Almost everything in David Bowie’s shapeshifting career changed as he glided between personas, but one thing that remained the same throughout was his love of Bob Dylan, who was a muse that he turned to over 40-years apart.
The first time Bowie referenced Dylan was on his 1971 track ‘Song For Bob Dylan’, a number that hardly hid the admiration he held for the star of Greenwich Village. The Hunky Dory album track may not be a stand-out moment from the record, but it amplifies the high regard that Bowie held for Dylan.
“There’s even a song – ‘Song for Bob Dylan‘ – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock,” Bowie later said about the track to Melody Maker in 1976. “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.”
Adding: “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.”
He even spoke another time about why Dylan’s vast repertoire made him ‘green with envy’. “50 songs isn’t enough, I’ve realised,” Bowie told the interviewer as they discussed his setlist and how he kept himself interested on stage all these years. “I heard, and I was green with envy, Dylan’s got like 140 songs he chooses from [to make a setlist]. I can see that you’ve got to build up to that because even when you’ve got 50, there are some that you’re gone get a bit fed up with faster than others.”
In 2013, Bowie returned with his first album in a decade, The Next Day, and paid tribute to Bowie once more. ‘(You Will) Set the World On Fire’ sees The Starman dust off his storytelling muscles and tell a tale set in the halcyon days of Greenwich Village.
The track captures the ambition of the soon to be household names that filled up the coffee shops of the Village on a nightly basis before the likes of Joan Baez, David Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, and of course, Bob Dylan, would go on to greater things. Bowie took New York to his heart, and it became his adopted hometown, so it was only right that he paid homage to such an important part of its cultural heritage.
On the opening verse, Bowie sings: “Midnight in the Village, Seeger lights the candles, From Bitter End to Gaslight, Baez leaves the stage, Ochs takes notes, When the black girl and guitar, Burn together hot in rage, You’ve got what it takes, You say too much.”
Meanwhile, later in the track, Bowie goes: “Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written, Van Ronk says to Bobby ‘she’s the next real thing’.”
There’s something impossibly magic about that period in Greenwich Village that will never quite be replicated. Everything that was going on in the scene was groundbreaking, and artists felt like anything was possible; the sky truly was the limit. Bowie beautifully paints a picture of Greenwich and makes you feel like you’re in amongst all the hustle and bustle as if it’s 1963.