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Music

When David Bowie paid tribute to Bob Dylan within one of his final masterpieces

@TomTaylorFO

“Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman,” David Bowie sang at the start of his career, “I wrote a song for you.” The Hunky Dory anthem ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ eulogises his hero’s “voice of sand and glue” and words of “truthful vengeance” in a glowing appraisal of the artist who changed the world and stirred a generation of musicians into action. 

Bowie was one of those artists and he never lost sight of the impact that the original vagabond had on him. “It was Bob Dylan who brought a new kind of intelligence to pop songwriting,” he once opined. And he later recognised that Dylan never let up thereafter, “I was green with envy,” he said, “When I heard Bob Dylan’s got about 140 songs to choose from.” Such is the measure of his profuse brilliance, many of the greatest artists of all time have found themselves looking up at his tower of work and marvelling in admiration, amazement and envy. 

The other reason that David Bowie quote is pertinent is that whilst they might seem like disparate artists on the surface, they share a commonality when it comes to their chameleonic songwriting styles. They both adhere to the same ethos of “never play to the gallery,” and it could be argued that Dylan even invented this form of creative iconoclasm. When he plugged in and faced a barrage of Judas chants, he exhibited a devil-may-care punk attitude aeons beyond his years and well ahead of its time.

With this profound sense of freedom to freely muse and snatch a semblance of beauty and understanding from anywhere and everywhere, he has inspired generations of songwriters to be daring and you simply don’t get more daring than Bowie. As Dylan said himself what can be greater than that: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”

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Bowie was inspired right up until the end and on one of his final records, 2013’s The Next Day, he lauded his hero once more with the anthemic masterpiece ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire’. During the song, Bowie transports himself back to the spiritual home of counterculture, Greenwich Village, and serenades Dylan and his fellow folk forebearers Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs after Joan Baez departs the stage in some dingy dive bar that spawned a thousand songs that set the world on fire in an illuminating sense.

The line “When the black girl and guitar, Burn together in hot rage,” might also be a nod towards Odetta, the star who helped to start the whole Greenwich Village movement in the first place. She remained at the forefront of the civil rights movement and stood as a totem for equality throughout her life.

Above all, the song is not merely a celebration of Dylan and his fellow progressive artists, but an example of how Bowie always encompassed as much art as he could in his work. He always had an eye on the past and where music was heading, as he famously said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming,” words that could’ve quite easily been uttered by Dylan’s voice of sand and glue.