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Bob Dylan is one of the world’s most iconic American folk singer song writers. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota in May of 1941. He spent the first six years of his life giving no indication of the musical talent that would later lead many to call him the greatest songwriter of his generation; shortly his family moved, and he discovered country music, blues via late night radio and by the age of ten he played piano and acquired his first guitar and harmonica. So, from a young age Dylan quickly became very interested in music and throughout his high school years he participated in a few bands such as The shadow Blasters, The Golden Chords, Elston Gunn and the Rock Boppers, that played the hits of the day at the occasional talent show. Following his graduation in 1959 from the University of Minnesota. He began performing under the name Bob Dylan at coffee shops (his actual name was Robert Allen Zimmerman). He was then signed to Columbia records by John Hammond, where his career took off and led to many popular performers covering his songs which grew his popularity even more.
Many people and events throughout Bob Dylan’s life influenced his song writing, performances, lifestyle, and personality. One of these influences, as it was to many musicians, was drug use. To many artists, musicians, and even fans of the time period, drug use was a huge influence and inspiration when creating or listening to their art of choice. In Bob Dylan’s case, it was his music.
From the first time Bob Dylan smoked marijuana in Minneapolis in 1960, to his cocaine usage in the 1970’s while on tour with The Band, drugs were always an influential factor in Dylan’s life (Williamson 62-63). Whether it was his low-energy performances or his electrifying live sets, there was almost always a certain kind of mind-altering substance behind the legendary songwriter that created these vibes. Although Dylan claimed that his drug usage never affected his song-writing, Marqusee outlines a few verses from different songs of Dylan’s from over the years that may sometimes hint subtly and other times nail down references to Dylan’s habits (Williamson 62)(198-199).
For instance Marqusee refers to “Mr. Tambourine Man” as some form of a beginning or prototype for psychedelic-themed anthems to come (198). Although Dylan would go on to claim the songs main character, Mr. Tambourine Man, wasn’t about some imaginary figure from a hallucinogenic experience but rather inspired by a fellow musician Bruce Langhorne (Unterberger). Regardless, Dylan’s songs would continue to be influenced by and in turn inspire future generations due to his experimentation with mind-altering substances.
In Dylan’s song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” off of Highway 61 Revisited (1965), he outlines a sense of isolation and loneliness that much of the drug counterculture may not have always experienced:
I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff
Everybody said they’d stand behind me when the game got rough
But the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff
I’m’ going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough
Marqusee makes the observation that perhaps these feelings of isolation or loneliness spawn from his drug choice being amphetamine and speed as opposed to drugs that the hippies were more involved with such as LSD and other hallucinogenic substances (198).
Although some of Dylan’s songs such as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” offer feelings of loneliness, Dylan himself explained that he “would not feel so all alone” when taking drugs. Much of the counterculture that was involved with drug usage felt a bond of togetherness, spawning from all being a part of an outlaw community. Being against the establishment was an attractive property to many people during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and certain pieces of Dylan’s music was able emulate that feeling and expand it into art form (Marqusee 198). The feeling previously described as loneliness, could in a way be taken as a desire to escape, which is why many were tempted to participate in recreational drug-use that normally wouldn’t have ever been exposed to it (Marqusee 197).
As Dylan believed himself, “Opium, hash, pot – now those things aren’t drugs, they just bend your mind a little” (Williamson 62). But the thing is, Dylan didn’t just experiment with these aforementioned mind-bending substances. As Williamson writes, according to singer Marianne Faithfull, Dylan’s drug of choice on his 1965 tour of Great Britain was methedrine (62). Additionally, in May of 1966, Dylan had created a habit of scratching himself which is a common sign among drug addicts and would even stay up for days on end with no sleep. In some instances on the Australian leg of his 1966 World Tour, Dylan would play his first set self-involved and almost shy or unenergetic. His second set he would emerge with a burst of energy, hurling his songs at the crowd. This was most likely due to heroin before the show, and cocaine in between sets (Heylin). This mixing of substances can be seen referenced in his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” off of Blonde on Blonde (1966):
Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
Once again we can see drug usage being mixed in with his lyrics, despite what he had to say about it only affecting his ability to perform at his concerts.
Eventually in 1966, Dylan would have to retreat to Woodstock, NY in order to, in a way, reset his body from the amount of drug use he had endured over the years (Williamson 63). This didn’t stop his drug use in the long run, still returning to cocaine use on his Rolling Thunder tour in 1975 and 1976. Although Dylan had used drugs throughout his career, he still claimed, “I never got hooked on any kind of drug,” in a Rolling Stone interview in 1984 (Williamson 63).
Regardless of what Dylan says to the media, and regardless of what Dylan specialists believe to be true, it was clear that in some form or another Bob Dylan had used mind-altering substances that overall influenced his music and the counterculture as a whole. Without his experimentation, many of his performances and songs would have come out in a different light. That light may have been a light that his listeners didn’t agree with, or maybe it would have been a more uptight performance or recording. Whichever way might have been the outcome, Bob Dylan had become one of the greatest singer and songwriters in history, and drugs undoubtedly had a massive influence on how that became true.
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