15 Freewheelin' Facts About Bob Dylan

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Facts and Bob Dylan have always made for strange companions. Though he achieved worldwide fame as The Voice of a Generation—a young man hailed in part for his honesty as he sang of both the hard truths of social injustices as well as his own personal romantic anguish—he did so as Bob Dylan, not as Robert Zimmerman, the name he was born with and went by growing up in Minnesota.

Even today, more than 50 years after he first began kicking around the Greenwich Village club scene, Dylan remains an elusive figure who has at times been accused of making career choices specifically to obfuscate and muddle his identity. With that in mind, and in honor of the icon's birthday, here are some truths about the man behind the man who wrote some of the most important songs in music history.

1. HE DIDN'T SHOW UP TO HIS OWN HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION PARTY.

Robert Allen Zimmerman graduated from Minnesota's Hibbing High School in 1959. Under his yearbook picture, his life goal reads “to join Little Richard.” The teenager likely had a 1956 school talent show incident in mind when he decided on that caption: as he played keyboards and sang a Little Richard song with his band, the school principal cut them off and pulled the curtain. By graduation night, he was ready to leave.

2. HE USED TO GO BY THE NAME OF ELSTON GUNNN.

Yes, with the extra N. In the summer after his high school graduation, Zimmerman was working as a busboy at a Fargo, North Dakota cafe when he conned his way into future music star Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows, by claiming he had just been on the road with Conway Twitty and only showcasing his piano skills in the key of C. The stage name Zimmerman gave himself was Elston Gunnn. The group arrangement didn’t last for very long, due to lack of funds for all involved, and Zimmerman/Gunnn left for Minneapolis at the end of the summer to attend the University of Minnesota.

3. CHARLIE CHAPLIN IS ONE OF HIS BIGGEST INFLUENCES.

Dylan was quoted as early as 1961 as saying he is “always conscious of the Chaplin tramp.” Early in his performing career, the musician would use his hat as a prop, just as Chaplin did in his films. In 2006, Dylan released an album titled Modern Times, an obvious nod to Chaplin's classic 1936 film of the same name.

4. HE WAS AN OPENING ACT FOR THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS, BEFORE THEY GOT HIM FIRED.

That happened in Denver in 1960, a few years before Dylan or the Smothers brothers were famous. Neither the siblings nor the audiences liked Dylan’s obscure songs, and Tommy wasn't keen on the musician’s near-homeless look.

5. JOHN H. HAMMOND SIGNED HIM TO COLUMBIA RECORDS AFTER HE HEARD HIM PLAY HARMONICA ON A CAROLYN HESTER ALBUM, WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM HIS BOSSES.

The same John H. Hammond signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and (later) Bruce Springsteen, so Dylan was in talented company. Though Columbia's vice president said Dylan’s voice was “the most horrible thing he'd ever heard in his life," Hammond signed him anyway (he did the same thing a few years later with Leonard Cohen). When Dylan’s self-titled debut album, which consisted mainly of covers, only sold 5000 copies in its first year, his signing became known as “Hammond’s folly.” Hammond always contended that the so-called flop of an album only cost $402 to make anyway.

6. HE BROKE AN UNWRITTEN RULE OF FOLK MUSIC BY RECORDING A COVER OF "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN."

Dylan learned the song from fellow folk musician Dave Van Ronk, who was the inspiration behind the Coen brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Dylan asked Ronk for permission to record the song with Ronk’s guitar arrangement on his first album—after he had already done so. Ronk was upset because he had plans to record his own version for his album, and soon he stopped performing the song entirely because people believed he got it from Dylan. Karmically, Dylan himself had to stop playing “House of the Rising Sun” after The Animals came out with their definitive version.

7. JOHNNY CASH WAS A VERY EARLY ALLY.

Cash and Dylan hung out together as early as 1962, when Columbia was openly discussing dropping Dylan before he even had the chance to record his famous second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. John Hammond claimed it was Cash’s endorsement of Dylan that helped to convince Columbia not to make a colossal mistake by dumping Dylan. In 1969, Dylan returned the favor by making his first television appearance in three years to perform on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show.

8. FOR YEARS, PEOPLE BELIEVED THAT HE STOLE "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND" FROM A NEW JERSEY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Dylan wrote the iconic tune himself, based on an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” However, Lorre Wyatt performed the song for his school 10 months before Dylan’s recorded version of “Wind” was released. This was made possible due to the fact that Dylan’s music arrangement and lyrics were published in Broadside magazine a year before Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out, and it was a magazine Wyatt read. In November 1963, Millburn High School students told Newsweek  that they believed Wyatt wrote the song, even after their fellow student denied it, thinking Dylan paid him $1000 for the rights to it.

