Bob Dylan: 50 things you may not know about him
“I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
Bob Dylan sang those wise words at the tender age of 23, on his track My Back Pages.
As he reaches his 80th birthday on Monday, we’ve decided to ignore the advice of the famous Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back and celebrate the life and career of the US singer-songwriter.
Be warned though before we get started, this list is about as long and exhaustive as some of the verses on his last album…
1. Bob Dylan is not his given birth name. But you already knew that, right? So here are 79 more facts about the artist formerly known as Robert Allen Zimmerman.
2. He has sold more than 125 million albums around the world
3. Despite his success and cultural impact, Dylan has never had a number one single in the UK or US. For context, Mr Blobby, Crazy Frog and Las Ketchup have all topped the charts.
4. A poll of musicians, writers and academics, conducted on Dylan’s 70th birthday, found his best song to be 1965’s Like a Rolling Stone, which the singer once said was his most honest and direct work. “After that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel or a play,” he said. “I knew I wanted to write songs because it was just a whole new category.”
5. Bruce Springsteen said the track, with its opening snare kick, sounded like “somebody kicked open the door to your mind”. While another high-profile fan, U2’s Bono, called it “a black eye of a pop song”.
6. When asked what his songs were about, in a 1966 interview with Playboy magazine, Dylan quipped: “Some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.”
7. Surprisingly to many, the counterculture icon did not play at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Dylan was a Woodstock resident at the time (the festival was actually about 40 miles away) but he got a better offer – £35,000 to headline the Isle of Wight festival instead, with members of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles watching on.
8. Speaking of The Fab Four… Dylan was the first man to introduce the band to marijuana, Sir Paul McCartney recently revealed to Uncut. ‘We all ran into the backroom going, ‘Give us a bit!’” said Sir Macca. “So that was the very first evening we ever got stoned!”
9. Many of his songs are more familiar to mainstream audiences as cover versions. For example Adele’s version of Make You Feel My Love, The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man and All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix. “He played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him,” he said of the late guitarist. Dylan himself has recorded covers of Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon tunes.
10. Malibu resident Dylan has 17 houses around the world according to biographer Howard Sounes. One of them is reportedly in the Scottish Highlands.
11. The troubadour has won 10 Grammy awards, including three for his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, which many critics considered to be a return to form after a long artistic slump.
12. He was born into a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota, before moving upstate to Hibbing.
13. Country singer Hank Williams, and bluesmen Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were among his musical heroes growing up, along with the king of rock ‘n’ roll Elvis Presley. The Rebel Without a Cause James Dean was his celluloid hero.
14. Dylan saw Buddy Holly play live locally just a few days before he died in a plane crash.
15. As a youngster he played piano and guitar in several summer camp/high school bands. Their names included The Jokers, The Shadow Blasters, The Golden Chords and (our personal favourite) The Rock Boppers.
16. He wrote in his high school yearbook that it was his ambition “to join Little Richard”.
17. Working as a busboy in a Fargo restaurant, after finishing high school, remains the only normal job Dylan has ever done. But in another life he’d like to have been a soldier. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles he wrote he’d always pictured himself “dying in some heroic battle rather than a bed”.
18. After moving to Minneapolis to study he turned his attention to folk music, swapping his electric guitar for an acoustic, which he played in cafes around the city’s bohemian Dinkytown area.
19. He became totally enchanted by US folk singers like Odetta and Woody Guthrie, who he would later visit in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey and play his own songs to him.
20. His first original composition of any note was called Song for Woody, and he even began to sing and talk like the Oklahoma singer.
21. Guthrie offered Dylan his stash of unused lyrics but his young son Arlo was unable to find them when Dylan came knocking. Almost 40 years later, the lyrics were put to music by Essex folk singer Billy Bragg and Chicago band Wilco.
22. In his book, Dylan revealed that aside from Guthrie and Irish folk group The Clancy Brothers, the biggest influences on his songwriting were blues legend Robert Johnson and Pirate Jenny – a song from the Brecht/Weill play The Threepenny Opera.
