Song For Bob Dylan

Song For Bob Dylan (first performance, George Underwood).
Song For Bob Dylan (LP).

Song For Bob Dylan (live, 1972).

Hey Bobby, where you been?
We missed you out on the streets.

Country Joe and the Fish, “Hey Bobby,” 1970.

You left us marching on the road and said how heavy was the load,
The years were young, the struggle barely had its start.
Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?
They’re crying for you.

Joan Baez, “To Bobby,” 1972.

I found myself stuck in Woodstock, vulnerable and with a family to protect. If you looked in the press, though, you saw me being portrayed as anything but that. It was surprising how thick the smoke had become. It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat—someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire. But America wasn’t the Roman Empire and someone else would have to step up and volunteer…Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn’t a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

The critic Ralph J. Gleason was the sort of man—earnest, middle-aged, bohemian-leaning—who would be most deranged by the counterculture. By the early 1970s, his columns in Rolling Stone were filled with tales of the rock & roll prophets who, although presently in hiding (or inconveniently dead), would return one day to deliver The Word. “Out will come the messages. Out will come the plans. In time,” he wrote.*

Gleason was writing mainly about Bob Dylan. Dylan, who had been living quietly in the Catskills since 1966, had recently moved his family to New York City in the hopes of greater anonymity (it didn’t work out—“scholars” were soon digging through his garbage). Dylan’s public absence had coincided, seemingly deliberately, with the full flowering of the youth culture: he had built the temple and had refused to worship there.

So Dylan was letting down the side. Partly because he seemed disengaged from the struggle (where was he in Chicago? in the march on the Pentagon? he’d even skipped Woodstock, which was held in his backyard), partly because his post-’66 records were quiet, contained and, to some, frustrating: John Wesley Harding was followed by a barely half-hour-long country LP; Self-Portrait, Dylan’s official bootleg (Greil Marcus: “What is this shit?”); and New Morning (Gleason: “We’ve got Dylan back again!”) In 1971, after his topical “George Jackson” single (which got the radicals off his case for a while), Dylan fell silent for what turned out to be years. His goodbye note was another 1971 single, “Watching the River Flow,” that cheekily begins: “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say…”

So Bowie’s “Song For Bob Dylan” is set against all of this: it’s a plea for an absent sentinel to return to his post (“give us back our unity/give us back our family”), and the pathos of its lyric suggests that the Seventies had already begun suffering the inferiority complex that would define the decade—the Sixties, only a year and a half in the grave, are already the lost time of legends. It’s arguable that Bowie was mocking just this sort of hippie idol worship, though he sings his lines convincingly enough.

Song for Zimmerman

Why did you choose or refer to Zimmerman, not Dylan?

Because Dylan is bullshit. Zimmerman is his name. You see, I don’t believe in Dylan and I don’t believe in Tom Jones either, in that way. Zimmerman is his name. My name isn’t John Beatle. It’s John Lennon. Just like that.

John Lennon, interviewed by Jann Wenner, January 1971.

Bowie’s lyric begins by directly referencing Dylan’s own “Song To Woody” from a decade earlier, and so sets Bowie up as the heir presumptive—Bowie years later admitted that sheer opportunism in part drove him to write the song. “It was at that period that I said, ‘Okay, Dylan, if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void,” he told Melody Maker in 1976.

But Bowie wasn’t interested in the sort of leadership people wanted from Dylan—his “Dylan” is a pure construct, far removed from the actual Dylan’s roots in folk, blues and rock & roll. Bowie seems to be singing more about the Milton Glaser poster (Dylan in silhouette with rainbow hair) included in Dylan’s first greatest hits LP than anything else (“you gave your heart to every bedsit room/at least a picture on the wall”). His use of Dylan’s real name (only becoming known in the very late ’60s) suggests that Bowie was most interested in Dylan as another self-craftsman. Where John Lennon, as part of his list of false idols in “God,” had sneered “I don’t believe…in ZIMMERMAN,” arguing that Dylan’s pseudonym had shown him up as a phony, Bowie found it liberating—if “Bob Dylan” had been a fiction all this time, then a fiction is what people really wanted.

