When the counterculture movement came roaring into existence, Hunter S. Thompson played the zeitgeist out in prose. “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right,” he wrote, “that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.” At the forefront of this victory march was a musical explosion that changed the world, if not in a legislative sense, then at least in a drive for liberation. As Hunter S. Thompson’s fellow literary outlaw, William S. Burroughs once wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
It would seem now, that few folks in that present moment felt the impactful force of music quite like Thompson. He had a gauge on culture and music raced his pen along. “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio,” he wrote.
Therefore, it seems befitting that his opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sports the inscription: “To Bob Dylan for Mr Tambourine Man.” The song itself is a meta ode to music, depicting a night under a chandelier of stars in New Orleans where Dylan refuses to acquiesce to the beckon of banal bedtime and juices life down to the pith, high on aural heaven and perhaps plenty of other things, amid the sort of night that you would bottle up as a memory if only it didn’t prove so hard to recollect come the morning.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that another forebearer of counterculture in the form of David Crosby would also opt for the track as his favourite Dylan anthem. “Appropriately enough,” he said himself, “my favourite is ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. Our manager knew Bob’s manager [when I was in the Byrds], and got an early tape of Bob singing this thing with another folk singer. It was really terrible, it was a really bad demo. They were out of tune and they were all screwed up. It was absolutely nonsense. But we heard these words: ‘To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.’ We were entranced,” he told Stereogum.
In the anthem, Dylan seems to cram the words into a beauteous melody without ever breaking stride. In fact, he ties in a tirade of musical triumph so effortlessly that it would seem he has lassoed the lyrics right out of the floating ether. As Crosby reflects: “Bob is a freaking wonderful poet. He’s a really skilful, inspired poet. His handling of words at that point in his life, is about as good as anybody is, period. That’s what really struck me. Musically, it’s a really simple old tune. It’s no problem. But the lyrics are stunning.”
The song became a huge hit for The Byrds, so much so that some less scrupulous fans believe they actually wrote it all along, however, Crosby opines that their hit also had a huge impact on Dylan. He came to hear us do the song. It was a crucial moment in Bob’s life. I don’t think he had heard anyone play his stuff electric before that. I’m pretty sure. We were the first ones. When we played ‘Tambourine Man’ for him, you could hear the gears going in his head, man,” he continued.
Dylan and Crosby would remain friends to this day, although Crosby would be quick to add that he is still no closer to knowing the man beneath the gingham. Like the song itself, Dylan is a multifaceted character. There is truth even in his most fantastical statements, but it is a twisted reality. As Dylan says himself: “I’m not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ really isn’t a fantasy. There’s substance to the dream. You have to have seen something or have heard something for you to dream it.”
To this day Dylan relishes in that air of mystery. “He doesn’t welcome you in with open arms and show you who Bob is,” his friend Crosby explained. “He likes being mysterious. He likes being oblique. And he’s smart enough to pull it off. He’s a very interesting guy to be friends with. Very interesting.”