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75 little-known facts about Bob Dylan

Jon Dekel

Early this morning, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, marking the first time it's been awarded to someone who's primarily a musician. CBC News reports that the Swedish Academy cited the 75-year-old music icon for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Bob Dylan, since taking on his most famous nom de guerre, has cultivated a legacy shrouded in poetry, mysticism and legend. In honour of his birthday earlier this year, we put together 75 little-known facts about the voice of a generation. Catch up on today's Nobel Prize winner, below.

1. Bob Dylan isn’t his only pseudonym

Before Zimmerman became Dylan he was Elston Gunn, a short-lived piano player behind teen idol Bobby Vee. Dylan’s also been Tedham Porterhous, Blind Boy Grunt, Robert Milkwood Thomas, Boo Wilbury, the writer Sergei Petrov and producer under the name Jack Frost.

2. He introduced the Beatles to marijuana (or did he?)

As with many Dylan myths, this one is contested. According to Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, on Aug. 28, 1964, Dylan was introduced to the Beatles at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Believing the Englishmen sang “I get high” on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (instead of “I can’t hide”), he offered Ringo a joint. Yadda yadda yadda, "Tomorrow Never Knows." Other accounts have the Fab Four trying jazz cigarettes during their German residency, four years earlier.

3. He's never had a number 1 single

Both "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" reached number 2 on the Billboard charts in 1965 and 1966, respectively, but none of Dylan’s own 58 singles have managed to reach the top.

4. He did write a number 1 single though

The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man" topped the charts in 1965.

5. His father was a semi-professional athlete

Dylan’s father, Abe Zimmerman, was a semi-professional baseball player. His athletic career was cut short when he contracted polio in his early 20s.

6. He grew up watching films for free

Dylan’s family owned movie theatres in Hibbing, Minn., meaning a young Zimmerman got to watch films for free.

7. His performances were ‘too shocking’ for his high school

Dylan's Hibbing High principal deemed his act too outrageous for the school talent show, pulling the curtain on the Grade 10 student due to the "unsuitable" nature of the music. 

8. His high school yearbook quote was an homage to rhythm and blues

As his parting note in the 1959 Hibbing High School Yearbook, Robert Zimmerman summarized his ambition thusly: “To join Little Richard.”

9. As a youngster, he enjoyed cherry pie

His standard order at his high school’s local luncheonette was cherry pie á la mode.

10. He bailed on his grad party

Dylan graduated from Minnesota's Hibbing High in 1959. By graduation night, the rebel was ready to get out of dodge.

11. His first professional recording was as a harmonica player for Harry Belafonte 

The title track to Belafonte’s 1962 album, Midnight Special, boasts the first ever professional recorded performance by the budding harmonica player.

12. He was a Greek man

Before flunking out of the University of Minnesota, Dylan pledged Sigma Alpha Mu.

13. He was electric before 'going electric'

Though he was famously labelled “Judas” for “going electric,” Dylan was actually electric before he “went folk.”  

"The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” he told Playboy in 1978. “I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in '58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson."

14. A pre-fame Tommy Smothers tried to kick him off a bill for looking and sounding awful

In 1960, Dylan shared a small bill with the Smothers Brothers in Denver. When he began playing obscure songs, the headliners asked the manager to remove him, as they claimed he sounded and looked homeless.

15. He was a chess fanatic

During his days in Greenwich Village, Dylan reportedly became enamoured with chess. InDylan: A Biography, Bob Spitz describes Dylan attempting to psyche out his opponent by talking during the game. Chess imagery also pops up throughout his songs, most famously in "The Times They are a-Changin," in which he sings, "Only a pawn in their game." Legend has it that Dylan’s manager paid Bobby Fisher to play a game with the music icon.

16. His pet name was 'the Pig'

Dylan's girlfriend Suze Rotolo lovingly referred to him as “the Pig” and “RAZ.”