Still, there’s something off about “Song For Bob Dylan”—for one thing, you get the sense the song’s been rewritten to fit the Dylan theme. The chorus in particular could be lifted out, placed into another song, and would just work as well (John Peel introduced the song as “Here She Comes,” suggesting it may have been yet another Velvet Underground tribute). And Bowie sings it in an odd voice that seems to be parodying Dylan’s (as well as Elvis’—the way Bowie turns the last line of the second verse into a long slur “scared togetherthanalone”).

As with all the Hunky Dory tracks, the song’s exactingly arranged and performed—the intro cycles through the chords of the verses in sequence; the verses, in A major, are assembled so that chords are continually resolving to the tonic, while the chorus changes key, letting Bowie  and Mick Ronson open up. Rick Wakeman’s piano alternates from being a counter-melody to the vocal to a secondary bassline at the end of verses, while Ronson’s guitar intro (elaborated on in an 8-bar solo after the second chorus) has a taste, in style and tone, of the soon-to-come “All the Young Dudes.”

First performed (sung by Bowie’s old friend/LP sleeve designer George Underwood) at the BBC on 3 June 1971, recorded for Hunky Dory a month or so later, and played at a few 1972 concerts. Ronson went on to play with Dylan in the mid-’70s, becoming the linchpin of the Rolling Thunder Revue shows. Bowie and Dylan met a few times in the ’70s and ’80s, though there’s been little written about their encounters—Dylan allegedly was rude to Bowie, and according to one Bowie biographer, Christopher Sandford, said he hated Young Americans.

* This is a paraphrase, from weak memory, of a quote reprinted in Robert Draper’s history of RS, though I recall reading the actual Gleason column when, bored at school, I went through most of the early RS archives on microfilm.

Photos: Dylan confers with Rasputin at the Concert for Bangladesh, 1 August 1971; trans-Atlantic icons meet and greet, ca. 1985.

5 Responses to Song For Bob Dylan

  1. Rob says:

    Great line describing the Bangladesh concert photo.

    Todd Haynes, of course, at least by implication makes the link between Bowie and Dylan in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There.

    Velvet Goldmine is just a blast–it works so well in so many ways. I’m Not There falls utterly flat in a way because it cozies up to Dylan’s own myth-spinning (e.g., Richard Gere’s lame-o dusty cowboy outlaw, “every nation’s refugee”) and only plays at the androgyny that no doubt is at the core of Dylan’s most “seductive” persona. Cate Blanchett’s performance is a remarkable mimic, but is strangely “butch.” Would have been more interesting for Bowie, in this song, and/or Haynes to push the Dylan myth in new directions.

    I love the suggestion here too re: “All the Young Dudes”…subtle, great ear!

  2. Mark says:

    “…bored at school, I went through most of the early RS archives on microfilm.”

    That’s heroic!

  3. Rob says:

    I noticed yesterday that Song For Bob Dylan bears a very strong likeness to Dylan’s own My Back Pages (as covered by The Byrds). Which might explain a thing or two. Just a thought.

    Love this site, by the way.


    • s.t. says:

      This is coming late, but I noticed that it sounds a lot like Bowie’s song “Looking for a Friend” from the Arnold Corns days. Maybe a fusion of the two?

  4. John R says:

    You’re right, the chorus is surely from another song and I’ve always suspected that this is more of a VU song than a Dylan Song. The ‘here she comes, there she goes’ etc. is very Lou Reed. The ‘brow of the super brain’ lyric sounds like something from the man who sold the world, and I like the commentator who drew a link to looking for a friend, which suggests a slightly earlier provenance. Mick’s slow and assured guitar lead is just sublime. I actually think the transition from acoustic to electric from Andy Warhol to Queen Bitch sort of mimics Bob Dylan’s famous transition into electric.

    It also strikes me that the first side of Hunkydory is very British while the second side is overtly American (in its influences and subject matter) and also that he first side is very inward looking while side two is very outward looking. I just love how Hunkydory is a mishmash of all of Bowie’s musical obsessions of the time – country, folk, the Beatles, orchestral music, Neil Young, the velvets, Biff Rose, Sinatra, music hall, Tiny Tim, acoustic, electric – and it all seems to work. It also, surprisingly, doesn’t distance itself from his earlier 60’s work and has a lot of connections to his debut album. It has no novelty songs on it per se but it seems obsessed with novelty as a genre.

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