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The freewheelin’ folkster: happy 70th birthday, Bob Dylan

May 24, 2011

Voice of three generations: Bob Dylan, the man who crossed the great divide between folk and rock, helped provide a soundtrack to the civil rights movement and become a true living legend 

He can’t really sing that well, he once walked out of The Ed Sullivan Show before even appearing and one of his performing aliases is Blind Boy Grunt, but for all that he may just be the most important songwriter of the last 60 or so years. He’s Bob Dylan and, yes, today, he’s 70 years young.

A pioneer in bringing American folk and the protest song to the mainstream both within the US and without, he was a fundamental inspiration for, among so many others, The Beatles, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie – all of them absolute giants of pop and rock music in their own right and whose legacies may be arguably just as important as Dylan’s own. Moreover, his influence was critical for both the seminal ’60s bands The Byrds and, er, The Band – neither would have got started had they not revised parts of his early back-catalogue and, in doing so, achieved distinctive, major hits of their own.

Frankly, it’s hard to overstress Dylan’s importance and brilliance. Recent British poet laureate Andrew Motion believes his work should be taught in schools (in fact, Motion’s probably referring to the man’s stunning lyrical dexterity there, rather than his music – which also should be, and no doubt already is, taught in schools from his home state of Minnesota to the Home Counties’ Milton Keynes). Elsewhere, some academics have called on the Swedish Academy to award Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature. Actually, they’ve been calling for it for nearly five decades now.

Anyway, to mark the anniversary of the great man’s three-scores-and-ten, I’ve put together my own little tribute – a collection of images from different times in his life and career, as well as clips of both him and (mostly) others delivering key recordings of some of his best loved tunes.

He’s arty, prickly, unpredictable, fascinating and (unlike Presley, Lennon, Harrison, Joplin and Buckley) still alive and kicking at 70, so happy dies natalis to a hurricane-and-a-half, the one and only Bob Dylan…


First up then, is a version that pretty much resembles the studio recording, but actually isn’t (Dylan’s protective of his stuff appearing on youtube – meh, the man’s a genius after all), of my favourite song of his performed by him himself. Yes, it’s Positively 4th Street and it’s positively perfect… 


Beat it? (No you can’t): Dylan meeting Beat Generation poets and ’50s counter-culture figureheads Michael McClure (left) and Allen Ginsberg (right), most likely in the mid-’60s 


The next clip comes from a film soundtrack (imdb charts works by Dylan appearing on the soundtracks of 333 separate titles). It’s the studio version of his epic 1975 song The Hurricane, about the boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, and plays over the top of an unforgettable, oh-so-cool scene from Dazed And Confused; a flick about 1970s adolescence which itself I can’t praise highly enough… 


Like a fine wine: Dylan with fellow folk and protest singer Joan Baez, whose professional and personal relationship with the former propelled his career and commitment to civil rights


Next up is a clip of the beautiful, lilting, Dylan-penned I Shall Be Released. Performed by The Band and featuring on their 1968 album Music From Big Pink, it’s a song that’s arguably more synonymous with them than with its writer, whom they supported as a band themselves several times from the mid-’60s onwards. Dylan released a version of the song himself in 1971…


Pop (and) art: Dylan meets modern art superstar Andy Warhol in front of a print of the latter’s iconic Elvis Presley work, most likely in the mid- or late ’60s


And here’s a clip of another song written by Dylan that may have become more famous for the version recorded by another artist, namely Jimi Hendrix’s sublime take on All Along The Watchtower. Forever associated with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, it was released in 1968, six months after Dylan’s original recording. This version was ranked 48th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time. Personally, I may’ve placed it higher… 


(Not) the end of the line: the ultimate supergroup line-up – (from left to right) Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison aka The Traveling Wilburys, from the late ’80s 


And so, the final clip, of course, is of perhaps the most notorious version of a Dylan song of modern times. Yup, it’s Guns N’ Roses’ studio recording of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Originally written and recorded by its writer for the 1973 movie Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, its also been famously covered by Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead (with Dylan), Warren Zevon and, er, Avril Lavigne. This effort, though, was finally recorded by Axl and co. after they performed it live for many years and appeared on the 1991 album Use Your Illusion II. The single reached #2 on the UK charts – mind, of the two, for me Dylan’s own version will always be the #1 …    


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