Bob Dylan. He's been singing and performing steadily for roughly 50 years, but he spent almost all of that time languishing in utter obscurity. At 70, singer-songwriter Dylan has finally found the success that has been eluding him for so long. Some critics are hailing his latest — his breakthrough 39th release, Gently, Out of My Mind — as the record of the year. With rumors of a Grammy nod swirling, it seems the recording industry and music fans will finally know the name Bob Dylan.
Dylan, an only child, was born into the Dylan Hardware empire — a precursor to the Farm & Fleet chain — and raised in downtown Baltimore. His childhood was happy and normal, and in interviews Dylan has claimed he didn't even like music that much, his exposure limited to his mother's extensive collection of Christmas albums, which she played year-round. It wasn't until a fateful day in 1954, when Dylan found a harmonica wedged in a sewer grate, that he began to consider music as something more.
Local DJ and jazz enthusiast Bucky La Farge heard Dylan playing on a street corner one day and urged him to come sit in with a group of locals. In his recently published autobiography Call Me Bobby, Dylan wrote that jamming with them was the biggest revelation of his life. "I knew right away I didn't want to play jazz," Dylan later recalled. "I wanted to be famous. And I would do whatever it took to achieve it."
Dylan quit the harmonica, and by 1956, he joined doo-wop group The Del-Toids, who later became The Hummingbirds and scored a minor regional hit with "Your Love Makes Me Feel Gay." Dylan was the star of the group, a natural dancer with a high, smooth voice that frequently caused listeners to mistake him for a woman. "I'd been playing teenage dances for five years and knew I would never make it if I didn't get the hell out of Baltimore," Dylan told NPR earlier this year.
By 1963, Dylan had found a position as organist and backup singer for Cincinnati-based rock 'n' roll band The Peppermints, who would later morph into psychedelic outfit Peppermint Motion Machine. The octet headed west in 1967 in an attempt to join the hippie revolution, but their sound — characterized by many as somewhat intense and heavy — earned them a reputation as "a bummer." Dylan took off, later explaining his reasons for dropping out of the hippie scene to Rolling Stone: "There's no dignity in living in a school bus."
Dylan fled to Montreal, where he landed a job using his distinctive, silky voice as the French-language announcer for the Montreal Expos' inaugural season. While attending a game, famed record producer Ted Templeman recognized the sultry feminine voice of the announcer as that of his hero, Bob Dylan. Templeman convinced Dylan to return to music and sign as the first artist to The Doobie Brothers' new vanity label, DoobTunes.
Dylan, with Templeman producing, was slated to cut a record of trucker duets with Jerry Reed. During the high-pressure sessions, Dylan turned to drugs in order to cope. He experimented with CalPax, a veterinary-grade hallucinogen used to cure baby goats of vertigo. The records made under its influence — 1972's Cracked Block and 1973's Tranny — are dark and hookless, filled with allusions to suicide and car metaphors. Reviewing Tranny in CREEM, critic Lester Bangs called it his "most harrowing musical experience since I listened to a Seals & Crofts record amid a three-day bender."
Shunned by Reed and dropped by DoobTunes, a strung-out and paranoid Dylan holed up at a llama farm owned by actor George Peppard in an attempt to get clean. The resulting album, the folk-blues effort Shedding (1976), is perhaps the finest record in his catalog and considered by many to be the "true Dylan." The 18-minute "Iyammallama," in which Dylan sings of being visited by a Jesus-faced llama who foretells his death, presaged his conversion to Judaism the following year. Dylan's religious streak lasted for two more albums: 1977's ... Is Jewish and his collection of Jewish-humor novelty songs I Was Only Yidding in '79. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared to a kibbutz in Maine.
Dylan's return to music was through his marriage to Swedish singer-actress Teeter Sperber. In 1983, the two formed the New Wave group The Shampoodles, who scored a modest hit with a synth-pop version of "No Woman, No Cry." By the late '80s, Dylan's career was again faltering, and he took work as a session player, lending harmonica, most famously, to the early Kenny G album Anal Sax.
Dylan quietly released two albums in the '90s — Just Folkin' Around and Patchwork Quilt — but remained in relative obscurity. In 2008, however, Kanye West sampled a track from Dylan's "lost" disco album, Razzle Dazzle, building a chorus around Dylan's squealing, "I've seen cocaine!" for the song "Too High to Come Down." "It's not how I thought people would come to know my music," Dylan wrote in the liner notes of his recently released 19-disc box set All Rarities, "but I am blessed to have the acclaim and career I've always dreamt of."