17. His muse's mother never trusted him

Like the true myth-maker he is, Dylan never met a person he didn’t try to spin. When he told Rotolo’s mother, Mary, that he would eventually go blind from a degenerative eye disease, he earned her eternal distrust.

18. He claimed he was an orphan to sign with Columbia Records

Dylan was only 20 when he first signed to Columbia Records, and was considered a minor at the time. To circumvent having his parents co-sign the contract, the young songwriter claimed he was an orphan.

19. He was signed despite a Columbia executive dubbing him 'horrible'

Columbia legend John H. Hammond signed Dylan despite a vice-president calling his singing voice "the most horrible thing he'd ever heard in his life."

20. He had the man in black on his side from the beginning

Dylan and Johnny Cash had been friends since 1962. A fortuitous friendship for Dylan, Cash was responsible for convincing Columbia not to drop his friend before he could record his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

21. He appeared alongside Joni Mitchell on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show 

Dylan returned the favour in 1969: 

22. Joni Mitchell now holds a grudge against him

"Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake," Mitchell told the LA Times in 2010. "Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

23. His first American TV appearance didn’t go smoothly

Dylan appeared on The Steve Allen Show in 1964. When he declared he was going to perform “Hattie Caroll,” only one audience member clapped.

24. He refused to go on The Ed Sullivan Show

In May of 1963, an unknown Dylan was set to play “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” on the world’s most popular entertainment program. But when a CBS censor fearing a lawsuit informed him he couldn’t play the track on air, Dylan refused to go on.

25. He was arrested on suspicion of being homeless

In 2012, Dylan was detained by New Jersey police after he was spotted wandering around a residential block during a rain storm.

26. He makes a great smoke screen

When Dylan landed at Heathrow in 1965, reporters were so excited to get a glimpse of the American they ignored English superstar Lena Horne all together.

27. He's a mean prankster 

During that now infamous British visit, Dylan was set up to meet Donovan (at the time considered his British counterpart). Dylan and his entourage showed up sporting Halloween masks. The resulting meeting continued just as smoothly: 

28. His first draft of 'Like a Rolling Stone' was epic

Reports range from six to 22 pages long.

29. He was married to a Playboy bunny

His first wife, Sara Lownds, worked at a Playboy club in New York. 

30. He was in a Sam Peckinpah film

Dylan played a a drifter named Alias in the 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

31. Kris Kristofferson may have taken out his trash

The future “Me and Bobby McGee” singer was the custodian at the studio where Dylan recorded his ninth studio album, Nashville Skyline.

32. He’s a polymath

Atop his songwriting, Dylan has interests in several endeavours. "I like to restore old cars, ride horses and sail boats, and I'm learning how to cook and can do some gardening,” he said in 2011. He’s also a prolific painter.

33. He wrote a song for Edie Sedgwick

According to Nico, the Factory Girl was the subject of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”

34. He traded a Warhol for a couch

"I once traded an Andy Warhol 'Elvis Presley' painting for a sofa, which was a stupid thing to do,” he told Spin in 1985. “I always wanted to tell Andy what a stupid thing I done, and if he had another painting he would give me, I'd never do it again."

35. He credits his motorcycle accident with saving his life

"In 1966 I had a motorcycle accident and ended up with several broken vertebrae and a concussion. That put me down for a while,” he told Spin in the same interview. “I couldn't go on doing what I had been. I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. It set me down so I could see things in a better perspective. I wasn't seeing anything in any kind of perspective. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been."

36. He was almost in a musical

Dylan and poet Archibald MacLeish teamed up in 1970 for a musical production of The Devil and Daniel Webster, but Dylan backed out following a creative disagreement with MacLeish.

37. The original title of Planet Waves was Ceremonies of the Horsemen 

Dylan's 14th studio album was delayed two weeks when he decided to change its title at the last minute. 

