When Bob Dylan Unplugged for MTV

Bob Dylan was already familiar with controversy by the time he headlined the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Two years earlier, the up-and-coming folk star had walked off The Ed Sullivan Show when the network tried to meddle with his set. He tackled civil rights in his songs and backed that up with activism. When Dylan took the stage at Newport, he shocked folk traditionalists by doing something unexpected: he played an electric guitar. While listeners might have known from listening to his records that Dylan was going in that direction, the move still angered some in the folk establishment. It’s no small irony then that Dylan found his career rejuvenated in the 1990s by making the simplest of moves: going unplugged.

Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone” (Uploaded to YouTube by Bob Dylan)

Throughout the 1960s, Bob Dylan released classic album after classic album. He was a driver of taking folk into the mainstream and combining it with other forms. Rolling Stone magazine ranked his song “Like a Rolling Stone” as the Greatest Song of All Time. He overcame a motorcycle accident in 1966 to make more classic recordings, appear with Johnny Cash on Cash’s television variety show, and headline the Isle of Wight Festival.

Bob Dylan with The Band from The Last Waltz (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

The 1970s were up and down for Dylan. Though some reviews were brutal, he created material that’s widely seen as some of his greatest work, like “Hurricane,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and the album Blood on the Tracks. He toured extensively with The Band; their farewell concert in 1976 was documented in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Toward the end of the decade, he converted to Christianity and did a trio of albums that were heavily influenced by his turn of faith; 1979’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” from this period won him the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy.

The Traveling Wilburys’s “End of the Line” (Uploaded to YouTube by The Traveling Wilburys)

Continuing into the next decade, Dylan received more notice and acclaim for collaborations than solo work (in most cases). While his live album with the Grateful Dead, Dylan and The Dead, received negative notices, he was reintroduced to a younger generation as part of “We Are the World.” He also participated in the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City” and played at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985. A casual remark he made on stage that some money should also go to help American farmers led Willie Nelson to launch Farm-Aid. Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that friendship with Petty was a key to the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, which featured them, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. His final album of the ’80s, Oh Mercy, received solid reviews.

Bob Dylan performing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from MTV Unplugged (Uploaded to YouTube by Bob Dylan)

Dylan spent a chunk of the early ’90s doing cover albums of traditional songs. When MTV came calling for Dylan to do an episode of MTV Unplugged, it seemed like a natural. Launched in 1989, the Unplugged program took musicians and put them in an intimate setting with a live audience as they performed (generally) without electric instruments. The format was a big hit for the channel, with several episodes receiving vast critical acclaim while producing albums that sold spectacularly in a number of cases. Among the most celebrated episodes to that point were installments that featured R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Dylan recorded his installment over two nights in November of 1994 at Sony Music Studios in New York City.

When the album was released 25 years ago this week, it was an immediate success. It went Gold in the United States, hitting #23 on the album charts; it did even better in the U.K., where it made it to #10. Dylan had considered leaning on covers and traditional tunes, but MTV persuaded him to play his more familiar songs, resulting in something akin to a “greatest hits” package. The irony of the episode and subsequent album is that the man who scandalized the folk world by plugging in had revived his career by unplugging. His next original album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, was considered an artistic comeback; it was a Top Ten platinum seller in the States and earned him the Grammy for Album of the Year.

“Murder Most Foul” (Uploaded to YouTube by Bob Dylan)

Since that time, Dylan has continued to work, tour, write, and release new and archive material. His Bootleg series, compiling alternate takes and songs left off of albums, has produced many volumes. He’s been given nearly every award you can conceive of, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On March 26, 2020, he released “Murder Most Foul” on his YouTube channel; it’s a 17-minute song about the Kennedy assassination. Another new song, “I Contain Multitudes,” followed on the channel on April 17.

Dylan’s MTV Unplugged appearance and album represented something a sea change in his career. It introduced him (again) to a younger generation and gave him a launch pad toward creating new and relevant material. He seems to have struck a balance between acclaimed icon and producer of new and relevant work. Whatever the future holds, and however he plays, it’s hard to deny that Dylan has always been electric.

Featured image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com.

Simon and Garfunkel Burned Their Bridge as They Built It

One of the most celebrated and successful musical duos of all time, Simon and Garfunkel crafted a unique kind of harmony, even if their partnership wasn’t always harmonious. A staple of the 1960s who has experienced reignited interest in several decades since, the pair and their brand of folk-rock thrives even though it’s been 50 years since their last studio album together. And 50 years ago this week, what might be their signature song was in the middle of a six-week run at the top of the charts. Here’s how “Bridge over Troubled Water” is both their monument and their metaphor.

