Way back in 1961 when a dozen eggs cost 30 cents and Breakfast at Tiffany’s premiered in cinemas, a 19-year-old boy with a wild bouffant made his way to New York City to meet his musical idol Woody Guthrie. Little did Robert Zimmerman know that six decades later, he would be the first musician to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Living deep in the midst of racial segregation, Cold War uncertainty and then the ravages of Vietnam, Bob Dylan dignified the voices of the marginalised and advocated social justice through the medium of song. In many ways, he was the first rock ‘n’ roll poet. ‘Chimes of Freedom’ has been described as one of the greatest pieces of lyrical poetry in history. Rolling Stone magazine praised the influence of the song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (perhaps unsurprisingly), describing Dylan as “the juggler of beauty and truth, our own Willy Shakespeare in a polka dot shirt.”
Tom Waits, a star whose bourbon-soaked voice has earned him a place among the greatest singers of all time, was one of the first to congratulate his idol on his Nobel Prize win, saying “Before epic tales and poems were ever written down, they migrated on the winds of the human voice and no voice is greater than Dylan’s.” Here are four artists who namecheck the living legend in their own lyrics:
David Bowie – ‘Song for Bob Dylan’
On this day in 1977, the late David Bowie released his 12th studio album ‘Heroes’. Six years prior to that though, he penned a track about a hero of his own. ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ is one of the undisputed highlights of his 1971 album Hunky Dory, which is today regarded as one of his best works. It contains several tracks that paid tribute to his influences, including Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, but ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ is probably his best remembered homage. It begins: “Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman/I wrote a song for you/About a strange young man called Dylan/With a voice like sand and glue”.
The Who – ‘The Seeker’
Mod movement masters The Who paid diligence to Dylan in powerful non-album single ‘The Seeker’, which came to us sandwiched between their two most triumphant records Tommy (1969) and Who’s Next (1971). Stellar writer Pete Townsend’s song has a decidedly downbeat theme. It’s essentially about a person searching for their place in the great black vortex that is life. Apparently not even two of his biggest musical idols can provide him with the answers: “I asked Bobby Dylan/I asked The Beatles/I asked Timothy Leary/But he couldn’t help me either.”
Wilco – ‘Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard’
When people use your face furniture as song inspiration, that’s when you know you’ve truly made it in life. This song by American alternative rock band Wilco is about coping with a breakup. There’s a sad pattern to these song choices, isn’t there? Anyway, singer Jeff Tweedy uses Bob Dylan’s beard as a symbol of escaping the pain of separation and starting a new chapter in life: “And things got weird/And I started growing/Bob Dylan’s beard”.
Belle and Sebastian – ‘Like Dylan in the Movies’
Fan favourite Belle and Sebastian song ‘Like Dylan in the Movies’ came about after Stuart Murdoch suffered a bout of paranoia walking through Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow. The title and lyrics refer to the 1967 documentary film Don’t Look Back, which follows Bob Dylan on his UK concert tour: “And if they follow you/don’t look back/like Dylan in the movies/on your own”. If you didn’t know, as well as being master of the craft of music, Dylan also starred in several movies including Western classic Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, which is revered as one of the greatest movies of all time. Is there nothing the man can’t do?
Image courtesy of Adrian Lasso on Flickr