All About Bob: 5 fascinating Bob Dylan facts that you probably never knew

It’s no secret that Bob Dylan has dominated the music industry for nigh on half a century, influencing an entire generation of music lovers and musician wannabes. And yet, he remains an elusive figure whose life choices and musical leanings have incited as many detractors as fans. To honour our Celebrity of the Month, here are five fascination Bob Dylan facts you’ve probably never even heard of.

Bob Dylan is our celebrity of the month

A week’s silence

When Elvis Presley passed away on 16 August 1977, his death affected Bob Dylan so greatly that he went dumb for an entire week. In his own words, he says: “I went over my whole life. I went over my whole childhood. I didn’t talk to anyone for a week after Elvis died. If it wasn’t for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn’t be doing what I do today.”

Bob Dylan facts - His 1970 Self Portrait album is fronted by his own artwork
Bob Dylan’s 1970 album, Self Portrait, is actually fronted by his own artwork

Artistic endeavours

In addition to being one of the best-selling musicians of all time­ – he’s sold well over 100 million records worldwide – Dylan is published six books of paintings and drawings, and has had his artwork exhibited in several major art galleries. The cover of his 1970 album Self-Portrait actually features his own painting.

Bob Dylan facts - He's a film director
Dylan co-wrote, directed and starred in the 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara

Lights, camera, action

As if music and art weren’t enough to occupy him, Bob Dylan tried his hand at film making. His directorial debut was 1978’s Renaldo and Clara, a lengthy 235-minute movie featuring a blend of fiction, documentary-style video and concert footage.

 Bob Dylan facts - he got The Beatles hooked on pot

Beatles’ high

According to Bob Spitz, a biographer for The Beatles, it was actually Bob Dylan who first got the British band hooked marijuana when he offered them a joint upon being introduced to them in 28 August, 1964.

 Bob Dylan facts - He was a frat boy in college before pursuing a career in music

Frat brother

Before making it big as a musician in New York City, Dylan first attempted a college education at University of Minnesota. While he dropped out after only one year, he still found the time to pledge the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity.


Folk singer, turned rock star, turned living legend, there’s only one Bob Dylan

After a  seemingly never-ending seven-year layoff, Bob Dylan – the US singer-songwriter who easily out-legends all other legends, save possibly a lingering Beatle or two – brought his optimistically-monikered Never Ending Tour back to Hong Kong for one memorable night last month.

Bob Dylan returned to Hong Kong last month, thrilling his legion of fans
Bob Dylan returned to Hong Kong earlier this month, thrilling his legion of fans

Given that most other 77-year-olds are banned from using the TV remote and tucked up in bed by 8pm most nights, the Minnesota-born songsmith’s facility for churning through a 20-song set remains nothing short of remarkable.

This Hong Kong stopover was something like the 2,900th date of the Never Ending Tour – a continent-hopping odyssey that kicked off back in July 1988. It’s a gruelling schedule, especially for a man who has spent over 50 years as the living embodiment of the rock-filled ’60s, when teens turned troubadours and the times, they were a’changed forever.

From folk singer to rock god, Bob Dylan's success transcends musical genres
From folk singer to rock god, Bob Dylan’s success transcends musical genres

Recently, Bob Dylan was in the news for all the wrong reasons when he was famously too busy to collect his 2016 Noble Prize for Literature, despite being the first musical act to ever be awarded that particular honour. This almost cavalier refusal to conform is entirely in keeping with his career-long commitment to snubbing his nose at the expectations of others and following his own path.

In his early days, he outraged much of conservative America, championing civil rights at a time when the country remained virtually an apartheid nation. Later, in 1966, he wilfully alienated his folky followers by plugging in his guitar during an acoustic gig in Manchester in the northwest of England and going irrevocably electric.

Bob Dylan first started as a folk singer before going electric in 1966
Bob Dylan first started as a folk singer before infamously going electric in 1966

It was all a far cry from his beginnings. Few would have predicted back on 24 May 1941, that the firstborn child (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) of a young Jewish couple in a close-knit Midwest community would go on to become so iconic, so influential and so transformative. There were, however, one or two clues.

Music was an early passion of the young Bob-to-be and, while still in his teens, he discovered the works of Woody Guthrie, beginning a love affair with the socially-aware oeuvre of this early 20th century folk singer that abides to this day. After a brief dalliance with college, the young Zimmerman promptly dropped out and headed to New York, where he was soon to be ‘discovered’ playing in the smoky backrooms of Greenwich Village cafes.

Bob Dylan's first album was a flop, selling only 5,000 copies
Bob Dylan’s first album was a flop, selling only 5,000 copies

A record deal followed, but Bob Dylan’s first album, a 13-track long-player released in 1962, almost totally failed to make an impression, selling just 5,000 copies. Its follow-up – 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – featured 11 (out of 13) Dylan originals and fared far better, selling a million copies in the US alone and introducing the world to Blowin’ In The Wind, Highway 61 Revisited and several other songs that remain in the great man’s touring repertoire to this day.

The love-hate relationship between Dylan and his devotees / detractors that began in his early career has never entirely dwindled. When not needling his fanbase with one of his passing phases – Christianity, Vegas showman, reclusive rock star – it is his on-stage persona and his very demeanour that has sometimes had even the most ardent of Dylanaphiles weeping into their souvenir baseball caps.

Bob Dylan is renowned for being a belligerent performer
Bob Dylan is renowned for being a belligerent performer

Bob Dylan is also renowned for his somewhat belligerent stage presence, which famously sees him mumble through his best-known lyrics, wantonly rearrange old favourites and sometimes wholly fail to acknowledge the presence of his audience with so much as a raised eyebrow.

And yet, his undisputed status as Difficult Dylan has done little to diminish his worldwide popularity. It certainly hasn’t put a brake on the accolades he accumulates – a Nobel Prize, the Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the US), 12 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, several honorary doctorates and more.

Bob Dylan's countless accolades include a Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Prize in Literature
Bob Dylan’s countless accolades include a Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Prize in Literature

With the superstars of the ’60s on their collective last gasp – we’re down to two Beatles, two founding members of The Who, and a fairly-poorly Joni Mitchell – Bob Dylan is one of a clearly dying breed. Whatever his peccadilloes, he’s one of the greatest exponents of rock’s greatest ever decades and has remained reassuringly relevant throughout his career. For that alone, he should be granted unlimited licence to skulk and otherwise misbehave. Even living legends don’t last forever and this one should surely be savoured while we still can.

Text: Tenzing Thondup
Images: AFP