Elizabeth Thomson is a co-editor of “The Dylan Companion” and the revising editor of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan.”
Bob Dylan has always been a chameleon — folk singer in a Huck Finn cap one decade, Christian rocker the next — but his Chrysler Super Bowl ad seemed particularly inappropriate for the man who wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Before we call him a sellout, though, let’s look at the real story behind a man so adept at mythologizing himself.
1. Dylan renamed himself after poet Dylan Thomas.
“Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas,” Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman, told Robert Shelton, the New York Times critic who wrote the 1961 review that propelled him to fame. “Dylan Thomas’s poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed, for people who dig masculine romance.”
By the time he arrived at the University of Minnesota, he was calling himself Bob Dillon, claiming that it was his mother’s maiden name, which was actually Stone, or that it was a town in Oklahoma — home state of Woody Guthrie. Fellow students remember him by that name, most likely after Matt Dillon of the TV series “Gunsmoke.”
When he arrived in Greenwich Village he called himself Bob Dylan, though he didn’t change his name legally until August 1962, when he signed his first management contracts. In a 1978 Playboy interview, he said he hadn’t read that much of Thomas: “I just chose that name and it stuck.” He may have taken a leaf from Ethel Zimmerman, better known as Ethel Merman: “Can you imagine the name Zimmerman in bright lights? It would burn you to death!”
2. Dylan didn’t really need Joan Baez.
Though Dylan dumped the folk singer during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker’s iconic Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” she was instrumental in making him famous. When Dylan and Baez met in 1961, Baez’s first album had been out for six months. Her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 had made her an overnight star, able to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola. She filled Carnegie Hall in May 1962. And when Time wrote about the folk revival in November 1962 , Baez was on the cover.
So when she introduced a new Dylan song, “With God on Our Side,” in concert and recorded it on her 1963 album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2,” her support indeed helped launch Dylan’s career. They sang the song together at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963. Then, in July, she invited him on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. “Baez, the reigning queen of folk music, had made Dylan the crown prince,” Shelton wrote. Dylan then joined her on a tour, and they had a brief but intense affair, which Baez memorably chronicled in “Diamonds & Rust.” In the Martin Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home,” Dylan acknowledged the beauty of the song and agreed that he hadn’t treated her well: “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.”
3. Dylan alienated his audience by “going electric.”
The controversy Dylan courted by picking up the electric guitar began at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he was backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Recent obituaries suggested that Pete Seeger was the killjoy. A member of the festival’s board, he said he wanted to take an ax to Dylan’s power cables. Witnesses say he paced backstage, asking for the volume to be turned down; Seeger said his objection was to the distortion, not to the electric guitar. Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, refused to accommodate Seeger: “Bobby wants it that way,” he replied, blocking the soundboard. And Dylan’s first electric tour was a battle. In Manchester, England, for example, a heckler famously shouted “Judas,” which only egged Dylan on.
But if some die-hard folkies took offense, Dylan’s “electric” singles in 1965, including the landmark “Like a Rolling Stone,” and an album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” sold well. Shelton thinks the discontent was not so much that Orpheus had plugged in but that the sound, as Seeger suggested, was bad. Dylan was aware of the sound problems and discussed them with Shelton and others. Gradually, he won over the critics, and 50 years later, it’s the electric Dylan who continues to attract new fans.
4. Dylan nearly died in a 1966 motorcycle crash.
Au contraire: It probably saved his life, allowing him to recover, physically and mentally, from years in the spotlight.
In June 1966, Dylan had returned from his draining world tour. He was beat — and not pleased to find that Grossman had booked him on a U.S. tour. What happened next is disputed by Dylanologists. On July 29, Dylan was riding his Triumph motorcycle in Woodstock, N.Y., when he said he hit an oil slick and the back wheel locked. Some reports said he was taken to Middletown Hospital and given a diagnosis of broken neck vertebrae and a concussion. The tour was canceled. Thus began more than seven years of withdrawal, during which Dylan laid down what became “The Basement Tapes” — home recordings released as a two-album set in 1975 that AllMusic calls “among the greatest American music ever made.”
But only Dylan knows how serious the injuries really were. In “Chronicles,” his 2005 memoir, he wrote: “I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.” In a Rolling Stone interview in 2012, he was more philosophical: “I had a motorcycle accident myself, in ’66, so we’re talking maybe about two years — a gradual kind of slipping away, and, uh, some kind of something else appearing out of nowhere. . . . You know, it’s like things begin while something else is ending.”
5. Dylan’s Super Bowl ad for Chrysler makes him a sellout.
Asked at a celebrated San Francisco news conference in 1965 which “commercial interest” he’d sell out to if he had to, Dylan jokingly replied, “Ladies’ garments .” But if his Chrysler ad makes him a sellout, he sold out long ago. Dylan’s worse decisions include approving the 1960s anthem “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” for use in a Bank of Montreal commercial in 1996 and promoting Cadillac (a “good car to drive after a war,” as he sang in “Talkin’ World War III Blues”), Chobani yogurt and, well, ladies’ garment-maker Victoria’s Secret.
As car ads go, the Chrysler spot is stylish — though Dylan’s makeup is distressingly unsubtle, and one worries about the nearsighted singer briefly seen driving without his specs. But you could say the ad is promoting the American worker as much as the American car — Dylan talks of “the heart and soul of every man and woman on the line.” This isn’t new territory for Dylan: In “Union Sundown,” on his 1983 record “Infidels,” he sang about his Chevrolet “put together down in Argentina” and worried that “nothin’ you got is U.S.-made.”
So maybe his intentions are good. Perhaps the real question is whether his fee went to charity — and whether he’s now driving a Chrysler 200.