk musician at heart, Dylan sees every new performance of a song as a new interpretation of it. It's been said that he never plays a song the same way twice; that's a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
This is called "I Don't Believe You." It used to be like that, now it goes like this.
The same applies to lyrics, especially to songs that (presumably) carry a lot of personal meaning for him. For instance, compare "If You See Her, Say Hello" before and after his divorce. And "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" has at least a few dozen verses by now.
As illustrated here, "Tangled Up In Blue" is probably his most tinkered-with song lyrically.
Reclusive Artist: A mild case - he tours a lot more than most established artists, but gives few interviews, and is very private about his personal life - to the point where he's kept at least one marriage and one child secret for years. Given how fanatical some of his fans have been at times, it's probably understandable.
Red Scare: Satirized in "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues".
Rockumentary: D A Pennebaker's Dont Look Back [sic] from Dylan's 1965 tour of the UK is one of the earliest examples. Dylan followed it up with the slightly less coherentEat The Document, filmed during the 1966 tour, which remains unreleased (though bootleg copies circulate). There's also Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home.
Self-Parody: His early song "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues" was a parody of his Woody Guthrie-influenced style during that phase of his career and his Jewish background (which he was still covering up). He introduces "Hava Nagila" as "a foreign song I learned in Utah."
Sudden Downer Ending: Planet Waves and Empire Burlesque are musically bright albums that are heavy on love songs, but they both end with Dylan, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, performing a personal, serious song ("Wedding Song", "Dark Eyes").
A more lighthearted one occurs in "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere": The Byrds recorded their cover of the song in 1969, during which Roger McGuinn accidentally switched one of the original lines around and sang "Pack up your money, pick up your tent". Dylan re-recorded the song in 1971 for a greatest hits compilation, rendering the lyric as "Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn, you ain't goin' nowhere". McGuinn in turn responded on a 1989 cover of the song with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, singing "Pack up your money, pick up your tent, Zimmerman".
Take That, Critics!: From a 2012 interview, when asked about accusations that he's borrowed lines from others.
"Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing – it's part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell".
Tarot Motifs: The card for The Empress is on the back cover of Desire, and Street-Legal is loaded with tarot references (especially "Changing of The Guards").
Twelve Bar Blues: One of the basic ingredients of his songwriting. Many of his songs can be classified as having tweaked blues structures. Probably the straightest examples of Twelve Bar Blues in his work are "Down The Highway", "Outlaw Blues" and "Meet Me In The Morning".
The Unintelligible: Not the songs themselves, for the most part, but guaranteed that any parody of him will be this.
Somewhat subverted with Weird Al Yankovic's parody "Bob", which features lyrics composed entirely of well-enunciated (if twangy) palindromes.
This trope is the reason he was so often Covered — other artists' versions were just more marketable because they were easier to understand.
Vocal Evolution: While he has more-or-less always had the famous nasal gruffness, there have been some subtle changes over the years. On his first two albums he has a Woody Guthrie-influenced drawl. On his other pre-electric albums he almost shouts a lot of the lyrics. On his first two electric albums he went with a plain but forceful way of singing, emphasizing certain syllables. On Blonde On Blonde (1966) he exaggerates that style almost to the point of Self-Parody. On John Wesley Harding (recorded late 1967) his timbre begins to sound like that which pervaded his 70's work: a sharpness in his louder sections, a hoarseness in quieter ones. A major departure from that was his crooning voice on Nashville Skyline (1969). Bootleg tapes confirm that this was very similar to the voice he used when he first started playing folk clubs in his Minnesota college days, so it was a deliberate change on Dylan's part. Dylan went so far as to hang a Lampshade on this with his version of "The Boxer" on Self Portrait, done as a duet between Classic Dylan and Skyline Dylan. The close of the 70's gave us a wavering, sneering quality to his singing voice, raspy as ever. Starting in the late 80s he developed a strange slurring style that led to all the jokes about him needing a translator. Since Time Out Of Mind in 1997 his voice is more noticeably hoarse, so he's adopted a softer style of singing to compensate.