"Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan with a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance, they could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on and put the fear in a whole lot more"
—David Bowie, "Song for Bob Dylan"
The most influential living songwriter in popular music, and an American cultural icon. Music critics refer to him by last name alone, and references to his life and career seem to pop up everywhere. That Other Wiki is a great place to learn the particulars, so we'll stick to the tropetacular.
Bob Dylan (1941-), born Robert Zimmerman (no, you can't call him that), moved from Minnesota to New York City at age nineteen with a guitar, some flannel shirts, and not much else. He performed folk songs in bohemian Greenwich Village coffee shops and bars with an affected accent, and became a fixture of the local "folk scene"—which doubled as a leftist political circle deeply interested in the Civil Rights Movement. Dylan wrote songs specifically for this group, the most famous being "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Although these two "protest songs" are still his biggest claim to fame today — he's the guy who "brought politics" into music, somehow — this "topical" phase of his career lasted little more than twelve months.
In the summer 1965, he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with some rock musician buddies and an electric guitar. They plugged in, played very loud rock music with crazy-ass lyrics to some angry college kids, and thereby "went electric." It was not a popular decision at the time. His image from this period is the most enduring -- dark sunglasses indoors, a giant dome of frizzy hair, mod wardrobe, and baked as a Belgian waffle.
His most famous song from this "electric" period is "Like a Rolling Stone." Twice as long or loud as anything else on the radio at the time, with snarling lyrics about chrome horses and cat-loving diplomats, the song somehow rose to number two on the U.S. charts. This is about the time the Beatles were singing "Yesterday".
After a long world tour, full of combative press conferences and booing crowds, Dylan dropped off the radar in 1966, one year prior to the "Summer of Love". He did not perform at Woodstock (despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that it took place basically down the road from his house), he did not protest the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan closed out the Sixties via duet with Johnny Cash. He nonetheless remains synonymous with said decade's "turbulence": Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower" plays over about 70% of all Sixties montages.
The other major Bob Dylan reference you might encounter is to his "born again phase," which began with his conversion to Christianity in the late 70s. Attendant to this were a few nostalgic, audience-baiting tours and some angry but lyrically intricate Christian Rock albums. Dylan eventually returned to more secular themes, but has never quite abandoned the doomsaying street preacher point of view. On the other hand, in his personal life, he's been seen celebrating the High Holidays at various Chabad Lubavich Hasidic congregations; make of that what you will.
Dylan still records music, which people still don't really "get", and is once again sacrosanct among music critics and record store employees. As ever, this is mostly on the strength of his lyrics — Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature almost every year until 2016, when he finally received it (putting him into an exclusive group with George Bernard Shaw in having been awarded both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award). Nonetheless, his nasal growl of a singing voice remains a point of contention among listeners. The stock Bob Dylan joke is that nobody can understand a word he says, and he is usually depicted as talking exactly as he sings.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: From the song "Shot of Love" - "Why would I want to, take your life, you've only murdered my father, raped his wife, tattooed my babies with a poisoned pen, mocked my God, humiliated my friend.
- Artist Disillusionment: After his motorcycle crash, and with the Summer of Love occurring without him in the spotlight for a year, Dylan merely wanted to quietly recuperate and rekindle his broken relationship with his wife and kids in his home in Woodstock, NY. He was constantly accosted and harassed by the local hippies and counter-cultural leaders, who wanted him to lead the hippie revolution and go back on the rock star treadmill again. He came to resent his role as a "voice of a generation", particularly after they (unsuccessfully) tried to get him to play the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and started to write throwaway albums like Dylan and Self Portrait to fulfill his contract and deliberately derail his legacy.
- A Storm Is Coming: So many songs, but most notably "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," "All Along The Watchtower," "The Times They Are A'Changin," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Shelter from the Storm," "When the Ship Comes In" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
- Ascended Extra: Dylan's mid-'60s touring band would go on to considerable success in their own right as, well, The Band.
- Awesome McCoolname: Judas Priest from John Wesley Harding. So awesome that this one heavy metal band took the name for itself.
- Ballad of X: "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Ballad of Hollis Brown", "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"
- The Beat Generation: Dylan has listed Kerouac among his influences and actually became close friends with Allen Ginsberg.
- Blackface: He never donned it directly, but rather wore ironic whiteface makeup during the Rolling Thunder Revue. He has also been open about the influence of minstrelsy on his music, including naming his album Love and Theft after Eric Lott's academic book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. A minstrel named Oscar Vogel appears in Masked and Anonymous.
- Break the Haughty: "Like a Rolling Stone".
