Mark Davidson

Mark Davidson
  • Book 1 traces Bob Dylan’s Minnesota roots, from his childhood in Hibbing to his artistic reinvention in the Twin Cities.

    Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941. In 1946, his father contracted polio, and the following year Dylan’s family moved to the North Country town of Hibbing, located atop one of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore. The mines around Hibbing fueled America’s industrial growth at the turn of the century. It was here that in his teenage years Dylan’s passion for music emerged.

    Dylan attended Hibbing High from second grade through his high school graduation in spring of 1959. The crowning feature of the high school is its 1,800-seat auditorium, with a 1922 Steinway grand piano, made famous by a young Bob Dylan. In 1958, Dylan played with his band, The Golden Chords, performing their own brand of rock ’n’ roll in front of the entire assembled class body at the school.

    On January 31, 1959, Dylan attended a performance by Buddy Holly at the Hibbing Armory, an experience he found so electrifying that he included it as part of his Nobel Prize lecture.

    A stone’s throw from campus, in the hip, student-oriented neighborhood known as Dinkytown, the 10 O’Clock Scholar coffeehouse was a gathering place for young students attending the University of Minnesota. It was on stage at the Scholar where Bobby Zimmerman first introduced himself as Bob Dylan.

    Woody Guthrie’s life and music has been a lasting inspiration throughout Dylan’s long career. In this early period of his life, while Dylan was immersing himself in folk-music records, he was also reinventing himself according to the model of Guthrie’s hard-travelin’ persona. This was a pivotal moment for the budding musician between becoming Bob Dylan and striking out east to New York to find Guthrie.

  • Book 2 tells the story of Bob Dylan’s meteoric rise to stardom.

    In January 1961, Bob Dylan arrived in New York City. Within weeks, he traveled to the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, to visit Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a progressive degenerative brain disorder. Dylan played songs for him during his visits.

    Shortly after his arrival, Dylan made his way to the epicenter of New York’s cultural center: Greenwich Village. There Dylan made his name quickly known to the folk community, taking the stage as often as he could at the many basket-houses like the Cafe’ Wha?, Gerdes Folk City, and the Gaslight café, where young performers could cut their teeth, earning whatever was in the hat after it was passed around after each set.

    Dylan got his first big break on April 11, 1961, when he began a two-week stint opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker at Gerdes Folk City. The gig marked the start of a rapidly ascending career that would see Dylan signed to one of the world’s largest record labels within the year.

    In September 1961, Dylan arrived at Columbia Recording Studios to contribute harmonica to the music of Texas folksinger Carolyn Hester. Legendary talent scout John Hammond Sr. had seen Dylan perform a fortnight before, and so impressed was he by the young musician that he offered to sign him up for a five-year contract.

    In November of that year, Dylan recorded songs for his first album, Bob Dylan, which was released the following year in March. It received little critical notice or commercial sales, yet it was a start. Dylan was now recording for one of the largest and most important companies in the world.

    The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963, demonstrated the budding songwriter’s distinctive talents with songs like “Girl from the North Country,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which remain timeless classics forming the bedrock of Dylan’s reputation.

    Establishing himself as a new songwriter, Dylan performed for the first time ever on the West Coast at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963 with Joan Baez singing harmonies, and at the Newport Folk Festival sharing the stage with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. In October of that same year he performed at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd of thirty-five hundred people, from which a live album was prepared but never released, In Concert.

    Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was released in early 1964, and included his most politically overt songs to date. Later that year, Dylan composed one of his most well-known songs, “Chimes of Freedom,” a turning point for Dylan lyrically, expanding his style with symbolic and at times fragmented imagery, drawn from his immersion in French symbolist poets and the Beats, some of whom he had just met, such as Allen Ginsberg.

  • Book 3 chronicles how Bob Dylan redefined popular music through nearly two years of creative breakthroughs.

    In 1965, Bob Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, featuring an electric band sound and totemic songs “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared together in a handful of East Coast performances in their first (and only) official double bill.

    In late April 1965 Dylan toured the UK, closing with a high-profile BBC appearance in June. Cinéma vérité documentarian D. A. Pennebaker was along for the ride, filming fourteen days of Dylan’s last solo acoustic tour. The ensuing film, Don’t Look Back (1967), showed the artist at a crucial point in his career and offers glimpses of the mania surrounding him.

