Bob Dylan always has been a chameleon — folk singer in a Huck Finn cap one decade, Christian rocker the next — but his Chrysler Super Bowl ad seemed particularly inappropriate for the man who wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'." Before we call him a sellout, though, let's look at the real story behind a man so adept at mythologizing himself.
1. Dylan renamed himself after poet Dylan Thomas.
"Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas," Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman, told Robert Shelton, the New York Times critic who wrote the 1961 review that propelled him to fame. "Dylan Thomas's poetry is for people that aren't really satisfied in their bed, for people who dig masculine romance."
When he arrived at the University of Minnesota, he was calling himself Bob Dillon, claiming that it was his mother's maiden name, which was actually Stone, or that it was a town in Oklahoma — home state of Woody Guthrie.
In a 1978 Playboy interview, he said he hadn't read that much of Thomas: "I just chose that name and it stuck."
2. Dylan didn't need Joan Baez.
Though Dylan dumped the folk singer during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker's iconic Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back," she was instrumental in making him famous. When Dylan and Baez met in 1961, Baez's first album had been out for six months. Her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 had made her an overnight star, able to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola. She filled Carnegie Hall in May 1962. And when Time wrote about the folk revival in November 1962, Baez was on the cover.
So when she introduced a new Dylan song, "With God on Our Side," in concert and recorded it on her 1963 album, "Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2," her support indeed helped launch Dylan's career. Later, they had a brief but intense affair. In the documentary "No Direction Home," Dylan acknowledged the song's beauty and said that he hadn't treated her well: "You can't be wise and in love at the same time."
3. Dylan alienated his audience by "going electric."
The controversy Dylan courted by picking up the electric guitar began at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he was backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Recent obituaries suggested that Pete Seeger was the killjoy. A member of the festival's board, he said he wanted to take an ax to Dylan's power cables. Seeger said his objection was to the distortion, not to the electric guitar. Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, refused to accommodate Seeger.
But if some die-hard folkies took offense, Dylan's "electric" singles in 1965, including the landmark "Like a Rolling Stone," and an album, "Bringing It All Back Home," sold well. Gradually, he won over the critics, and 50 years later, it's the electric Dylan who continues to attract new fans.
4. Dylan nearly died in a 1966 motorcycle crash.
Au contraire: It probably saved his life, allowing him to recover, physically and mentally, from years in the spotlight. In June 1966, Dylan had returned from his draining world tour. He was beat — and not pleased to find that Grossman had booked him on a U.S. tour. What happened next is disputed by Dylanologists. On July 29, Dylan was riding his Triumph motorcycle in Woodstock, N.Y., when he said he hit an oil slick and the back wheel locked. But only Dylan knows how serious the injuries really were. In "Chronicles," his 2005 memoir, he wrote: "I'd been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race."
5. Dylan's Super Bowl ad for Chrysler makes him a sellout.
If his Chrysler ad makes him a sellout, he sold out long ago. Dylan's arguably worse decision was approving the 1960s anthem "The Times They Are a-Changin' " for use in a Bank of Montreal commercial in 1996.
You could say the Chrysler ad is promoting the American worker as much as the American car — Dylan talks of "the heart and soul of every man and woman on the line." This isn't new territory for Dylan: In 1983's "Union Sundown," he sang about his Chevrolet being "put together down in Argentina" and worried that "nothin' you got is U.S. made."
So maybe his intentions are good. Perhaps the real question is whether his fee went to charity — and whether he's now driving a Chrysler 200.
Elizabeth Thomson is a co-editor of "The Dylan Companion" and the revising editor of Robert Shelton's "No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan." She wrote this commentary for The Washington Post.