Bob Dylan and Neil Young have been excellent friends for a long time. First duetting together in the mid-70s, the duo has often covered one another’s songs and shared many a good time on stage. It has been a friendship built on mutual respect and craft, with both championing a folk-rock style that saw them excel as the voices of their generations. But there’s one Neil Young song that Dylan has always hated.
Bob Dylan is undoubtedly one of the most influential musicians in history. The freewheelin’ troubadour broke ground with his folk styling and narrative songwriting and quickly gained fame, fortune and widespread notoriety. He eventually chucked it all in when he ‘went electric’. The trouble with carving out a path of success for yourself is that more often than not, using your blueprints, many will find a similar way through to the holy grail. Of course, there were singer-songwriters before Dylan, but none caught the spotlight quite like Mr Zimmerman, and it encouraged many others to get themselves centre stage too.
It meant that a sudden influx of folk-rock acts was being snapped up by record labels across the country, providing Dylan with ample competition for his folk-rock crown. On the whole, the singer took it in his stride, but soon enough, he became impatient with what he saw as deliberate copying of his work and style. During the sixties, many people followed Dylan’s roadmap to success, not just in their style but in their songwriting, too, with The Beatles being the most famous adopters of his personal narrative structure for songs—something the band were happy to acknowledge.
As the seventies broke and Dylan’s initial impact was becoming buried in the collective consciousness, Dylan grew a little more impatient with his influence not being as widely acknowledged as it should be. One song, in particular, pushed Dylan over the edge, “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’,” the singer told SPIN.
The song is one of Young’s biggest hits, hitting the number one spot on the Billboard 100 and making Neil Young the first Canadian to do so. But for Dylan, the closeness of the track to his own style, now a little less wanted than before, was too similar: “I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me’,” he added.
Vocally, of course, Young’s tone is far removed from Dylan’s changeable output but the similarities in style are there for all to see and hear. That may have something to do with the song’s conception because, as it turns out, Young was never really a fan of the song either—despite its success or perhaps, because of it. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” wrote Young in the liner notes for Decades. In reference to the ‘ditch trilogy’ of albums that followed he said, “Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
‘Heart of Gold’ has a habit of splitting Neil Young fans down the middle. Either its a song built on deeply rich sentiment and the simplicity of its metaphor (mining for a heart of gold) or a commercially driven platitude akin to a Hallmark card. Whatever side you pick just know that not only does Bob Dylan hate the biggest song of Young’s career but Neil Young does too.