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How Cannabis Influenced Bob Dylan’s Musical Career

Bob Dylan during his tour through West Germany at the Dortmunder Westfalenhalle, June 27, 1978. (Proepper/AP)

Bob Dylan is one of music’s most prolific songwriters. The poet, warbling singer, and musical artist is renowned for his lengthy and impressive career, and he’s made it clear that much of his music was inspired by the muse that is cannabis.

From ‘Zimmerman’ to ‘Dylan’

Dylan doesn’t remember who specifically turned him on to cannabis, but in the early 1960s, while perusing the coffeehouse scene in Dinkytown, Minnesota, cannabis was plentiful and abundant. He often played at Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee house near the University of Minnesota where he was enrolled as a student. It was during these performances that the singer, née Robert Zimmerman, first dubbed himself “Bob Dylan,” inspired by poet Dylan Thomas.

“But opium and hash and pot...they just bend your mind a little. I think everybody’s mind should be bent once in a while.”
Bob Dylan

He dropped out of the university and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to immerse himself in the burgeoning folk scene. It was there that he met Eric Von Schmidt, who would end up being a source of inspiration for his music. They both mastered the harmonica and smoked joints together backstage during musical sets by legendary folk singer Joan Baez.

One night, as they were smoking backstage, Dylan got an unexpected call to action from Baez, who he later ended up dating. “I was already in a zone,” Schmidt recalled. “All of a sudden, Joan calls Dylan out to the stage and he sings what seems like a hundred verses of ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ I couldn’t believe how this guy could remember all the verses. He may have missed a few, he may have made up a few. I was amazed by his ability to function. He had that covered.”

In 1961 Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, making friends on the folk scene and playing the local clubs. By 1962, he had officially changed his name to Robert Dylan and assumed this new identity with gusto, releasing his first self-titled album March 19, 1962. He traveled to the United Kingdom in March 1963 and performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a BBC drama in one of his first public performances.

‘Those Things Aren’t Drugs’

As his popularity was beginning to take off, Dylan was interviewed by Playboy magazine and asked about drug use: “Considering the risks involved, do you think that experimentation with such drugs should be part of the growing-up experience for a young person?”

Dylan pondered the question for a moment before replying. “I wouldn’t advise anybody to use drugs–certainly not the hard drugs; drugs are medicine,” he answered thoughtfully. “But opium and hash and pot–now, those things aren’t drugs. They just bend your mind a little. I think everybody’s mind should be bent once in a while.”

He put it in a slightly less eloquent way in the lyrics for his song, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the opening track on his acclaimed album, Blonde on Blonde. Simply put, “Everybody must get stoned.”

Introducing The Beatles to Cannabis

In 1964, in New York’s Delmonico Hotel, Bob Dylan met up with the Beatles after being introduced by a mutual friend. They settled into the hotel room and Dylan suggested they smoke a joint. The boys from Liverpool eyed each other sheepishly before admitting to him, “We’ve never smoked marijuana before.” Dylan was so surprised, he didn’t believe them at first. “What about your song?” he asked.“The one about getting high?”

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The Beatles looked at each other in confusion, asking, “Which song?”

“I see myself as it all. Married man, poet, singer, songwriter, custodian, gatekeeper…all of it. I’ll be it all.”
Bob Dylan

Dylan was insistent. “You know…’and when I touch you, I get high, I get high…”

John Lennon blushed when he realized. “Those aren’t the words. The words are ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide.’”

With that, Dylan gleefully set about with a proper introduction to the marvels of marijuana.

They put towels beneath the door, drew the drapes tight, and Dylan started to roll up a joint, but, according to a memoir from his road manager, Victor Maymudes, the joint fell apart in Dylan’s fingers and scattered cannabis across a bowl of decorative fruit in the hotel room. Maymudes had to take over and rolled up a joint, handing it to Ringo for the first puff. Ringo, not understanding the “puff, puff, pass” etiquette, smoked the whole joint himself. Dylan just laughed and Maymudes rolled more joints for the group.

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Kicking Drugs (or Maybe Not)

By 1969, Dylan was strung out and exhausted. “ I was on the road for almost five years,” he told Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner. “It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going, you know? And I don’t want to live that way anymore.” It was during this time he was rumored to have kicked a heroin habit in New York City, although, considering his reputation for lying to the press, it’s entirely possible that he’d made the whole thing up.

The pressure was mounting for him to perform and tour and record, but a motorcycle accident in 1966 offered him the respite he needed and a chance to escape the limelight. He wouldn’t tour again for nearly eight years.

During this lull, Dylan worked with Johnny Cash on his new album, Nashville Skyline, even going so far as to perform “Girl From the North Country” on the first episode of Cash’s new television show.

Dylan kept a low profile for the next few years, although he came out of hiding to protest charges against John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were convicted of possessing marijuana and faced deportation charges. “Hurray for John and Yoko,” said Dylan in a letter to the US Immigration Service. “Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay.”

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Despite their affinity for each other, Lennon admitted that he couldn’t shake the feeling of competitive rivalry with the singer. “We were so nervous whenever we used to meet. It was always under the most nerve-wracking circumstances…I see him as another poet, or as competition,” he told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone. “If I see or meet a great artist, I love ‘em. I go fanatical about them for a short period, and then I get over it. If they wear green socks, I’m liable to wear green socks for a period, too.”

Reinvention and Back

By the mid-1970’s, Dylan had embraced a whole new side of himself as a born-again Christian. He recorded two albums of contemporary gospel music, including the song “Gotta Serve Somebody,” for which he won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. His literal change of tune irked many of his fans, as well as several of his fellow musicians. Shortly before his death, John Lennon recorded the song “Serve Yourself” as a pointed response to Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” His Christian musical influence was short-lived, however, and he soon returned to a more secular style of music.

In 1994, without so much as a second thought, the singer quit drinking. “He just stopped on a dime,” said Maymudes, his road manager. “He didn’t talk as much once he stopped and he didn’t laugh as loud, either. Bob lost a bit of self-esteem when he sobered up, became a little more introverted and a little less social.”

The singer is prolific and ubiquitous, even now, more than 50 years into his decorated career. He has reinvented himself and his music a thousand times over, and his songs have been covered by every artist under the sun, from Jimi Hendrix to Michael Bolton to David Bowie to the White Stripes to Simon and Garfunkel and Tom Petty.

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When asked how he sees himself, even he couldn’t articulate how to accurately define the enigma of his persona.

“I see myself as it all. Married man, poet, singer, songwriter, custodian, gatekeeper…all of it. I’ll be it all.”