    Dylan and Allen Ginsberg first met in 1963 and remained fans of each other’s work, sharing a lifelong interest in literature and poetry. The Beats inspired Dylan’s lyrics, and Ginsberg remained one of Dylan’s most frequent correspondents until his death in 1997.

    By 1966, Bob Dylan’s fame had spread around the world, with his international concert tours and mobbed media appearances. On a July morning in Woodstock, New York, as he was riding his motorbike home from visiting his manager Albert Grossman, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle crash. Many details surrounding the accident, Dylan’s injuries, and his recovery remain a mystery. At the time of the crash, Dylan was slated to go back on the road for a series of concerts, including one in Moscow. Everything was canceled.

  • Book 4 provides a deep dive into Bob Dylan’s retreat into the woodshed, a period in which he explored his art and largely avoided the public spotlight.

    The period between 1967 and 1973 is generally considered Dylan’s willful retreat from the public eye, bookended by his motorcycle accident in 1966 and his return to touring in 1974. Faced with the increasing pressures and demands of fame, Dylan, rather than doubling down on his pugilistic stance of 1965 and 1966, simply left and moved his young and rapidly growing family to Woodstock, New York, then back to Greenwich Village and MacDougal Street in the city, before settling down for good in Malibu, California. Instead of delivering an album every six months as was typically expected of pop stars of the day, he made only a handful of albums, a few standalone singles, and sporadic concert appearances, completely on his own terms, setting a precedent for independence that continues to the present day.

    Yet even if the world heard less frequently from Bob Dylan, it didn’t mean that he was any less active. Dylan was in the woodshed, refining and redefining his art and his relation to it. The time and space afforded by the changes in his new lifestyle opened up avenues for self-expression, and looking across notebooks, manuscripts, sketches and drawings, films, and, of course, songs, one can see Dylan’s restless creativity in this period. The era is defined by a prolific output: lyrics, unfinished stories, bits of dialogues, original epigrams, and other more fragmentary work jostle for space alongside sketches and drawings of faces, instruments, and abstract forms. Dylan’s writing style changed from dense, frenetic, abstract pages to a deceptively simple style, and his artwork was defined by repetition as a way of exploring forms. The era reflected an experimenting artist moving through mediums, genres, structures, and styles as a way of exploring a seemingly irrepressible well of ideas. Some made it out to the public, as is the case of the lyrics to “Dear Landlord” from the 1968 album John Wesley Harding, or “Wanted Man,” written for Johnny Cash, who recorded it in 1969 at San Quentin State Prison. However, most of Dylan’s writings and drawings from this era never reached the public eye.

    Some of these treasures are shown in this book for the first time. 

  • Book 5 details Bob Dylan’s return to live performance, beginning and ending with his biggest tours to date.

    Aside from special one-off performances, Dylan had not staged a full-scale tour since 1966. In the intervening eight years, the world of rock ’n’ roll touring had changed dramatically. Now, in the 1970s, touring was big business, and operations had scaled accordingly. For Dylan’s return to touring at the start of 1974, he reunited with The Band, booking a forty-concert, thirty-date, twenty-one-city tour that traveled to arenas across the United States and Canada. When the tour was announced in November 1973, it generated a tremendous amount of excitement among fans and the media, with Dylan landing on the cover of Newsweek.

    Dylan closed out 1974 by writing and recording Blood on the Tracks, an album that is widely regarded as a masterpiece. During a summer spent on his farm in Minnesota in 1974, he worked on the songs, filling every space of three small pocket notebooks with his already tiny handwriting and in the lyrics to “Idiot Wind.” Words, phrases, and ideas jostle for space, building into songs that run into one another on the page. The energy of Dylan’s inspiration is palpable, as is his work ethic and master craftsman’s touch.

    Feeding off the revitalized energy that could be felt in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Dylan decided to gather musicians, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and other artists to form what would become known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Across thirty shows from October 30 to December 8, 1975, Dylan and his caravan would travel through small towns in the Northeast,  showing up, playing live concerts with little to no advance warning. A crew would be on hand to film the proceedings, some scenes highly scripted, others improvised and inspired by the moment. In stark contrast with the tightly formatted 1974 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue would be open and evolving.

    Between February and December 1978, Dylan embarked on his first world tour since 1966. Backed by an eleven-piece band, he performed 114 shows across four continents, with stops in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and Canada. The tour began with Dylan’s first visit to Japan.

    In the midst of this grueling tour, Dylan experienced a religious awakening, and his first public expression of his newfound faith came during the final show of the tour when he debuted “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others),” an original gospel song riffing on the Golden Rule. For the next few years, Dylan explored his new gospel sound in songs.

