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.

11 Surprising Facts About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles

1. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles's records.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. John Lennon was originally supposed to sing lead on The Beatles's first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

30 Years Later: The Great Milli Vanilli Hoax

Milli Vanilli VEVO via YouTube
Milli Vanilli VEVO via YouTube

Pop music has always been part talent show, part magic trick. This has never been more apparent than it was on November 15, 1990, when German producer Frank Farian revealed in a press conference that then-superstars Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, members of the pop duo Milli Vanilli, hadn’t sung a note on Girl You Know It's True, their 1989 multi-platinum debut album.

Milli Vanilli truthers had long speculated that Rob and Fab, two guys with thick European accents and limited command of the English language, couldn’t possibly have crooned hits like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It On the Rain.” And yet the news came as a shock to many. Milli Vanilli instantly went from Top of the Pops to laughing stocks. Rob and Fab were stripped of the Grammys they had won for Best New Artist, and duped fans filed class-action lawsuits.

It was one of the biggest scandals in music history, though it wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the same time, dance-pop groups Black Box and C+C Music Factory got caught doing almost exactly the same thing.

“We sold our souls to the devil,” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times just days after Farian’s bombshell. “We lied to our families and our friends. We let down our fans. We realize exactly what we did to achieve our success. We made some very big mistakes and we apologize.”

 

The devil, in Rob and Fab’s version of the story, was Farian, a genius musician and marketer who’d pulled similar stunts before. In the 1970s, Farian struck gold with Boney M., a German disco group seemingly fronted by four Caribbean singers. In reality, Farian himself had provided the vocals on the group’s first album. He knew the importance of image better than anyone, and when he met Rob and Fab in early 1988, he immediately saw an opportunity.

Young, attractive, and hungry for success, the aspiring pop stars were easy marks. Rob, the son of a black American soldier and white German woman, was born in New York City but spent the first several years of his life in a Bavarian orphanage. He was adopted when he was 4 years old. Growing up in Munich, he grappled with racism and feelings of isolation. It was only through music and breakdancing that he found his identity. When he met Fab—who had been raised in Paris by parents from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe—he found someone with similar interests and life experiences.

“Something clicked between us,” Rob told the Los Angeles Times in July 1989, when Milli Vanilli’s star was still on the rise. “Maybe it’s because we’re both black people who grew up in foreign cities that don’t have too many blacks."

In the early days of their friendship, Rob and Fab were regular faces on the Munich club scene. They dabbled in dancing and modeling, but what they really wanted to do, Rob said in a 2017 interview with VLADTV, was make music. They began hanging out with local studio musicians in Farian’s orbit and played a few club shows. Soon, Farian himself took notice.

 

What happened next is the most crucial and contested part of the story. Farian invited Rob and Fab to his studio and signed the duo to a record deal. That much is known. The question is whether Rob and Fab knew what they were getting into.

“We walked into a trap, not knowing it was a trap,” Fab told VLADTV. In his version of events, he and Rob signed the contract without realizing they were being hired purely to lip-sync. They wanted to sing, and the first time Farian played them “Girl You Know It’s True”—the song that would become their international breakthrough—he presented the track as an instrumental. Little did they know Farian had already recorded vocals with professional singers.

By the time they learned the truth, Fab said, they had already spent Farian’s advance money on new clothes and their trademark hair extensions. They were suddenly in debt to Farian, and they couldn’t walk away from the project until they paid him back. Once the group took off, and girls and drugs and money came into the picture, it became even harder for Rob and Fab to break away.

Farian claimed that Rob and Fab were never going to be proper recording artists. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” Farian said of Rob in a Los Angeles Times interview “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos 'til 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”

 

For all his showbiz acumen, Farian had no idea how big the whole thing was going to get. “It was a crazy idea,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought, OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs.” But his mix of pop, R&B, and hip-hop was perfectly pegged for the times, and Milli Vanilli quickly became the music industry's equivalent of Frankenstein monster.

“Girl You Know It’s True” went to No.1 in Germany and earned the group a deal with Arista Records in the United States. Thanks in large part to their music videos, which featured the photogenic pantomimers rocking cool clothes and swinging those signature braids, Milli Vanilli scored five Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. That included three No.1 singles: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame It on the Rain.” All four singles were on the album Girl You Know It’s True, which went six-times platinum in America and sold millions more copies worldwide.

As they enjoyed the trappings of fame, Rob and Fab struggled to live with their secret. On July 21, 1989, the group’s backing tape malfunctioned during a Club MTV tour stop in Bristol, Connecticut. As the words “Girl, you know it’s ...” repeated over and over, Rob panicked and ran offstage. The incident had no immediate effect on their career, but Rob would later call the mishap “the beginning of the end.”

Figuring their time was running out, Rob and Fab turned against Farian and demanded to sing on their next album. As the battle intensified, Farian had no choice but to call a press conference and spill the beans. He was unapologetic about the scam, and in 1991, he released The Moment of Truth, a new studio album credited to The Real Milli Vanilli, i.e. the singers from the first album. Arista, meanwhile, claimed no prior knowledge of the deception, though Rob and Fab insisted the label knew exactly what was going on.

 

Days after Farian’s press conference, Rob and Fab called their own. They were joined by a voice coach who assured the audience that, yes, they could sing. Rob and Fab then gave back their Grammys, which they’d planned on doing even before the Recording Academy formally revoked the awards.

The fallout was devastating for Rob and Fab. They released a self-titled comeback album in 1993 and even appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to sing for real in front of a national audience. But Rob & Fab flopped, and the two former idols wrestled with drug addiction.

Fab ultimately sobered up, but Rob spiraled out of control. In 1996 he served jail time for assaulting two people and breaking into a car, and in 1998, he died of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room. He was 33 years old.

At the time of his death, Rob had apparently been working with Farian again. "I'm totally shocked," the producer told the Independent upon learning of Rob’s death. "Rob looked really good again. He was full of optimism for the future. We intended to tape material for another album.”

Fab wasn’t involved in that project, but he has revisited Milli Vanilli’s past in his own way. In yet another bizarre twist to this story, Fab teamed up with John Davis, one of the real singers whose voice he’d once lip-synced to, for the project Face Meets Voice: A Milli Vanilli Experience. The emergence of that unlikely duo might make for a good ending to the Milli Vanilli movie that’s been in the works since 2007. Filming was all set to begin on the project when director Brett Ratner lost his co-financing deal with Warner Bros. amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Back in their heyday, Milli Vanilli claimed the band’s name meant “positive energy” in Turkish. That wasn’t true: The moniker was partially inspired by the English pop group Scritti Politti. But Fab has maintained a remarkably upbeat attitude as he’s gotten older. In addition to making music, he’s branched off into motivational speaking, using his story as an example of how one can “not just survive but thrive” after adversity. He’s certainly made peace with his own legacy. Speaking with the Associated Press in 2018, he defended his and Rob’s contributions to pop culture some two decades earlier.

“People might say, ‘Well, you know, they didn’t sing on the record,’” Fab said. “But look at the rest. We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli. We did those 107 cities (on tour) ... in eight months. We worked hard. We worked our butts off. We entertained people.”

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