John Lennon’s relationship with Bob Dylan is like that of a dieter and sweet pastry treats. Sometimes the scathing Beatle simply couldn’t resist purring over the original vagabond’s inspiring output, but other times he went on the attack and snubbed him like a scorned teenager, and beneath it all was a constant fondness whether he indulged and divulged this or not. Lennon was a complex character, to say the least, and his cat-dog approach to Dylan is an indicative element of his enigmatic ways.
As Paul McCartney once said, “He was our idol.” When they first heard the introspective poetry of the folk songsmith their world changed. As John Lennon recalls in The Beatles Anthology: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan] from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”
This influence was particularly huge on the ever-sagacious Lennon. As the bespectacled rocker confessed when discussing ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ on Help!: “That’s me in my Dylan period again. I am like a chameleon, influenced by whatever is going on. If Elvis can do it, I can do it. If the Everly Brothers can do it, me and Paul can. Same with Dylan.”
However, this eulogising soon turned sour for Lennon. “So here we sit, watching the mighty Dylan and the mighty McCartney and the might Jagger slide down the mountain [with] mud and blood in their nails,” he once drawled into a Dictaphone displaying his cutting duality. He continues: “Well, I was listening to the radio,” he begins, “And Dylan’s new single or whatever the hell it is came on.”
The Bob Dylan single that he’s referring to is ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, or as Lennon jokingly calls it ‘Everybody’s Gotta Get Served’, from Dylan’s 1979 record Slow Train Coming, the first in a series of born-again Christian records with heavy biblical overtones. “He wants to be a waiter for Christ,” Lennon adds laughing to himself, thereafter his critique becomes a bit more caustic adding, “The backing is mediocre […] the singing’s really pathetic and the words were just embarrassing.”
Thus, with such a flippant and cutting approach to art, it is no surprise that he prefers Dylan when he exhibits a similar disdainful purge in his own music itself. After all, Lennon was a huge fan of primal scream therapy where you simply yell your woes away, and nothing in popular music howls with quite as much ‘over it’ catharsis as Dylan’s ultimate post-breakup anthem, ‘Positively 4th Street’.
Taken from Lennon’s personal jukebox, the Beatle kindly came up with a KB Discomatic of his 40 favourite tracks and this Dylan epic is one that features alongside his early favourites by the likes of Little Richard and Gene Vincent. For Lennon, the song had a similar impact as did on Joni Mitchell who stated: “There came a point when I heard a Dylan song called ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and I thought ‘oh my God, you can write about anything in songs’. It was like a revelation to me.”
And therein marked the second half of Lennon’s discography when holding hands was traded for an approach that ran a little closer to the mantra of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher very much on Lennon’s radar, who once stated: “The inexpressible depth of music so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being.” Dylan’s anthem is so utterly unabashed, and you could apply that same praise to much of Lennon’s latter output.