  • Book 6 reframes a misunderstood period of Bob Dylan’s career, including his conversion to Christianity, studio experimentation, and various collaborations.

    In late 1979, Dylan began assembling a band for his upcoming concert and album Slow Train Coming. Over fourteen shows in sixteen days, Dylan and his new band debuted his new gospel sound. His backing singers opened the show, setting the tone, and although fans were aware of his new musical direction, it still came as a surprise when Dylan only performed his new gospel songs at each concert. Most controversially, Dylan preached from the stage.

    The following year, Dylan composed songs for his next album, Saved, which continued Dylan’s exploration of gospel-infused music with lyrics exploring religious themes. “Solid Rock” and the title track “Saved” were gospel rave-ups, whereas “Pressing On” and “What Can I Do for You?” were soulful ballads.

    Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels occupies a particular place in his discography, seen by many fans and critics as both a return to form and a missed opportunity, with outtakes that are as beloved as the album itself. Critics’ reviews were mixed upon its release: Writing for The New York Times, Stephen Holden called Infidels “a disturbing artistic semirecovery by a rock legend who seemed in recent years to have lost his ability to engage the Zeitgeist,’‘ though he admitted that it “may be the best-sounding album Mr. Dylan has ever made.” On the other hand, Christopher Connelly of Rolling Stone said it was the “best album since the searing Blood on the Tracks nine years ago.” Coming at the tail end of Dylan’s engagement with gospel music, Infidels continued his investigations of morality, albeit through less of a black-and-white lens. Here the focus is not just on the human condition, but on more personal themes of love and loss, as well as external ones, especially politics. On a handwritten draft for the album’s credits, Dylan wrote a working title for his new album: “Surviving in a Ruthless World.”

    The 1980s marked a period of several collaborations between Dylan and other artists like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the Grateful Dead. 

  • Book 7 looks at Bob Dylan’s return to his musical roots as a catalyst to a decade of creative rebirth.

    Live performance had gotten stale for Dylan, and he had strongly considered retiring altogether while on an eighteen-month tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces,” Dylan recalled in Chronicles. “There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent.” In Chronicles, Dylan revealed that “it all fell apart” during an outdoor concert in 1987 at the Piazza Grande Locarno in Locarno, Switzerland.

    However, Dylan emerged from this creative crisis a few months later rejuvenated. He assembled a new band with G. E. Smith on guitar, Kenny Aaronson on bass, and Christopher Parker on drums for his Interstate 88 Tour, which they kicked off on June 7, 1988, in Concord, California. With the exception of 2020, the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Dylan has toured annually to the present day. Although fans have referred to Dylan’s schedule since 1988 as the Never Ending Tour, Dylan himself has rejected the sobriquet. Not only have some of his tours been individually named, they have involved a revolving cast of musicians throughout the years.

    Among the albums from this period is Down in the Groove, in collaboration with Eric Clapton, guitarist Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols, and bassist Paul Simonon of The Clash. Oh Mercy was released on September 12, 1989, and widely hailed as a return to form. Dylan also joined The Traveling Wilburys alongside George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne.

    In 1991, Dylan and Columbia Records issued The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, an authorized career-spanning retrospective that merely scratched the surface of the immense trove of unissued music that Dylan had amassed in his thirty years as a recording artist. The Bootleg Series has continued to date, delighting fans and winning critical acclaim with sets devoted to pivotal moments in Dylan’s career, including individual albums, tours, and musical periods.

    Released on September 30, 1997, Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s thirtieth studio album, changed the trajectory of his long career. The critical and popular reappraisal of Dylan’s music underscored Dylan’s vitality as an artist, especially at a time when few of his contemporaries were making albums that could stand alongside their past triumphs. The album won Dylan his first-ever GRAMMY Award for Album of the Year, and presaged a mid-career resurgence that continues to this day. Yet the success of the album hadn’t come from out of the blue; rather, Dylan’s touring regimen, the solidification of his backing band, and his re-immersion in his musical roots all set the stage for the work contained on Time Out of Mind

  • Book 8 showcases Bob Dylan’s expansive artistic vision in the twenty-first century, including his albums, memoir, radio show, and films.

