by Aaron Galbraith
There is an excellent podcast called “Bowie vs Dylan” (www.bowievsdylan.com) where two brothers finally answer one of philosophy’s greatest questions: who’s better, David Bowie or Bob Dylan?
Each episode covers one year of releases, concerts and reissues – a winner is decided for the act who had the best year. Great episodes include “Ep 25: 1987 – Never Let Me Down vs. Hearts of Fire” which asks an interesting question, which would you rather listen to, the worst of Dylan or the worst of Bowie? As a big fan of both, it’s a hard question to answer but for 1987 they decided Dylan had the better year (for me, I’d rather listen to “Never Let Me Down” over “Hearts of Fire”).
Check the website for future episodes and for the tally so far (currently its Bowie 12 – Dylan 10).
It is easy to see that Bowie was a Dylan fan early on in his career, his second album “Space Oddity” contains a number of Dylanesque moments in tracks such as “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, “Letter To Hermione” and “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”.
Bowie’s fourth album (and possibly his best) “Hunky Dory” came in 1971 and contained the track “Song For Bob Dylan”.
Dylan wrote in “Chronicles”:
“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.”
In an interview in Melody Maker in 1976 Bowie said, “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”. Bowie’s song begins by directly referencing “Song To Woody” and so sets himself up to be Dylan’s heir presumptive:
Ah, here she comes Here she comes, here she comes again The same old painted lady From the brow of the superbrain… 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 Some words had truthful vengeance That could pin us to the floor Brought a few more people on And put the fear in a whole lot more
The pair met a few times throughout the 70s and 80s, although it is alleged that Dylan was rude to Bowie and is known to have said that he hated, “Young Americans”.
But this hasn’t stopped Dylan stealing Bowie’s musicians over the years – Mick Ronson played for both (Ziggy and Rolling Thunder) as did Charlie Sexton (Glass Spider Tour and Never Ending Tour). I’ve also heard a rumour that Dylan wanted Bowie to produce the “Infidels” album before Mark Knoffler was brought on board.
In 1976 Bowie gave an interview to Playboy where he discussed an earlier meeting with Dylan:
PLAYBOY: You’re not noted for cordial relationships with other artists. Yet there was the rumor that you flew to Europe to spend a sabbatical with Bob Dylan. What about it?
BOWIE: That’s a beaut. I haven’t even left this bloody country in years. I saw Dylan in New York seven, eight months ago. We don’t have a lot to talk about. We’re not great friends. Actually, I think he hates me.
PLAYBOY: Under what circumstances did you meet?
BOWIE: Very bad ones. We went back to somebody’s house after some gig at a club. We had all gone to see someone. I can’t remember who, and Dylan was there. I was in a very, sort of…verbose frame of mind. And I just talked at him for hours and hours and hours, and whether I amused him or scared him or repulsed him, I really don’t know. I didn’t wait for any answers. I just went on and on about everything. And then I said goodnight. He never phoned me.
PLAYBOY: Did he impress you?
BOWIE: Not really. I’d just like to know what the young chap thought of me. I was quite convinced that what I had to say was important, which I seem to feel all the time. It’s been quite awhile since someone really impressed me.
I can’t find any examples of Dylan covering Bowie or even of them both covering the same song (although Bob doing “Life On Mars” would be magical!). Over the years Bowie has proven himself to be pretty good at picking covers (if you ignore “God Only Knows”!!) making songs such as “Sorrow” and “Wild Is The Wind” his own. Even in the later part of his career he was pulling out such well picked numbers such as “Try Some Buy Some” (Harrison), “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (Young), “Waterloo Sunset” (Kinks) and “I Know Its Gonna Happen Someday” (Morrissey).
He has also covered Dylan on a number of occasions.
First up is a 1989 standalone single by his band Tin Machine – “Maggie’s Farm”
This was follow in 1994 with a version of “Like A Rolling Stone” appearing on Mick Ronson’s 1994 posthumous “Heaven and Hull” album
Two further Dylan covers have since surfaced, both remain officially unreleased.
First up is “Make You Feel My Love”, I have no information on when this is from or why it was recorded but it is thrilling!
Lastly we have “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”. This was recorded as a potential bonus track for a live album to be called “Live And Well”. Virgin eventually balked at the idea of a live album as the previous studio album “Earthling” hadn’t sold particularly well and the supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theatres. There is talk of the “Live and Well” album finally being released this year (as part of the ongoing series of Bowie album box sets). This would be welcome news for this Bowie and Dylan fan!
I have to be honest here, and admit that my whole reason for writing this article was to present these last two tracks to a wider audience. I love them both as much as I love both artists.
For me, it would be the Champions League Final, high scoring draw, with extra time and penalties…and I will not be drawn on who the winner is!
You might also enjoy
What else is on the site
You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to the 500+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own. You will find it here. It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.
We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.