Dylan: A Riddle Wrapped in a Musician

Dylan has famously said he's no poet, but new film affirms his marketing skills.

February 12, 2009, 9:29 AM

Nov. 21, 2007 — -- At 66, Bob Dylan may still be the most influential musician of his time -- an enduring cultural icon and lyricist who provided the soundtrack for a generation of baby boomers and beyond.

His misunderstood and oft-maligned personality is back on the silver screen with the release of the avant-garde film "I'm Not There," a reference to Dylan's dark, 1967 bootleg recording.

Dylan has spent an entire career refusing to be pigeonholed. Enigmatic, contrary and, some say, masterful at marketing that persona -- he has always refused to deliver what his fans expected of him.

"I'm no poet," he once told Rolling Stone magazine, which named his classic "Like a Rolling Stone" the song of the century in 2004. "I'm a trapeze artist."

Todd Haynes' homage to Dylan premieres this week and is one of a spate of documentaries, interviews and books that have dissected the enigmatic singer in the last several years.

This is the first time that Dylan has granted rights to his life story to any nondocumentary project, according to a recent New York Times magazine cover story. Dylan's son Jesse, also a filmmaker, helped Haynes pitch the idea to his father by avoiding terms like "genius" and "voice of a generation."

The film is a biopic, not a historic biography, one that dramatizes a person's life through the most transforming moments. Rather than using a straight narrative, this film loosely weaves together six stories drawn from Dylan's life.

Haynes, best known for "Corporate Ghost" (2004) and "Velvet Goldmine" (1998), never actually invokes Dylan's name nor uses his own soundtrack. Instead, he paints a collage of Dylan's lyrics, interviews, iconic photos and even "paranoid ramblings and rumors" to flesh out the mythology that has surrounded the singer, according to a review in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The publication calls the film "a visionary, hallucinogenic rendering of Dylan's life and music that is as bold as possible, while never seeming contrived or pretentious."

Other critics say the film -- which fittingly uses six actors, including a woman, Cate Blanchett, and a black boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, to play Dylan in various stages of his life -- is Oscar-worthy. Actors Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale add to its star power.

An artistic departure from Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, the film only underscores the insatiable appetite that fans and foes alike have for Dylan and his musical canon.

"Dylan still mesmerizes a lot of people," Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Potts, who compiled the "Essential Interviews" in 2006, told ABCNEWS.com.

Dylan began as a folk singer who gave an eloquent voice to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in songs like "Blowing in the Wind" and "The Times They are A-Changin'," then evolved into a touring rock legend who continually reinvented himself.

Robert Shelton, The New York Times reporter who is credited with discovering Dylan in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village in 1961 and getting him his first recording contract, described him as "a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik."

From a middle-class upbringing in Minnesota, Dylan effected a rural Oklahoma persona, mimicking his hero, Depression-era songwriter and singer Woody Guthrie. With surreal lyrics and a raspy voice, Dylan composed, recorded and performed country, gospel, reggae and blues, playing guitar, harmonica and piano.

Dylan made more than 40 albums and wrote hundreds of songs that were recorded by everyone from Marlene Dietrich ("Blowin' in the Wind") to Jimi Hendrix ("All Along the Watchtower").

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones acknowledged his influence and later rock 'n' roll musicians like Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Mark Knopfler said they owed much to Dylan's singing, playing and writing.

"I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior," Dylan said in a rare interview with "60 Minutes" in 2004, when he had published his memoir "Chronicles, Vol. 1." "Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No."

Even his name was a mystery. Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., he later changed his name, some said after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. But others have noted that as a boy, Dylan loved Westerns and had adopted the name after his television hero, Matt Dillon of "Gunsmoke."

"I can't really say [how he got the name], it popped into my head," Dylan cryptically said in published interviews.

Dylan's private life was also shrouded in mystery. Fans never knew he nearly died in a motorcycle accident in the 1960s until months afterwards. It wasn't until he divorced in 1977 that the public knew he had been married to Sara Lowndes for 12 years. They had four children, including Jakob, who became a star in his own right with the Wallflowers.

A second marriage was only revealed in 2001, when Carol Dennis, a former backup singer, acknowledged they were married from 1986-1992 and had a daughter, Desiree Gabrielle.

In the mid-60s, his fans derided him for taking up electric guitar. Long a symbol of the counterculture, Dylan later drew cries of "sell-out" when he was featured in a Victoria's Secret lingerie ad in 2003.

Still, the singer was nominated for a Nobel Prize, named one of Time magazine's Top 100 most important artists of the 20th century and went on to win both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best song with "Things Have Changed" from the movie "Wonder Boys" in 2001.

Dylan's popularity and status have endured, according to Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Bob Dylan is one of most important artists in Western culture," Kramer told ABNEWS.com. "His music still resonates. Britney Spears will not be remembered 50 years from now. It's all about the music."

"Anyone who redefines the art form -- like Picasso or Miles Davis -- affects lives and generations," said Kramer. "He was not the first person to inject social and political conscience into his songs, but no one was as articulate, and no one used mass communications like he did."

Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, but his fans still range from "junior high school kids on up to senior citizens," said Kramer.

One of them is Alex Clifford, a 24-year-old keyboard player and songwriter from New York City, who said he had been inspired by Dylan.

"My father was a huge Dylan fan and I started listening to his old vinyl records," said Clifford. In the 1966 album "Blonde on Blonde," the young songwriter finds Dylan both "irreverent and intimate."

Though some of his bandmates disagree, Clifford said there are no modern musicians that have Dylan's stature: "He's pretty incomparable."

"The thing that is great about him is his continuous experimentation and his willingness to go into different genres," said Clifford. "Aside from his pure ability to tell a story, he has the ability to reinvent himself."

And, according to Clifford, Dylan gets respect because "he never gets caught up in his own image."

But not all critics are as kind to Dylan. Novelist Norman Mailer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his anti-war novel "Armies of the Night," and just recently died, once said, "If Dylan's a poet, I'm a basketball player."

Jim Bessman, music writer for Billboard magazine, loved Dylan as a teen, but today finds his abstract lyrics "gibberish."

"Listening to Dylan reminds me that I am old," said Bessman, now 55, who wrote the essay that accompanied the induction of 1960s vocalist Dusty Springfield into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"When I was a kid they struck a chord with me and touched me," he said of Dylan's unrhymed songs. "But as I grew older, they didn't have much meaning to me."

Still, Bessman acknowledged that Dylan has "inspired and galvanized" artists for decades. And, unlike many other musicians of the time, whose images were driven by their record companies, Dylan "had his own artistic vision and sense of who he was," he said.

"He is always going to be relevant to a new generation of music lovers because of his stature as an artist," said Bessman. "He is a hero figure in rock 'n' roll history."

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