- Breakaway Pop Hit: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"
- Brick Joke: Responsible for possibly the longest brick joke ever. In 1964, when asked by a reporter what what product might entice him to sell out, Dylan replied, "Ladies' undergarments." Forty years later in 2004, he appeared in a Victoria's Secret ad.
- Canon Discontinuity: For a while after his conversion to Christianity, he refused to play any of his pre-Gospel songs.
- Chekhov's Volcano: "Black Diamond Bay".
- Christmas Songs: Dylan's 2009 release, Christmas In The Heart, consists of various Christmas songs from Dylan's formative years, played straight.
- Cool Shades: Was rarely seen without his shades as part of his new rock star image in the mid-60's.
- Corpsing: At the start of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" because the rest of the band missed their cue.
- Crapsack World: Many of his songs, especially from the early '80s onwards.
Well, God is in his heavenSeems to be all that there is.
And we all want what's His
But power and greed
And corruptible seed
—"Blind Willie McTell"
- Pretty much the entirety of 1997's Time Out of Mind might be counted under this trope: Dylan sounds so depressed and sick of life on the album that some people expressed mild surprise that after recording it he didn't just go and jump off a bridge somewhere.
- Do Not Call Me Paul: You apparently have to get special permission to mention the name "Zimmerman" in his presence. Some people (including, if Rolling Stone is to be believed, Barack Obama) do get permission.
- Epic Riff: Very short opening samples of songs like "The Times They Are a-Changin'", "Like a Rolling Stone", "Lay Lady Lay", "All Along the Watchtower", or "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" are more than enough for listeners to identify.
- Epic Rocking: "Desolation Row", "Highlands", "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", "Joey", and "Brownsville Girl" are all longer than ten minutes!
- Everybody Must Get Stoned: Trope Namer, from the chorus of "Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35"
- Which is a non-sexual Double Entendre. In the verses, "they'll stone you" refers to the kind of persecution symbolized by Biblical stoning. The chorus plays up the drug associations of the word.
- "Stoned" was originally a slang term for being drunk on alcohol, only later was it reserved for marijuana intoxication.
- Le Film Artistique: Renaldo and Clara.
- And Masked and Anonymous.
- Eat the Document.
- Full Name Ultimatum: At least two other artists have used the name "Zimmerman" to express their disillusionment with him. The Byrds, on the other hand, used it as a joking retort to Dylan's joking Take That in "You Ain't Going Nowhere" ("Zimmerman" fit the melody and rhyme better than "Dylan").
- The Grateful Dead: Dylan toured with them in 1987, resulting in the live album Dylan & the Dead...which fans of both acts would just as soon pretend never happened.
- Hilarious Outtakes: The false start to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream", complete with producer Bob Johnson's helpless laughter.
- Ho Yay: "Ballad of a Thin Man" (see the Ho Yay page for specific examples in the song)
- And for some people, his interactions with John Lennon...
- I Know You Know I Know: "Tell Me, Momma"
- Intercourse with You: "Lay Lady Lay"
- Actually, most of Nashville Skyline is made of this. And even before, there was "I'll Be your Baby Tonight" from John Wesley Harding.
- Also the unreleased "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You've Got to Stay All Night)".
- Karma Houdini: "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" tells the story of an upper-class white man who kills a poor black woman. This being Baltimore in the 60s, he receives only a six-month sentence.
- Very much inverted in "Percy's Song", in which the singer relates the story of a friend who was in a car accident that killed four people, and got a 99-year prison sentence for manslaughter.
- Keep Circulating the Tapes: Even with nine (and counting) volumes of the Bootleg Series, there are still scores of unreleased songs (most of the Basement Tapes, for starters), one out-of-print album (Dylan) and literally thousands of live recordings.
- Long Title: "(Stuck Inside of Mobile with the) Memphis Blues Again", "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)". Incidentally, both of these are off of Blonde on Blonde.
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Positively 4th Street" and "Like A Rolling Stone"
- Messy Hair: Especially during the late 60s. He's the page picture.
- Mind Screw: "Desolation Row"
- Just "Desolation Row"? The same album also has "Tombstone Blues" which averages three mind screws per verse, and "Ballad of a Thin Man" which might as well be the trope namer.
- Miscarriage of Justice: "Hurricane".
- Morality Ballad: Too many to list. Most notable are probably "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Hurricane"
- Murder Ballad: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll".
- "Ballad of Hollis Brown" is an interesting second person take on the trope.
