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Music

Exploring the Bob Dylan songs written about Vincent van Gogh paintings

@TomTaylorFO

Bob Dylan is certainly an artist who understood the value of mystique. “I’m never going to become rich and famous,” he said in 1962 prior to the release of his debut record. He then continued to lie through his teeth throughout the Folksingers Choice radio show, telling the kindly, unsuspecting host that he ran away to be with the carnival where he worked as a young boy for six years. 

Whether or not he meant his dismissal of fortunes that way, you could certainly play it off as an artist declaring that he was in the craft for the love of it and the love of it alone. This is a notion that has often been missed when it comes to Vincent van Gogh as people wrongfully bemoan that the false light of fame evaded him throughout his career. Nevertheless, the problems the lowly painter faced certainly added to his oeuvre.

The perfect paradigm for this came to the fore when his paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1935. This was the chance of a lifetime for the art elite to witness their hero’s creations. However, the majority of the public were more concerned with a morbid fascination with his severed ear. Thus, the show attracted monster crowds numbering more than 123,000 visitors.

Tracing the legacy of Vincent van Gogh’s ear

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With vast crowds gasping at the chance to witness the art of a mad man who heard the world in mono, it was difficult for true art fiends to fully analyse his works. Thus, an annoyed art hipster named Hugh Troy set about moulding a piece of dried beef into an ear-like shape. He then placed it in a velveteen box, snuck into MoMA one evening, and hung the fake ear in the gallery above a plaque proclaiming that it belonged to the late artist. The next day the masses swarmed around the hoax artefact, and the true fans were able to analyse his brushstrokes in peace.

Albeit, Van Gogh’s legacy may have been inadvertent, Dylan crafted his own enigmatic aura from the get-go and similarly, crowds soon flocked to see the original vagabond who came from nowhere and was heading somewhere unknown. At the time that he was weaving this mystic persona into place, he was also delving into the history of the arts revelling in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the likes. 

Whether or not Van Gogh’s curious tale proved to be an influence at the time is hard to tell, but he certainly admired the late expressionist. That much is clear from his first unreleased demo in honour of him titled ‘Spuriously Seventeen Windows (The Painting by Van Gogh)’. This came to light only a few days after he finished the third of his electric masterpieces, Blonde on Blonde, thanks to the bootleg series Cutting Edge 1965-1966

In this scratchy, dogeared demo he croaks: “When I’d ask why the painting was deadly / Nobody could pick up my sign / ‘Cept for the cook, she was always friendly / But she’d only ask, ‘What’s on your mind?’ / She’d say that especially when it was raining / I’d say ‘Oh, I don’t know’ / But then she’d press and I’d say, ‘You see that painting? / Do you think it’s been done by Van Gogh?’”

The recording is believed to come from the same Denver hotel room, where many of the demos of the period come from as Dylan chilled with Robbie Robertson. Nevertheless, a few weeks later a motorbike accident would send him into a lengthy hiatus during which the song was long forgotten. 

However, nine years later another ode to the painter arose. While Dylan was on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, he unleashed another DGDDGD classic with ‘Vincent Van Gogh’. During the one-time performance, he was joined by Bob Neuwirth, and he sang: “I’d like to tell you a story / of a man you might know / His parents all called him Vincent / his last name was Van Gogh.” 

The little ditty that tells the tale of Van Gogh’s madness, artistic splurge and death in double-quick time with six four-line verses sadly didn’t live on beyond that one live show, but fortunately, it was recorded and hints at how two separate artists saw the world through their art and painted or played their own stories into existence. 

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