He was the voice of a generation. Now he barely talks. But music icon Bob Dylan, who releases his 35th album this week half a century after his first, is still going strong.
The 71-year-old, who has evolved from 1960s folk-protest singer into an enigmatic rock legend, is most well known for early anthems like “The Times they Are a-Changin'” “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But 50 years later Dylan — who has been on his so-called “Never Ending Tour” since the 1980s — shows no signs of slowing down as he unveils the playfully sinister “Tempest” in Europe on Monday, and America on Tuesday.
“A dark and bloody effort that suggests the old man ain’t going quietly” was how The Daily Beast described the album, while Rolling Stone magazine called it the “single darkest record in Dylan’s catalog” and gave it five stars.
“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound,” President Barack Obama said when awarding Dylan the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in May.
Captivated by the music of folksinger Woody Guthrie, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan — reportedly after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas — and began performing in local nightclubs.
After dropping out of college he moved to New York in 1960. His first album contained only two original songs, but the 1963 breakthrough “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” featured a slew of his own work including the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Armed with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Dylan confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner — and recording an astonishing 300 songs in his first three years.
In 1965 Dylan’s first British tour was captured in the classic documentary “Don’t Look Back” — the same year he outraged his folk fans by using an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island.
The following albums, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” won rave reviews, but Dylan’s career was interrupted in 1966 when he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, and his recording output slowed in the 1970s.
By the early 1980s his music was reflecting the performer’s born-again Christianity, although this was tempered in successive albums, with many fans seeing a resurgence of his explosive early-career talent in the 1990s.
Since the turn of millennium, as well as his regular recording output and touring, Dylan has also found time to host a regular radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, and published a well-received book “Chronicles,” in 2004.
He was the focus of at least two more films, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 “No Direction Home” and “I’m not There” in 2007 starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett.
Over the years Dylan has won 11 Grammy awards, as well as one Golden Globe and even an Oscar in 2001, for best original song “Things have Changed” in the movie “Wonder Boys.”
He is still pushing boundaries, even geographically: last year he toured in China for the first time.
While Dylan is feted by his peers and generations of fans for his songs, his live shows are notoriously patchy — his voice, never the smoothest, has grown rougher over the years, and he rarely sings a tune the same way twice.
But the singer, who has a home in Malibu north of Los Angeles, has said he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“Critics might be uncomfortable with me (working so much). Maybe they can’t figure it out,” he said in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone.
“But nobody in my particular audience feels that way about what I do. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A welder, a carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.”