When Simon and Garfunkel were “Tom and Jerry.” (Uploaded to YouTube by Various Artists / Believe SAS)

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel became friends as sixth graders in 1953, bonding over a mutual love of music. The boys sang in a doo-wop group together and performed as a duo at school events. When they were 15, they paid to record a song at a Manhattan studio; promoter Sid Prosen heard them and signed them to their first deal. Recording as Tom and Jerry, they had a minor hit (“Hey Schoolgirl”) that made #49 on the charts and got them booked on American Bandstand in 1957. They graduated in 1958 and went to different colleges, albeit both in New York City.

Though the two worked solo during their college years, they regrouped in 1963 after Simon’s graduation. Their sound moved into folk, and they played as Kane and Garr. Performing in Greenwich Village, the pair unveiled some new songs, including “The Sound of Silence.” On that fateful night, they were spotted by Tom Wilson, the influential producer who worked with Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, and more. Wilson got the duo signed to Columbia Records.

The Concert in Central Park performance of “The Sound of Silence.” (Uploaded to YouTube by Simon & Garfunkel)

Like the majority of young acts, their first album didn’t quite catch fire. Garfunkel went back to college, and Simon alternated between music work in England and school in the States, recording his first solo album across the pond. Fate had other things in mind for the duo, though; Boston DJ Dick Summer played “The Sound of Silence,” and suddenly stations along the East Coast picked it up. Wilson, pulling from the sound that he and Dylan had achieved on “Like a Rolling Stone,” remixed “Silence” by adding electric guitar and other elements. When the new version hit stores, it landed in the Hot 100. One million copies later, the song was #1 in January of 1966.

Feelin’ Groovy (Uploaded to YouTube by Simon & Garfunkel)

Over the next several years, Simon and Garfunkel became one of the biggest acts in music. Their hastily cobbled together Sounds of Silence album took advantage of the title song’s success and delivered two more songs (“Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock”) into the Top Ten. The two new albums, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme and Bookends were outsized hits; the pair’s fame was only magnified by their contributions to the soundtrack to the massively successful film, The Graduate. They were involved as both planners and performers in the storied Monterey Pop Festival, considered by many to be the instigating event in “The Summer of Love.” During this period, The Saturday Evening Post took a deep-dive look at some of the bigger acts in pop music, including Simon and Garfunkel.

Unfortunately, though they helped foster a new atmosphere of love and acceptance, creative and personal tension grew between the pair. Some was born out of Simon’s desire to do solo work, while other pieces came from Garfunkel’s ventures into film, appearing as he did in Catch-22 (and later, Carnal Knowledge, among others). Catch-22’s filming ran long in 1969, which caused more friction.

The pair performing “Bridge over Troubled Water” from The Concert in Central Park (Uploaded to YouTube by Simon & Garfunkel)

When the filming wrapped, Simon and Garfunkel went to work on what would be their final studio album, Bridge over Troubled Water. The 11 tracks were recorded in November of 1969, with the title track getting recorded halfway through the sessions. While there were some mixed critical responses upon its January 1970 release (most focused on a perception of over-production), the public had no such qualms. Bridge took the Grammy for Album of the Year and was the single best-selling album of 1970, 1971, and 1972; for several years, it was the best-selling album of all-time. 50 years ago this week, the title track was in the middle of a six-week run at #1 on the charts, and both “The Boxer” and “Cecilia” were Top Ten singles. “Bridge” is one of the most-covered songs to emerge in the 20th century, with artists like Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recording versions.

Despite the massive success of the album, the pair had already agreed to go their separate ways. Simon had an extremely successful career as a solo act, and Garfunkel worked consistently in both music and film. Over the years, they have reunited on several occasions for special concerts and short tours. The pair even appeared in a Saturday Night Live skit that centered on Simon remembering fans from specific concerts but being unable to recognize Garfunkel. While they have never recorded a studio album since Bridge, the live album The Concert in Central Park, capturing the 1981 live show that they played in front of 500,000 people in New York, sold two million copies. The pair toured extensively in 2003 and 2004, and as recently as 2009, but Garkfunkel’s vocal cord problems derailed the tour; though he recovered within a few years, relations between the two had grown icy again. Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018, seemingly closing the door on that type of reunion occurring again.

Whether the duo reunites again or not, they’ve left behind a beloved body of work and a reputation for memorable songs with beautiful harmonies. Many critics consider both the single and the album Bridge over Troubled Water to be their defining work. It’s loomed large in popular consciousness for 50 years, and there’s no sign that its sound will ever resemble silence.

Featured image: defotoberg / Shutterstock.com