9. SUZE ROTOLO WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR MANY OF HIS CLASSIC SONGS.

Rotolo was an artist and Dylan’s girlfriend from 1961 to 1964, and the woman on his arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It was Rotolo who told Dylan the story of Emmett Till, which led him to write "The Ballad of Emmett Till." "Boots of Spanish Leather," "One Too Many Mornings," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Ballad in Plain D," and "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" were all about Rotolo, sometimes about their separation when she briefly lived in Italy, and other times about their final break-up. Even though she suspected that Dylan exaggerated things, she was still upset to discover his real name only after his draft card fell out of his wallet one day. She nicknamed him “RAZ” as playful revenge for hiding his true identity, as well as “Pig.”

10. ROTOLO’S MOTHER NEVER TRUSTED HIM.

Mary Rotolo was never happy with her daughter’s decision to date Dylan, after Dylan told her in one of their initial meetings that he was suffering from a degenerative eye disease that would gradually result in blindness. He was clearly lying.

11. AN EXECUTIVE WANTED HIM TO PLAY HOLDEN CAULFIELD.

In 1962 an agent from the talent agency MCA told Hammond that his company had the movie rights to The Catcher in the Rye, and after seeing Dylan, they felt that they had their leading man.

12. HE REFUSED TO APPEAR ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

Ed Sullivan himself actually had no issue with Dylan playing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”; it was a CBS executive who decided, hours before Dylan was set to appear, that the Birch organization could possibly sue for libel. After being told that he had to either change the lyrics or play a different song entirely, Dylan responded by asking the executive if he was out of his “f***in’ mind” before choosing option C: walking away and never coming back.

13. HE GOT THE BEATLES INTO POT.

On August 28, 1964, Dylan met The Beatles for the first time at The Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Dylan believed the group was familiar with marijuana, mishearing the lyrics to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide.” The Beatles tried marijuana four years earlier one night in Germany before deciding it wasn’t for them (their “drug” of choice was scotch and Coke). After Ringo bogarted the first joint, the other three joined in, and soon after became full-fledged pot smokers.

14. DYLAN DIDN’T SPEAK FOR ONE WEEK AFTER ELVIS PRESLEY DIED.

The King passed away on August 16, 1977. Dylan, who was going through a divorce at the time, was at his Minnesota farm with his kids and their art teacher, Faridi McFree, who told him the news. Dylan later said that once he heard, "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."

15. HE CO-WROTE AND DIRECTED A NEARLY FOUR-HOUR MOVIE.

The 1978 film Renaldo and Clara was a 235-minute-long French New Wave/Beat Generation-inspired collage of concert footage, documentary, and dramatic fiction. After almost universally negative reviews, its limited release in theaters in major U.S. cities was stopped. Rolling Stone insisted: “This is meant to work at the level of Freud, but it is a lot closer to fraud.” In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, "It’s what Louis and Marie Antoinette might have done at Versailles if only they’d had the cameras.” Dylan played Renaldo.

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

10 Fascinating Facts About INXS

INXS's Michael Hutchence in Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019).
INXS's Michael Hutchence in Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019).
Dogwoof

Over the course of the 1980s, INXS went from fledgling Australian pub rockers to global superstars. Although frontman Michael Hutchence died in 1997, and the band finally called it quits in 2012, INXS remains hugely popular. There’s a widescreen 4K Ultra HD restoration of the band’s 1991 concert film Live Baby Live coming to theaters, as well as a new documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence. In celebration of this INXS resurgence, here are 10 facts about the band.

1. INXS was a band of brothers (and three other guys).

Like the Bee Gees, who also formed in Australia, INXS featured three brothers: Andrew (keyboards), Jon (drums), and Tim (guitar) Farriss. Rounding out the sextet were Garry Gary Beers on bass, Kirk Pengilly on guitar and saxophone, and of course, Michael Hutchence on lead vocals.

2. Midnight Oil’s manager came up with the band's name.

The group was known as The Farriss Brothers (and for a little while, The Vegetables) before changing its name to the much cooler INXS. That suggestion was made by Gary Morris, manager of Aussie rock heroes Midnight Oil. Morris was inspired by IXL, a brand of jam, and the English new wave band XTC, who’d recently toured Australia. Although INXS is read as “in excess,” Morris wanted the band to market themselves as “inaccessible,” the adjective that seems to have inspired the moniker.

