Bob Dylan, who turned 74 years old today, has been called many things in his long, storied career: voice of a generation, folk hero, JUDAS, the frightening star of Hearts of Fire. But rarely has he been described as a punk. If you consider “punk” as more a lifestyle, an aggressive ethos of not giving a f*ck, than a genre of music that’s played super-fast, it fits Dylan.
Here are some reasons why.
Dylan loved to mess with authority figures. Famed music producer John Hammond, who worked on his eponymous first album (which was met with a yawn and dubbed Hammond’s Folly), signed this 20-year-old wisp of a man from Minnesota after he was told that Dylan was an orphan. Who told him this? Why Dylan, of course, who was considered a minor at the time and needed his parents’ co-signature. He hadn’t spoken to his mom and dad in some time, so his way around this was to invent a tale about being an orphan with only one living relative, a blackjack-dealing uncle who lived in Las Vegas. Either things were simpler then, or people were a lot dumber.
Newport Folk Festival
1965 was a year of massive cultural change, but you wouldn’t know it at the Newport Folk Festival, where the likes of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Gordon Lightfoot gently swayed an audience of peace-loving hippies. It was Dylan’s third appearance at the festival, and the crowd expected to hear the same acoustic material he played the first two times. Your “With God on Your Side,” your “We Shall Overcome” cover. Instead, they got Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with the iconic Mike Bloomfield on guitar, charging their way through “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” all for the first time ever. The audience booed, and that blowhard Seeger infamously declared, “If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” No one there deserved the legendary performance Dylan was giving them, and he didn’t return to Newport for 37 years.
The Time Interview
Dylan was at his most wise-jackass in 1965, when Dont Look Back documentarian D.A. Pennebaker filmed him responding to Time reporter Horace Judson with visible (and likely drugged out) irritation. Choice quotes include, when asked about his songs, “I just write them. I don’t write them for any reason. There’s no great message. If you wanna tell other people that, go ahead and tell them. But I’m not gonna have to answer to it,” and, “I don’t need Time magazine.” This was a time when rock stars were supposed to be good boys and girls to the press. To tell a journalist to shove off was career suicide. Until Dylan did it, then it became en vogue.
“Play f*cking loud”
Speaking of hostility: during his 1966 world tour with the Hawks (later renamed the Band), Dylan played two sets: the first was all acoustic, from the personal “To Ramona” to the apocalyptic “Desolation Row,” while the second was electric. The only thing louder than “Tell Me Mama” was the crowd jeering Dylan, criticizing him for selling out. During a show in Edinburgh, his so-called “fans” attempted to drown out the music by loudly playing harmonicas. On May 17, 1966, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, someone called him “Judas!” To which Dylan replied, “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar,” before telling the Hawks to “play f*cking loud.” They did.
Back to Basics
In Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan released three of the most electric albums of all-time, in every sense of the term. He couldn’t be more of an icon. But on July 29, 1966, he crashed his motorcycle in Woodstock, New York, and essentially vanished from the public eye. Eighteen months later, John Wesley Harding came out, much to the confusion of listeners who expected to hear more of the wild mercury sound of “Visions of Johanna” and instead got the stripped-down and spiritual “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” It would be another two years until his next album, Nashville Skyline, which was released only a few short months before the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that 50% of the festival’s bill was in some part inspired by Dylan, who lived nearby. But he refused to sign on, officially because one of his kids was sick, but unofficially (and accurately), he was sick and tired of hippies invading his privacy at his rustic home. Not playing Woodstock was a middle finger to the scene he invented. Instead, he took his talents to the Isle of Wight Festival in England for his comeback show, less than two weeks after Woodstock ended.
Bob finds God
Defending Dylan’s religious period is a no-win dilemma. For instance, I enjoy “Property of Jesus” and think “Pressing On” is an underrated gem, but claiming Slow Train Coming is a good album is to say “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is a good song, and that is NOT true. But you gotta give the man credit for one thing, at least: he went all-in on God. His spirituality wasn’t a brief fling; it bubbled in Street Legal (my pick for the best Dylan album that you won’t find on a single best-of list) and came to a boil with Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love, before cooling off slightly with Infidels. If punk is “musical freedom…it’s saying, doing, and playing what you want,” to quote Kurt Cobain, then Bob Dylan, who wrote something called “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” only three years after releasing a number-one album, is a punk.