    Dylan followed up his award-winning Time Out of Mind with “Love and Theft,” a further exploration of America’s musical roots, from Tin Pan Alley and Western swing to stomping blues and rockabilly. According to Dylan, the album explored “business, politics and war, and maybe love interest on the side.” Lyrically, he drew upon work as varied as the classical Roman poet Virgil, Japanese Yakuza gangster stories, and the Delta bluesman Charley Patton.

    In 2003, Dylan returned to the silver screen in the role of mysterious musician Jack Fate in Masked and Anonymous, a film he also co-wrote with writer, director, and producer Larry Charles, of Seinfeld and Borat fame.

    Dylan’s first long-form literary work since the 1971 publication of Tarantula was his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Over the course of five chapters and more than three hundred pages, Dylan focuses on three major episodes: his earliest years in New York City leading up to the recording of his debut album; his aborted collaboration with Archibald MacLeish and the development of New Morning; and the circumstances around the writing and recording of Oh Mercy. Released on October 5, 2004, Chronicles: Volume One spent nineteen weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Biography/Autobiography.

    Martin Scorsese’s landmark documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan was the first authorized documentary about the life and early career of a musician who had been famously reluctant to delve into the past. The film centers mainly on the story of Dylan’s meteoric rise to fame between his 1961 arrival in New York City and his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966; it also evocatively captures Dylan’s early years in Minnesota.

    Bob Dylan’s music has been appreciated by several presidents of the United States. In addition to performing at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993, Dylan enjoyed a warm relationship with Jimmy Carter, whom he first met when Carter was governor of Georgia in 1974. Dylan’s only performance at the White House occurred during President Barack Obama’s time in office at the February 9, 2010, concert, “In Performance at the White House: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement.” For his part of the program, Dylan offered a stately acoustic version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” accompanied by his longtime bassist Tony Garnier and pianist Patrick Warren. On May 29, 2012, President Obama awarded Bob Dylan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House. 

  • Book 9 explores the through lines of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize–winning body of work and his continued commitment to live performance.

    On October 13, 2016, news broke that the Swedish Academy had awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan was only the twelfth American to win the Prize, joining Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky, Pearl Buck, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, and Eugene O’Neill. More importantly, however, he was the first-ever songwriter to win the prestigious award, which had to that point been given only to “traditional authors.”

    Having just embarked upon another tour, Dylan didn’t respond to the news for a few days. He later explained that the “news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless.” Although he was unable to attend the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm that December, the US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji spoke in his absence, and Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with orchestral accompaniment. The following April, when Dylan’s tour passed through Sweden, Dylan met with the Academy for a private ceremony to accept his medal and diploma. In a statement from Academy secretary Sara Danius, she noted, “Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse.”

    Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese was the second film the director made about Dylan. Released on June 12, 2019, the Netflix film blurs the line between fact and fiction to tell a story of Dylan’s famed 1975 tour.

    Opening on September 29, 2019, at the Modern Art Museum in Shanghai, China, Retrospectrum collected more than 250 pieces of artwork spanning the full breadth of Dylan’s work as a visual artist. Oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings were displayed alongside ink, pastel, and charcoal drawings, which were in turn set off by Dylan’s ironwork sculptures. From the original works making up his earliest published drawings (from the 1973 book Writings and Drawings), to his Mondo Scripto (at that time his most recent work), the retrospective also featured some of Dylan’s most iconic artworks, including the Train Tracks of the Drawn Blank series and a monumental new version of Endless Highway from The Beaten Path series.

    In early 2020, Dylan recorded songs for the album Rough and Rowdy Ways featuring his touring band including Bob Britt, Matt Chamberlain, Tony Garnier, Donnie Herron, and Charlie Sexton, with additional contributions from Fiona Apple, Blake Mills, Alan Pasqua, Tommy Rhodes, and Benmont Tench. From the tender “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and rough-and-tumble blues of “Crossing the Rubicon,” to the poem-song of “Black Rider” and the dreamlike “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Rough and Rowdy Ways built upon his original work through Tempest, while incorporating the atmosphere and spontaneity of his excursions into the Great American Songbook.

    Following the seismic stir of the album’s rollout, Rough and Rowdy Ways debuted at #1 on Billboard’s charts for Top Rock and Americana/Folk Albums. On the Billboard 200 chart—which encompasses all popular music regardless of genre—Rough and Rowdy Ways debuted at #2, making Dylan the first artist to have an album chart in the Top 40 in every decade since the 1960s.

    On December 8, 2019, Dylan performed his final pre-pandemic show, and did not return to the stage again until the launch of his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour on November 2, 2021, scheduled to run for three years.