In 1964, with the release of his third studio album, Bob Dylan had cemented himself as the leader of American folk music. He had marched alongside Martin Luther King and received an award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. He had been made a symbol of the Civil Rights movement and he was viewed by many as an actual prophet.
“And he wanted out.”
He felt he was being pigeon-holed, and he wanted to escape. Not to be defined by others, but to progress on his own terms.
He went on a road trip across the states with some friends and a portable typewriter. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he was looking for something. He visited bars and carnivals and mining towns and spoke to anybody who would accept a free beer.
He found a new song: “Mr Tambourine Man.” A whole new type of song, as he saw it. Not about outlaws or miners or the civil rights movement. This new type of music something else.
He had a song. He had the core of something, but didn’t quite know what it was or what to do with it.
One of the friends on that road trip was Bob Neuwirth. Dylan trusted Neuwirth. He was an artist and he was a man that made things happen. They came back from the road trip and, together, they began to mould that core of an idea into a concrete thing. An image. A brand.
They shed the creased shirts and scruffy jeans. They grew their hair. They bought dapper black jackets and Chelsea boots from Carnaby street. They bought the iconic black Ray-Bans. They wore the new uniform everywhere until it was part of them. Whether it was a press conference in a five-star hotel or a fry-up in a diner, they wore the black Ray-Bans. They would even go to the cinema in them, where they would watch comedies together and practice not laughing. The new Bob Dylan didn’t laugh.
Oh, and the new Bob Dylan didn’t strum an acoustic guitar anymore. He played electric guitar, and he played with a band, and he played very loud.
Dylan’s first electric gig was Newport Folk Festival. Pete Seeger, the father of folk, tried to cut his cables with an axe to stop the travesty. Half the audience booed (audiences would continue to boo at concerts all over the world. They would call Dylan a traitor. Judas!).
Dylan just carried on playing. Never apologising or backing down. Never breaking into a smile or an old folk song on the old acoustic guitar. Always wearing his black Ray-Bans. And stood by his side, just off stage, was Bob Neuwirth in his black Ray-Bans.
Dylan’s next album went platinum. It was his biggest selling record to date and his first UK number one. He went from being a folk singer to a music legend.
Suddenly Dylan became an icon. He always had it within himself, but Neuwirth brought it out of him. Neuwirth knew how to turn the core of an idea into something concrete. Neuwirth knew how to mould that core and turn it into an image. An iconic image that would last over half a century. No one’s booing now.