David Bowie was always a unique figure. He strived ahead in the 20th century and became one of the leading lights of pop music, reinventing himself time and time again to be rightly revered as a saviour of rock music. He transcended the genre and turned the art of being an icon into a way of life. His wholly singular position in the sphere of music means that very few times was Bowie ever starstruck, or worse, jealous of another artist. All except in the case of Mr Bob Dylan, of course.
Despite their very different approaches to writing, recording and performing music, Bob Dylan and David Bowie have occupied similar spaces for longer than one might guess. Dylan only has about half a decade in the limelight ahead of Bowie and, therefore, many comparisons between the two have been made throughout the subsequent years. While those are rather inconsequential, there is one aspect which Bowie admitted he was always jealous of; Dylan’s sturdy back catalogue.
It’s well known that David Bowie didn’t like to rest on his laurels. The singer was always striving forward and remained determined to advance and evolve artistically all the way up until his sad passing in 2016 when he released the landmark LP Blackstar, an album which fundamentally dealt with his own mortality. It was a facet of his career which saw him reject many of ‘greatest hits’ in the nineties and saw Bowie pursue purer aspects of artistry.
Likewise, for a time at least, Bob Dylan was never a fan of languidly paddling around in his own stream of huge songs. However, by the time Bowie was interviewed in the clip below, Dylan had changed tact and was still making his way around the globe as part of the Never-Ending Tour. For such an extensive tour, Dylan would need to rely on his hefty canon of work, something he claimed to be in the region of 100 songs, to help get him through the more boring nights on stage. With this assertion, Bowie’s jealousy began to pique.
“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.” It certainly fits in with Bowie’s output over these years, ditching the approach of simply churning out the hits and instead focusing on his new music whenever he took the stage.
It’s not the only connection the pair have had, either. Featuring on Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory, the chameleon of rock paid homage to the folk singer but in a curious way. Bowie, never really happy to do things the ordinary way, used the spot on his album to make a point—that point was ‘I’m the leader now’.
It’s not our favourite song on the record as it feels a little too dad-rock but Bowie himself once highlighted the song’s significance in a 1976 piece in Melody Maker. He once recalled: “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.”
He added: “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.” You can’t argue with determination like that and Bowie proved himself right, again and again. Below, watch Bowie admit his jealousy at Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and the song he wrote for the freewheelin’ troubadour.