Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Week (II) -- The Invention of Bob Dylan

A little more than two decades before the ever media savvy Madonna turned chameleon-like self-reinvention into mass marketing phenomenon, Robert Zimmerman had quietly and inconspicuously pioneered the art.

Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, but grew up in the North Country in the town of Hibbing. In 1955, he entered Hibbing High School as a freshman. He grew up listening to Hank Williams records on 78 rpm, but like other fourteen year-olds at the time, he quickly became absorbed by the expressive rhythms and rebellious beats of the emerging blues and rock and roll. Hank Williams gave way to Bill Haley and the Comets and Little Richard, whom he came to idolize. In fact, his high school yearbook listed as his primary goal "to join Little Richard."

Little Richard, after all, played a mean rock and blues piano, which young Zimmerman found intriguing. Though he eschewed formal piano lessons, he nevertheless taught himself to play on the family piano, and fancied himself to be pretty good. (Admit it, you didn't know that piano was Bob Dylan's first instrument, did you.) In his high school years, Bob also learned to play the guitar (strumming mostly) and harmonica (though not terribly well).

In his sophomore year (10th grade), he started up a band with some school mates. They called themselves the Shadow Blasters, and played their first gig at a school dance at Hibbing High. Bob sang and played piano attempting as best he could to mimic Little Richard. His next band, the Golden Chords, for which he again sang and played piano, covered Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane and some classic teen doo-wop ditties. Realizing that it was a pain in the butt to cart a piano back and forth between Hibbing and Duluth, Bob began to practice the guitar more. Still, after graduation in 1959, while working for the summer as a waiter in Fargo, North Dakota, Bob was invited by Bobby Vee to sit in with the band and play keyboards. (N.B. Bobby Vee replaced Buddy Holly on tour after the tragic plane crash.)

After the summer of '59, Bob moved to Minneapolis and started hanging out in the coffee houses around the University of Minnesota. He even briefly enrolled in the University, and began to immerse himself in Beat literature, poetry, folk music and politics. Inspired by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, 'Robert Zimmerman' faded into the background and 'Bob Dylan' was born. Folk and blues became his primary musical passions, and his new influences included Harry Belafonte, the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and the Carter Family, among others.

While at the University of Minnesota, Dylan also read Woody Guthrie's (semi)autobiography Bound for Glory, and a new passion was ignited. This ignited passion reached full flame when Dylan listened to the achingly honest songs on Guthrie's album Dust Bowl Ballads. With a determination that might have bordered on obsession, he knew that he had to meet Woody Guthrie.

The University of Minnesota turned out to be a weigh station for Dylan. New York was calling.


EBD said...

I love the Bob in an abiding way. He's an amazing man. I became a fan when I heard Infidels, and then kind of worked my way back and forth through his catalogue.

You hear so much about how he never matched the brilliance of his early stuff, but I really disagree with that. The 60's stuff is phenomenal, and full of a wild expansive energy but -- unlike a lot of fans -- my favourite songs, like Ring Them Bells, In The Summertime, Three Angels, Buckets of Rain, When the Deal Goes Down, Serve Somebody, are generally the later ones. They just seem growed-up in a way I appreciate.

Osh said...

Thanks EBD. It's nice to know there are more of us around. I have to admit my sentimental favourite of his albums is Blood on the Tracks. But the truth is he's still putting out great music, and seems to have returned to folk blues.