One day he was a respected young songwriter, the next he was this thing, The Voice of a Generation. The Man With All the Answers…People were at him all the time…it was relentless. You or I couldn’t have stood that kind of pressure. We’d have been crushed by it. Dylan not only stood up to it, he continued to do great work on his own terms in spite of it.
Hear this, Robert Zimmerman: I wrote a song for you.
Bowie, “Song for Bob Dylan.”
David Bowie had shrugged off Bob Dylan as an influence for as long as he could, but by the end of the Sixties, even Bowie gave in. Everyone did. You could resent Dylan (Paul Simon), cover him (many examples), imitate him (countless examples), pinpoint him (Joan Baez), translate him (Levi Stubbs, Sam Cooke), but Dylan stood in the center, as inescapable as the sun; at times, as oppressive.
There’s an anecdote in Clinton Heylin’s new Dylan biography. Sometime in 1963, a drunk Dylan hovers at the entrance of the Gaslight, in Greenwich Village, asking people walking in if they know who he is, writing down their responses in a notebook. Whenever someone answers “yeah, you’re Bob Dylan,” Dylan stares at them and snarls, “You don’t know who I am.” What must it have been like to live like this? To still, to some degree, live like this, at age eighty?
In 1961, a middle-class Minnesotan Jewish folkie named Robert Zimmerman gave birth to a brilliant wraith called Bob Dylan, who became the closest that the late 20th Century would get to Shakespeare. It was this summoning, this lifetime marriage to a character, this sense that having become an Other, having dispensed with his own life, Zimmerman had opened a vast reservoir of power—this is what drew in Bowie, far more than Dylan’s songs. He, too, had changed his name; he also was running as far away from Bromley as Dylan had from Hibbing, Minnesota. He’d have sold his soul in a heartbeat.
[Around 1965] I’d bought the second Bob Dylan album, the one where he’s walking down, I believe it’s Bleecker Street. And he’s got the girlfriend with him. And I thought, ‘this guy is so cool looking.’ [Then as an aside, to me] It’s always the clothes first, right? [We both laughed.] Well, I’m English. What do you want? Then I played the album. I loved the music. And it was absolute dynamite. It was like this 60 year old guy voice in this young kid. I thought, ‘This is the Beats. It’s everything that’s great about America in this one album.’
Bowie, to Filter magazine, 2003
And as Bowie was studying pop narratives, Dylan had an unsurpassable one. Born an unknown in the Midwest; meeting and being anointed by his elders (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger (Dylan even tried for Carl Sandburg, without much luck)); becoming entwined with the cultural revolutions of his time; soon resenting this; becoming the hippest person in the United States by 1965. Dylan was always leaving someone behind. Leaving Suze Rotolo for Joan Baez, leaving folk for rock, leaving rock for country, leaving the New York of Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk and blonde-on-blonde Edie Sedgwick for marriage and domestic obscurity in the Catskills. And he’d leave that behind soon enough.
Dylan had deep roots, though—the joy of the complete Basement Tapes is hearing how many songs he had in his head. It’s as though he’d devoted his life to be a preservation of American music, the analogue of some monk in North Africa in 500 AD who can recite Ovid from memory after all the scrolls have been burned. But Bowie, after deciding to follow a Dylan path for a time, didn’t have the music to draw on. He loved American R&B, but hated country and had no affinity with folk music, even that of his own land—his contemporaries Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny could breathe hard life into “Tam Lin” and “Nottamun Town” but Bowie was a suburban kid who’d grown up watching television and reading The Beano, and returning to Albion must have seemed a bit absurd to him.
Dylan is a poor guitarist, his songs are boring and he has a bad voice. Let’s drop the subject.
Bowie, to journalist Bosse Hansson, May 1970, in response to Hansson’s assertion that DB would be the Bob Dylan of the Seventies
Instead, Bowie covered and imitated the mid-Sixties acoustic Dylan—apparently, the first Dylan he’d heard: the Freewheelin’ album and the Don’t Look Back tour of the UK in 1965 (“I was as knocked out when I heard Gas Works as I was when I heard Dylan on his first trip to Britain,” Bowie said in 1969). The shift came after the failure of his debut album in 1967 and the subsequent formation, with Hermione Farthingale and John Hutchinson, of his “folk” group Feathers. This called for a new repertoire—it would’ve been hard to pull off earlier Bowie live staples like Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” or even his own Pye singles in an acoustic guitar trio. Bowie’s folk covers weren’t Child Ballads, but more contemporary artists like Leonard Cohen (“Lady Midnight” was often in Bowie and Hutch’s sets), Van Morrison (“Madame George”) and, naturally, Dylan (“She Belongs to Me,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”).