38. He’s not a fan of linear storytelling

Dylan once told playwright Sam Shepard, “We don’t have to make any connections. None of this has to connect.” Shepard and Dylan would go on to co-write a 12-minute song called “Brownsville Girl” based on the Gregory Peck film The Gunfighter.

39. He didn’t speak to anyone for a week after Elvis died

When he was informed of the King's passing, Dylan reportedly “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.” 

40. He took a 3-month course to become a born-again Christian

In 1978, Dylan spent three months at the Vineyard School of Discipleship as part of his conversion.

41. He inspired Farm Aid

After appearing at Live Aid, Dylan opined that he hoped some of the money would help American farmers in danger of losing their land through mortgage debt. Willie Nelson heard the offhand comment and was inspired to organize Farm Aid.

42. He covered LL Cool J’s 'Mama Said Knock You Out'

During his satellite radio hour, Bob Dylan covered a verse of the rap classic.

43. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen

The Boss inducted Dylan into the Rock Hall in 1988. Dylan first thanked both Muhammad Ali and Little Richard, then took a shot at the Beach Boys’ Mike Love.

44. The Traveling Wilburys formed at his Malibu beach house

The supergroup of Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne recorded Harrison B-side “Handle with Care” at Dylan’s California home. The session went so well, they decided to continue recording together.

45. He has never won a Pulitzer

But the Pulitzer Prize committee did give Dylan a special citation in 2008 for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

46. He has won an Oscar

Dylan received an Academy Award for his song “Things Have Changed,” from the 2001 film Wonder Boys.

47. He’s played 100 concerts a year since 1988

More or less, as part of his “Never-Ending Tour.”

48. In 2004, Dylan earned an honorary doctorate in music from the University of St. Andrews 

Dylan received the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, from the prestigious university. It was his second such honour. 

49. The other degree Dylan has is from Princeton 

Dylan received his first honourary degree in 1970. "First-hand observers say he was very nervous and hesitant about the whole thing and seemed "appropriately out of place' during the ceremonies," Rolling Stone reported at the time. 

50. He’s starred in a box-office flop

1987’s Hearts on Fire featured Dylan as a rock star turned farmer.

51. A future Pope tried to stop him from playing for a current Pope

In 1997, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger failed to stop Dylan from performing for Pope John Paul II. That day, the future Pope Benedict discovered he may be a preacher with his spiritual pride but he still has to serve somebody.

52. He recorded 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35' in one take

Dylan was famous for recording songs in single takes, including this number 2 hit. The sobriety of all players still remains in question, though. 

53. He appeared in an episode of Dharma & Greg

In 1999, Dylan appeared on an episode of the ABC series.

54. He played shows for an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism

Ever the spiritual free agent, Dylan, who has been both a Jew and a Christian, has played shows in support of the Lubavitcher sect.

55. He may show up on your doorstep with poetry

During a cross-country trip in 1964, Dylan arrived at poet Carl Sandburg’s house with a copy of "The Times They Are A-Changin.’"

56. He was tight with Bette Midler and David Bowie

Both musical boldfaces sat at Dylan’s table at the release party for Blood on the Tracks.

57. He published an experimental novel

Tarantula was published in 1971.

58. He appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial  

Dylan wandered through a 2004 Victoria’s Secret ad intercut with images of model Adriana Lima.

59. He has a younger brother in the business

David Zimmerman is a record producer.

60. He has a bumper sticker that reads 'World’s Greatest Grandpa'

Dylan has nine grandchildren who love him enough to buy zany bumper stickers.

61. His Love and Theft album was inspired by Japanese gangsters

For the 2001 album, Dylan took inspiration from the book Confessions of a Yakuza.

62. He braved a blizzard to perform at the White House

Despite being nearly 70, in 2010, Dylan sped through a blizzard to perform at a civil rights concert at the White House.

