The Instant Expert: Bob Dylan

The life and times of one of America's greatest songwriters, in honour of his 70th birthday.

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Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur celebrates the life and times of the iconic US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who turns 70 on Tuesday

THE BASICS Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, Bob Dylan has been a force in music for five decades. Few would disagree that he was the most influential songwriter of the 20th century. He was assuredly among the most brilliant and prolific.

THE BEGINNINGS AND BEYOND Dylan was inspired by Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. He made his name in coffee houses, and went on to arenas, stadiums and worldwide tours. He influenced - how's this to start? - The Byrds, The Band, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Tom Waits. He plays about 100 dates a year on The Never Ending Tour, which began in June 1988.

THE CLASSIC SONGS If you don't recognise these, we pity you: All Along the Watchtower; Blowin' in the Wind; Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; I Shall Be Released; It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); John Wesley Harding; Just Like a Woman; Knockin' on Heaven's Door; Lay Lady Lay; Like a Rolling Stone; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter from the Storm; Subterranean Homesick Blues; Tangled up in Blue; The Times They Are a-Changin'.

THE CLASSIC ALBUMS The folk singer/protest singer/voice of a generation released six classic albums in just three years: The Freewheelin'Bob Dylan (May 1963), The Times They Are a-Changin' (January 1964), Another Side of Bob Dylan (August 1964), Bringing It All Back Home (March 1964), Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (May 1966).

MOTORCYCLE MYSTERY Dylan crashed his Triumph Tiger motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, on July 29, 1966. He said he broke several vertebrae in his neck, but there was speculation that he was brain damaged or dead, and mystery still shrouds the incident. Apart from a few select appearances, he did not tour for eight years.

GOING ELECTRIC Fans booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1965, when he had the audacity to perform his first electric set since his high school days. Another account cites poor sound quality and a set of only three songs for the ire. Still, the folk establishment went ballistic - and Dylan lashed back with the vitriolic Positively 4th Street.

AUTHOR AND ARTIST Dylan's experimental collection of writings, Tarantula, was published in 1970. His autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, released in 2004, is an international best-seller. He published a collection of his drawings in Drawn Blank in 1994. In 2007, an exhibition of more than 200 of his paintings made that year from the drawings, The Drawn Blank Series, opened in Chemnitz, Germany. There is also a book, Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series.

THE NAME GAME, PART ONE Dylan took his name from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He said he went with "Bob" so as not to be confused with Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell and Bobby Vee.

THE NAME GAME, PART TWO Dylan has used the names Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, Robert Milkwood Thomas, Tedham Porterhouse, Lucky Wilbury, Boo Wilbury, Jack Frost and Sergei Petrov.

THE DISSENTING OPINION The British rock journalist Nik Cohn, the Australian critic Jack Marx and the clearly envious singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell should all just shut up.

Rick Arthur is M magazine's deputy editor. He saw Bob Dylan & The Band on February 14, 1974, in Inglewood, California, the last concert of their Planet Waves tour. He sings Like a Rolling Stone, badly, at karaoke.

Dylan on film

In addition to all his other talents, Dylan has acted in several films and has been the subject of many documentaries. Among the most noteworthy:

DON'T LOOK BACK (1967) Directed by DA Pennebaker, this documentary follows Dylan on a concert tour of the UK in 1965. It features Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price and Albert Grossman.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973) In his acting debut in this Western directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah, Dylan plays a character named Alias. "Should have used one," sniffed the Chicago Sun-Times.

RENALDO AND CLARA (1978) Written and directed by Dylan, the first version of this bizarre film - a mix of concert footage and fictional role-playing - was four hours long and highly criticised. He then edited it down to two hours. Dylan and his then-wife, Sara, play the title characters.

NO DIRECTION HOME (2005) This acclaimed Martin Scorsese documentary chronicles Dylan from 1961 to 1966 as he evolved from folk singer to chronicler and reluctant figurehead of social unrest to rock star. Scorsese in 1978 had made The Last Waltz, a documentary on the farewell tour of The Band, in which Dylan appeared.