Dylan’s writing style soon seeped into Bowie’s own. The most notable example was unearthed two years ago on the Conversation Piece set—a 1969 demo called “Jerusalem” that no one, apparently not even Bowie archivist Kevin Cann, had ever heard of before.
Its inspiration is the sort of endless-stanzaed song that Dylan favored in late 1964 and early 1965—see “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Desolation Row.” Bowie sings essentially one long verse over an acoustic guitar figure, and in Dylan style, breaks the flow for the occasional refrain tag. Much of the lyric is hippie junk-shop caliber (“a man plays his sitar on a Monday afternoon,” “the waiter says the cavalry is nice”) and Bowie seems to be as much processing Dylan as he is others’ Dylan imitations—particularly Mick Jagger on “Jigsaw Puzzle.”
“Jerusalem” comes sharper into focus when Bowie shifts to a favorite subject—how much self-betrayal one needs to become a star. “He’s a film script in himself…he profiteered on monies made by selling most of himself.” In its profusion of images, there are traces of “Quicksand” (“he blew his mind on Churchill just before the age of five”) and “Life on Mars?” (“milk his sacred cow…both his eyes were made by Disney”).
Bowie used similar torrents of language in a few of his other 1969 songs, particularly “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and “Cygnet Committee,” then he moved on. It was as if Dylan was an unavoidable course requirement, so he crammed and got through it with a passing grade. Years later, to Chris Roberts, he described it as being similar to how John Lennon had dealt with Dylan:
I remember talking with John at the time about people we admired, and he said to me, ‘Y’know, when I’ve discovered someone new, I tend to become that person. I want to soak myself in their stuff to such an extent that I have to be them.’ So when he first found Dylan, he said, he would dress like Dylan and only play his kind of music, till he kind of understood how it worked. And that’s exactly how I feel about it as well. in a more awkward fashion, I did that, too. I lived the life, whatever it was.
But his interest in “Dylan” as a concept stayed with Bowie, and in 1971, he turned his sights on him.
Bowie always maintained that the voice of “Song for Bob Dylan” wasn’t his (“the lyrics in that song are not my thoughts,” he said at the time of its release). He wrote it for his friend George Underwood, so in a way he’s doing a parody of his friend in his own take on the song for Hunky Dory. The person singing “Song for Bob Dylan” is an obsessive fan, a bedsit zealot, the sort of person who would cry over a record sleeve or sift through Dylan’s garbage, looking for clues. By 1971, Bowie has dispensed with Dylan enough that he can frame him through the eyes of his more pathetic disciples.
Their meetings were few and, per legend, unhappy. Bowie reportedly told Dylan “where he was going wrong” in one conversation in the Seventies; Dylan allegedly told Bowie he disliked Young Americans (perhaps in response). The one set of photographs of them together, in New York in 1986, is bizarre: Bowie looks like a businessman who’s hired Dylan to kill someone and is already regretting having signed the check.
I’m trying to think if there’s anyone who truly has honed his craft to a point that you are really, really glad that he stayed with one thing all the way through his life. Of course there is. How stupid of me! Bob Dylan. He’s not actually changed his course very much, and now his music has such resonance that when I first put his new album on I thought I should just give up.
Bowie ultimately came to regard Dylan as a lesson in how to keep going. Tour every year, give few interviews, shamelessly make some commercials using your classics, seem bemused by the absurdity of it all, and hold off on releasing new albums until people start missing you again. Bowie certainly took note of the reception that Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft got (to the point of covering “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”). You can see Heathen and Blackstar as Bowie working within Dylan’s frame, making death-haunted records that still have a sense of humor (“Girl Loves Me” in particular).
They were never friends, rarely influences (Mick Ronson as Dylan’s guitarist for the Rolling Thunder Revue is another wrinkle in the story), but Bowie and Dylan would align at times. By the 21st Century, Dylan’s appetite for outright theft had well surpassed Bowie’s. Fellow actors, each was the sort who could corner strangers at a bar, ask them to tell him who he was, then tell the strangers they were dead wrong. Dylan is still here, Bowie is gone, both seem far away now. Last year, days after the lockdowns began, Dylan put out “Murder Most Foul,” a long requiem for a lost century, for the end of rock ‘n’ roll, for the death of the past. Bowie didn’t make Dylan’s list (though “All the Young Dudes” made it into “I Contain Multitudes”), but he was there anyway, hidden in its margins.
Recorded: ca. 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, London? David Bowie: vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.
Photos: Dylan at the press conference for his Isle of Wight concert, August 1969; outtake from Don Hunstein’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan photo shoot, early 1963; Dylan and Bowie backstage (I believe) at an Iggy Pop show at the Ritz, NYC, November 1986.