- Music of Note
- My Friends and Zoidberg: From "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream":
Well, by this time I was fed up
At tryin’ to make a stab
At bringin’ back any help
For my friends and Captain Arab
- New Sound Album: Several. Bringing It All Back Home definitely qualifies, marking his transition to electric (which, as noted above, pissed off a substantial portion of his fan base). Prior to that, Another Side of Bob Dylan marked his transition from protest songs to impressionistic, expressive lyrics (which, as noted above, also pissed off a substantial portion of his fan base). Then there was the late 60's John Wesley Harding, which took a step back from the heavy pop instrumentation of the previous three albums and went for a much more sparse and acoustic country vibe - followed by Nashville Skyline, which was pretty much full-on country with very straight-forward, unambiguous lyrics (which didn't as much piss off as mystify a substantial portion of his fan base: the albums were part of Dylan's plan to rid himself of said gigantic fan base, as he was getting quite annoyed with it). Significantly, the late 70's Slow Train Coming marked Dylan's short-lived venture into gospel and Christian rock (which both pissed off and mystified a substantial portion of his fan base).
- Not Christian Rock: Although Dylan frequently incorporates religious imagery in his work.
- On the other hand, his trio of "born again"-period albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) could
probablydefinitely be categorized as straight-up Christian Rock.
- On the other hand, his trio of "born again"-period albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) could
- Not Staying for Breakfast: "A Simple Twist of Fate"
- Notable Music Videos: The video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is often considered to be the Ur Example.
- Pater Familicide: "Ballad of Hollis Brown"
- Precision F-Strike: "Hurricane"
- Also from the live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" in Manchester, 1966. Don't call Dylan "Judas".
"I don't believe you... You're a liar! PLAY IT FUCKING LOUD!"
- Pretender Diss: The Rockumentary Don't Look Back of Dylan making more-or-less friendly fun of Donovan.
- Princess in Rags: "Like A Rolling Stone". The trope could have almost been named "Napoleon In Rags", this song is one of the most iconic portrayals of that trope.
- Protest Song: Again, too many to list. Though the most famous would have to be "Hurricane", "The Times They Are A-Changin'", and "Masters of War".
- Many critics believe "Only a Pawn in Their Game" to be this trope's standout example.
- Refrain From Assuming: The song is not "Everybody Must Get Stoned," it's "Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35".
- Religion Rant Song: The Deconstructive Parody of The Bible in "Jokerman"
- Ripped from the Headlines: "Hurricane" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol", most prominently
- Rockstar Song: "Like A Rolling Stone"
- Sarcastic Title: "With God On Our Side"
- Second Person Narration: "Like a Rolling Stone", "Ballad of a Thin Man", and "Queen Jane Approximately", all of them from the album Highway 61 Revisited.
- Done to disturbing effect in "Ballad of Hollis Brown".
- Shout-Out: Hundreds, ranging from biblical figures to Alicia Keys. No, she doesn't know why either.
- Shout-Out/To Shakespeare: Frequently.
- There's also the one from "Desolation Row":
Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.
- Shrug of God: Just try getting him to explain certain of his songs, not to mention his earlier proclivity for deliberately messing with reporters' heads.
- See also "Ballad of a Thin Man."
- When asked what his songs were about, he once replied "Oh, some are about three minutes, some are about four minutes..."
- Smoking Is Cool: Exhibit A.
- Something Blues: "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Workingman's Blues # 2", "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", "Tombstone Blues", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"...
- Stay in the Kitchen: Hinted rather unsubtly in "Sweetheart Like You."
- Supergroup: The Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
- Take That: "Maggie's Farm" (written long before The Iron Lady's time)
- "Positively 4th Street"
- "Ballad of a Thin Man"
- "Just Like a Woman"
- Textless Album Cover: Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning
- Three Chords and the Truth: His older songs, especially.
- Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup: His reason for the failure of the album "Under the Red Sky."
- The Unintelligible: Not the songs themselves, for the most part, but guaranteed that any parody of him will be this.
- Somewhat subverted with "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody "Bob", which features lyrics composed entirely of well-enunciated (if twangy) palindromes.
- Though, if this troper remembers their music trivia correctly, Dylan once wrote a song in five minutes, and then spent the next six months learning to sing it clearly through his stutter.
- This trope is the reason he was so often covered -- other artists' versions were just more marketable because they were easier to understand.
- And to be honest, his recording of "The Mighty Quinn" is hard to recognize as language, let alone words.
- What's an X Like You Doing In a Y Like This?: The refrain of "Sweetheart Like You": "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?"
- Word Salad Lyrics: "Desolation Row" is about a lynching. All of it. Really.