"He was exactly as you'd expect he would be," President Barack Obama told Rolling Stone that year. "He wouldn't come to the rehearsal. He didn't want to take a picture with me ... He came in and played 'The Times They Are A-Changin'.' A beautiful rendition ... finishes the song, steps off the stage — I'm sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That's how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat."

63. He once played a concert to 1 person

In 2014, Dylan and his band performed for one super fan at Philadelphia's Academy of Music as part of a Swedish film series.

64. Charlie Chaplin is one of his biggest influences

In 1961, Dylan said he was "always conscious of the Chaplin tramp." Forty years later, he released Modern Times as a tribute to Chaplin’s 1936 film.  

65. He broke an unwritten rule by recording 'House of the Rising Sun'

Dylan learned the traditional from Dave Van Ronk (the inspiration for the Coen brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis) and recorded Van Ronk’s arrangement before he could. The move forced Ronk to stop playing the "House" as audiences assumed he had stolen it from Dylan. Karma returned the favour when the Animals came out with their more popular version, forcing Dylan to stop performing his.

66. He is not phased by onstage antics  

During a Dylan performance at the 1998 Grammys, artist Michael Portnoy invaded the stage with the words "Soy Bomb" written on his chest. Confused side-eye aside, Dylan seemed to pay the man little mind, continuing with his performance until security escorted the intruder off the stage.

67. He made an appearance on Pawn Stars

Dylan appeared on the reality TV series in 2010 when one of the pawn shop employees tracked him down for an autograph.

68. The first song he wrote was for Brigitte Bardot

Though he’s known as a era-defining poet, Dylan’s first attempt at songcraft was a love song for the French actress. "The first song I wrote was a song to Brigitte Bardot,” he told Playboy in 1978. “I don't recall too much of it. It had only one chord. Well, it is all in the heart."

69. He thinks Jimi Hendrix wasted his talent

Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984, "Jimi, I thought, was a big waste. I saw Jimi ... Oh, man, that was sad when I saw him. He was in the back seat of a limousine on Bleecker Street, just ... I couldn't even tell then whether he was dead or alive." Hendrix famously covered Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

70. But he loves Prince

"Prince? Yeah. Who don't like Prince? Well, I guess I could name a few! Hahahaha!” Dylan told The Telegraph in 1986. “No, he's a fantastic guy, ain't he? He can do anything, can't he?"

71. He almost played Holden Caulfield

Dylan was nearly recruited to play the lead in a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Ryeafter an agent called Columbia asking if the young phenom was able to play a leading man.

72. He wrote and directed a 4-hour film

At 235 minutes long, the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara is a French new wave-inspired alamgom documentary, concert and fiction. Dylan played the titular Renaldo to universally negative reviews. The New Yorker famously described it as “what Louis and Marie Antoinette might have done at Versailles if only they’d had the cameras.”

73. He has a checkered history with guitarists

Throughout his career Dylan has used a number of sidemen, including Canadian Colin Linden. In 2013, Duke Robillard suddenly left Dylan’s backing band after only 27 shows, but surprisingly that wasn’t the shortest stint. That honour belongs to former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Billy Burnette, who joined Dylan in February of 2003 and left after only 11 shows.

74. He once ate dinner with Van Morrison, Glen Hansard and Elvis Costello in complete silence

Hansard once described a weird dinner he’d had with the legends after a show in Dublin. “Van grabbed me and we all went to dinner,” he told the The San Francisco Gate. “I don’t know how these guys’ brains work. I don’t know if it’s Asperger’s or autism. But the whole meal was silent. No one said anything.”

75. He doesn't like mics (except for the one he’s using)

During sessions for Shadows in the Night, his 2015 album of Sinatra covers, Dylan insisted on only being able to see the mic he was using. “He didn’t want to see mics except the mic that he was singing on,” engineer Al Schmitt explained in 2015. “So all the mics were quite a distance from people [in the band]. It was really … unique."

Explore more:

10 key moments that elevated Bob Dylan from folk musician to pop icon