3. INXS was almost a Christian band.

Not every idea Gary Morris had was a good one. During his brief stint as INXS’s manager, he tried to sell the boys on hardcore Christianity, which he’d embraced after attending a Billy Graham crusade. “He wanted us to write songs about Christ and to promote a drug-and-alcohol-free and a no-sex-before-marriage proper Christian lifestyle,” bassist Garry Beers wrote in the band’s official autobiography. These were the guys who would later write “Devil Inside” and “Original Sin”—they didn’t go for it.

4. They didn’t go global until their third album.

INXS were strictly an Aussie phenomenon until their third album, 1982’s Shabooh Shoobah. It gave the group their first entries on the Billboard Hot 100—"The One Thing" and "Don’t Change"—and reached #46 on the Billboard 200. It also became INXS’s first Top 5 album at home in Australia.

5. Nile Rodgers changed a key lyric in the band’s first #1 hit.

INXS recorded their fourth studio album, 1983’s The Swing, with super-producer and former Chic bandleader Nile Rodgers in New York City. Rodgers played a key role in shaping “Original Sin,” which later reached #58 in America and became INXS’s first #1 single in Australia. First, he asked his buddy Daryl Hall to sing backup on the chorus. Then he suggested Hutchence change the line “dream on, white boy/dream on, white girl” to “dream on, black boy/dream on, white girl.”

“I come from an interracial couple,” Rodgers said. “Psychologically that makes it a bigger statement. Even when I rang up Daryl Hall to sing on it his manager thought it was too controversial. But I think the record would have been bigger had I not talked them into changing the lyrics.”

6. The head of Atlantic Records thought Kick was trash.

When INXS first played their sixth album, 1987’s Kick, for Atlantic Records president Doug Morris, the response was less than encouraging. “He put his feet up on the desk and closed his eyes from the minute the record went on to the minute it finished,” said the band’s longtime manager Chris Murphy in 2017. “When it stopped, he said, ‘I’ll give you $1 million to go and record another album. This is not happening, this is sh*t.’” Morris couldn’t have been more wrong. Kick reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and spawned four Top 10 hits, including the #1 smash “Need You Tonight.”

7. Andrew Farriss annoyed a cab driver while writing the band’s biggest U.S. hit.

INXS was nearly done with Kick when producer Chris Thomas decided they still needed a few more songs for the album. He convinced Andrew Farriss to meet up with Hutchence in Hong Kong, where the singer had an apartment, and write some new material. While waiting for a cab to the Sydney airport, Farriss came up with a tasty guitar riff. He rushed to record a demo, complete with drum machine, while his frustrated cab driver looked through the window.

After 40 minutes of tinkering, Farriss got into the car, made his flight, and presented Hutchence with the tape. The frontman loved the track and dashed off some lusty lyrics in minutes. They called the song “Need You Tonight,” and in January 1988, it became INXS’s first and only #1 song in America.

8. There was some speculation over the cause of Michael Hutchence’s death.

Michael Hutchence of INXS in 'Mystify: Michael Hutchence' (2019)
Dogwoof

Hutchence was found dead on November 22, 1997, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Double Bay, Sydney. The coroner’s explanation was suicide by hanging. At the time, Hutchence was reportedly in a depressed state due to several factors, including an ongoing custody dispute between Paula Yates, the mother of his daughter, and Yates's ex-husband, rocker and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof. Yates later questioned the official cause of death and suggested Hutchence had died from autoerotic asphyxiation. Further complicating matters, another of Hutchence’s exes, model Helena Christensen, reveals in the 2019 documentary Mystify: Michael Hutchence that the singer suffered wild mood swings as a result of brain damage he suffered when a cab driver punched him outside a Copenhagen restaurant in 1995.

9. INXS tried to carry on with several other lead singers.

After Hutchence’s death, INXS took about a year off before returning to the stage. They did so in November 1998 with Jimmy Barnes of the group Cold Chisel on lead vocals. The following year, they enlisted singers Terence Trent D’Arby and Russell Hitchcock for a concert celebrating the opening of Stadium Australia. From 2000 to 2003, Jon Stevens of the band Noiseworks took the helm, and in 2005, the group used the reality series Rock Star: INXS to audition a new frontman. The winner, Canadian singer-songwriter J.D. Fortune, toured with the band from 2005 to 2011. The last man to grab the microphone was Northern Irish singer-songwriter Ciaran Gribbin, who joined in late 2011 and stayed on until INXS’s final show in November 2012.

10. For their final show, INXS opened for Matchbox Twenty.

In November 2012, during the final show of a tour supporting American pop rockers Matchbox Twenty, INXS announced they were calling it quits after 35 years. It may have seemed like a random and non-glamorous finale to their career, but the show was in Perth, Australia, where the band had lived in the late 1970s. INXS ended the concert with one of their most beloved singles, “Don’t Change,” with Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas helping out on vocals.

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