Released: 17 November 1971
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Rick Wakeman: piano
Woody Woodmansey: drums
‘Song For Bob Dylan’ was recorded by David Bowie for his fourth album, Hunky Dory. It bemoans Dylan’s decision to surrender his status as a generational spokesman, and pleads for a return of the protest singer of old.
Dylan had adopted a lower profile towards the end of the 1960s, burnt out after his groundbreaking releases and game-changing live appearances of 1965 and ’66. He opted for a quieter life in New York state, and was notably absent from the rising protests against the Vietnam War.
In 1970, Country Joe & the Fish released the song ‘Hey Bobby’, which asked “Where you been? We missed you out on the streets”. That year, the Dylan Liberation Front was formed in New York, the aim of which was to “Free Bob Dylan from himself”.
Bowie added his voice to the chorus, lamenting that “we lost your train of thought/Your paintings are all your own” – a reference to Dylan’s critically-lambasted 1970 album Self Portrait. His decision to address Dylan by his real name (“Now hear this, Robert Zimmerman”) echoed John Lennon’s 1970 iconoclastic manifesto ‘God’: “I don’t believe in Zimmerman/I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me”.
Dylan’s influence had been evident throughout much of Bowie’s eponymous second album, yet by 1971 he was keen to offer more than pastiche. The influence of the Velvet Underground was evident – Bowie’s chorus (“Here she comes/Here she comes/Here she comes again”) is a portmanteau of their titles ‘There She Goes Again’ and ‘Here She Comes Now’.
On 4 May 1970, during a recording session for The Man Who Sold The World, Swedish journalist Bosse Hansson interviewed Bowie at Trident Studios in London. Clearly impressed by what he had heard, Hansson told Bowie: “You are going to be the Bob Dylan of the Seventies.”
Bowie, however, was not flattered by the comparison, telling Hansson: “Dylan is a poor guitarist, his songs are boring and he has a bad voice. Let’s drop the subject.”
He was in a more charitable mood the following year, presenting Dylan as “every nation’s refugee”, a saviour who could “give us back our unity… our family”.
Yet in his descriptions of the Hunky Dory songs, used for promotional purposes, he distanced himself from the warm sentiments, summing up the song with the words: “This is how some see B.D.”
Bowie’s title was inspired by ‘Song To Woody’, Dylan’s 1962 tribute to Woody Guthrie. In 1976 Bowie suggested that his song was a musical manifesto of sorts, and heralded his own rock icon status.
There was a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm in the album that reflected my thinking at the time. There’s even a song – ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. 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. Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.
Melody Maker, 28 February 1976
Bowie crossed paths with Dylan several times in the Seventies and Eighties, although relations between the two were never strong. In 1976, in a pugnacious mood while on tour in Detroit, Bowie told a Melody Maker reporter: “I’m not a great Dylan fan. I think he’s a prick, so I’m not that interested.”
‘Song For Bob Dylan’ was one of the songs performed by Bowie during his first Glastonbury Festival appearance on 23 June 1971. It remained in his set during the first legs of the Ziggy Stardust Tour, but was abandoned in mid-1972.
In France, the song was the b-side of Bowie’s 1972 single ‘Changes’.
A demo of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ was released in the 2022 box set Divine Symmetry, along with a BBC radio performance and a live version from September 1971.
The first public outing of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ was in a BBC recording for the Radio 1 show In Concert, presented by John Peel.
The show was recorded at the BBC Paris Studio in London on 3 June 1971, and first broadcast on 20 June.
The only thing I remember about that song is we did it on the John Peel show and I couldn’t remember a section of that song and it was driving me crazy. I had so many songs to learn within a short period of time. We were rehearsing ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ at the BBC and I kept getting this one section wrong. I remember sitting backstage at the BBC with my guitar right up against my ear so I could hear it practicing it over and over and over again until I got it right. [laughs] When we did it live I got it right. [laughs] But it was a nightmare song for me to learn it.
Kooks, Queen Bitches And Andy Warhol, Ken Sharp
Bowie was accompanied by the Spiders From Mars, plus rhythm guitarist Mark Carr-Pritchard, and additional singers George Underwood, Dana Gillespie, and Geoff MacCormack. Each of the singers took lead vocals on a song: on ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ it was George Underwood. According to Bowie’s introduction, at this stage the song was known as ‘Song For Bob Dylan – Here She Comes’.
Did you know that David wrote ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ for me? We recorded it in the studio but it was never released. Just a bit of trivia. The version I did of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ was recorded just after he wrote it. I had been a big Dylan fan ever since David first played me The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album.
Kooks, Queen Bitches And Andy Warhol, Ken Sharp
Also recorded during the BBC show was ‘Looking For A Friend’, which shares a similar chord structure and rhythm to ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. Both performances were released on the 2022 box set Divine Symmetry.
In the studio
Recordings of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ bookended the Hunky Dory sessions.
It was the first song attempted on 8 June 1971, the first of the sessions. It proved troublesome, however, and was subject to various remakes until the final version was laid down on 6 August, the last day of recording.
The only thing I can think to say about this is that I used some room mic on Ronno’s guitar.
Five Years (1969-1973) book