The artist that gave Bob Dylan an identity crisis

Bob Dylan

It’s difficult to imagine Bob Dylan as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. The countercultural icon emerged in the 1960s and has remained a popular and respected artist for the past six decades. However, after an Australian tour in the 1980s, the folk star had an identity crisis. It led to an onstage epiphany that revitalized his career.

Dylan, a Woody Guthrie disciple, broke into the mainstream consciousness during the countercultural movement in the mid-1960s. As his career progressed, the singer-songwriter began experimenting with various musical styles. It ranged from blues rock to gospel and received mountains of praise for his genius songwriting. Dylan, still touring at the age of 82, received a Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2016.

So, what could have caused such a distinguished and respected artist as Bob Dylan to experience an identity crisis? Dylan performed at the first Farm Aid benefit concert in 1985. The gig had come about after Dylan’s controversial comments surrounding Live Aid. He expressed a desire for money to go to farmers in America rather than victims of the famine in Ethiopia.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers who supported Dylan during his Farm Aid set, were also on the bill.

“We backed him up at Farm Aid, and it went well”. Petty once said, “And then afterward in the trailer, Bob came back and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about doing a tour?'”  I’ve got a tour of Australia I want to do, and what would you guys think of doing that?’ And we’d all been huge Dylan fans, and we were very intrigued by the idea of playing with Bob. So off we went.”

The tour was a smashing success, and Petty’s band ended up touring with Dylan for nearly two years. During this period of touring, Dylan experienced an identity crisis. He believed that audiences were more excited to see Petty than to see Dylan. “I had been going on my name for a long time, name and reputation, which was about all I had,” Dylan explained in Dylan On Dylan. He added, “I had sort of fallen into an amnesia spell… On stage, I didn’t feel like I knew who I was.”

Dylan’s live performances are hit-or-miss. The songwriter frequently rewrites or performs his classic hits in ways that differ greatly from the original recordings. During his most recent UK tour, critics chastised him for not playing many of his biggest hits. But when touring with Tom Petty, he noticed that audiences seemed to prefer the younger artist. Dylan reportedly considered retiring after seeing how much more popular Petty was during the tour.

Dylan, on the other hand, managed to keep going. “Everything came back, and it came back in multi-dimension,” he wrote after experiencing some form of awakening onstage. It made me feel uneasy. “I was flying high right away.” So perhaps Tom Petty is to blame for Dylan’s continued activity in the four decades since that fateful Australian tour.

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