23. Having briefly operated under the name Elston Gunn, including while playing in Bobby Vee’s band, Dylan then settled on his now famous moniker – a nod to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
24. Dylan was a university drop-out. He never did finish his Liberal Arts degree at the University of Minnesota.
25. He read works by French symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud and American beat writers like Jack Kerouac. The On the Road writer’s spontaneous style “blew a hole in my head”, Dylan once remarked.
26. He moved to New York in 1961, to chase his dream of becoming a big music star.
27. He would regularly perform at venues in Greenwich Village such as Cafe Wha? and The Gaslight Cafe, where performers would pass around a basket at the end of each set and hope to be paid. Dylan once said he would get a dollar and a cheeseburger to play his harmonica all afternoon alongside another singer in the village.
28. After nine months in The Big Apple he secured a deal with Columbia Records, feeding the company’s PR executives “pure hokum”, as he later put it.
29. His first trip abroad involved an eight-week stay in a freezing cold London in the winter of 1962/63, where he learned traditional English folk songs like Scarborough Fair, and (for contractual reasons) cut an LP under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt.
30. Early on in his career, he would make up tales about his background, telling journalists and radio presenters that he was an orphan, from New Mexico and that he used to travel with a carnival.
31. His self-titled debut album consisted largely of covers of traditional folk and blues numbers, such as The House of the Rising Sun.
32. His breakthrough follow-up, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, carried a picture of him and his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, on the cover. A performance of the song Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright is believed to have signalled the end of the couple’s relationship.
33. Blowin’ in the Wind, the opening track on the album, was the song that made Dylan famous – initially thanks to the Peter, Paul and Mary version – and it also forever aligned with him the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.
34. The song has a similar melody to that of the African American spiritual song No More Auction Block. It came about as musician Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham urged artists like Dylan to put contemporary activist lyrics to old tunes which she then published in her Broadside magazine.
35. Dylan performed the number near Dr Martin Luther King Jr at a march on Washington DC in 1963, becoming the voice of a generation in the process – a label he always rejected.
36. He said that Dr King’s famous’ I Have a Dream” speech that day affected him “in a profound way”.
37. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan shocked fans and the music world by plugging in and rocking out, backed by a band that had been hastily-arranged the night before.
38. For the next year or so on tour around the world, Dylan and his band The Hawks were regularly booed when they went electric – including at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He was famously even called “Judas” by one gig-goer at Manchester Free Trade Hall. “I don’t believe you,” replied Dylan. “You’re lying”.
39. The period that followed – with his trilogy of more abstract and surrealist bluesy folk rock albums, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – saw Dylan turn pop music into an art form, according to Sean Latham, director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa.
Speaking on Radio 4’s documentary series, It Ain’t Me You’re Looking For Babe: Bob Dylan at 80, Mr Latham said: “The closest parallels we can draw in fact are not to other pop stars but to say Picasso or James Joyce.”
40. Dylan married Sara Lownds, who had worked as a model, in secret in 1965, and they had four children together. He also adopted her daughter from a prior marriage.
41. For a short while they lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York.
42. One of their sons, Jakob, became known as the frontman of the 1990s band The Wallflowers.
43. Dylan did a screen test at Andy Warhol’s studio, aka The Factory, and walked away with a print of an Elvis portrait.
44. He was injured in a mysterious motorbike accident in July 1966.
45. The singer then stopped touring and became a bit of a recluse for most of the rest of the 60s, living in a remote artists’ colony in Woodstock, upstate New York. “Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,” he wrote in Chronicles. “Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on.”
46. During this period he learned to paint, read the bible and would jam with his 1966 touring bandmates – who would become affectionately known as The Band. The collection of historical ballads and traditional songs they recorded were released many years later under the name The Basement Tapes.
47. The Band’s star-studded final gig, which featured Dylan, was later the subject of a Martin Scorsese documentary entitled The Last Waltz.
48. Fans broke into Dylan’s property (and bed), and he eventually moved back to Greenwich Village, where he was similarly hounded by Dylanologists.
49. The star rarely read the contracts he signed early on, and as a result he and his long-trusted manager Albert Grossman ended up suing each other in the 1980s.
50. Re-inventing himself again as a country singer, he wrote Wanted Man with Johnny Cash, who debuted the track live at San Quentin prison in 1969. Dylan made a rare appearance on his famous friend’s new TV show.