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Music

The classic punk song that Bob Dylan wishes he wrote

@TomTaylorFO

What is a punk anyway? Well, you look it up in the dictionary, and you’re greeted with the blunt definition of “a worthless person or a criminal”. So, it’s easy to see why the fellow once said, ‘A punk, now that’s a name that nobody would self-apply where Bob Dylan comes from, but then there’s a lot about punk that doesn’t make a lot of sense, maybe that’s why the whole thing is so darned interesting’. 

Now, as some of you might have noticed, this here introduction is an adapted take on the opening stanza of The Big Lebowski—a film whereby a narrator called The Stranger is befuddled by the whys and wherefores of The Dude, only to find that ultimately, they are simply different sides of the same coin. 

Dylan might not be a punk in the mohawk sense of the word, but the original vagabond embodied the ethos in every other way. He burst into the folk scene, marching to the beat of his own drum, and continued not to care one iota about what anybody thought, until, well, today it would seem. As the actor Edward Norton recently opined: “He was more punk rock than anybody.” 

When Dylan got a taste of the comforts of fame, he hurled it back at it his fans by obliterating the near-Amish ideals of folk and pioneering an adrenalised electric brand of the genre. As Patti Smith once said: “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas.”

Continuing: “I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” In short, punk made sure that having something to say was more important than how you said it, and Dylan certainly embodied that ideal over a decade before the event. 

Thus, with that out of the way, it makes it easier for me to declare with confidence that Dylan and the legendary Johnny Thunders were simply different faces of the same coin. The original vagabond had snarled into a separate incarnation—one clad in drainpipe trousers and a jacket made of meat rather than gingham. And much like The Stranger and The Dude, after a few curt glances, they certainly saw eye to eye. 

Johnny Thunders went on to cover Dylan’s classic counterculture anthem, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. And according to an interview with New York Dolls’ Syl Sylvain at the end of the biography Looking for Johnny, Dylan once told the rocker that he wishes that he had written the Thunders classic ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’. While Dylan has never formally ratified this claim himself, it’s far from a stretch of the imagination that Dylan may well have ‘dug’ the viscerally raw pine for love. 

(Credit: Beth Herzhaft)

In fact, the symmetry between the two is almost spiritually mystic. While some folks like Joni Mitchell have accused Dylan of downright plagiarism over the years, we prefer the Nick Cave mantra when it comes to such matters: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”

Well, Johnny Thunders also abides by this creative rock ‘n’ roll law. “To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you,” Cave continues. “In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.” For ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’, Thunders stole the title from the decidedly uncool TV show The Honeymooners and made it into perhaps the greatest punk song ever written. So cool, in fact, that even Dylan wishes he could steal it off of late punk pioneer. 

And if you want to imagine how the track might have sounded if Dylan had gotten his way and snatched it from the floating ether before Thunders managed to get his grubby mitts on it, then you have to look no further than Thunders’ defining version of the anthem recorded in Paris on his Hurt Me record. 

Now, Paris is no place for punks. So what Johnny Thunders was doing there is anyone’s guess. In the city of love, luminosity and four macaroons for a mortgageable fee, he must have looked like a Kangaroo in the Arctic. And just like that misplaced marsupial, his being there raises some unanswerable questions, but it also spawned an underrated masterpiece.

What remains from his time there, like some bonafide relic that has archaeologists scratching their heads, is his stunning acoustic album, Hurt Me. While acoustic and Thunders might form a dichotomy akin to Ray Charles behind the wheel of a Ferrari, the record is a perfect paradigm of his output and, in turn, punk as a whole.

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Much like his time in Paris, little is known about the album save for the fact that it seems to have been recorded in a single day simply to pay for rent or the mephedrone he was buying to try and wean his way off of heroin. In short, if punk was a DIY middle finger to helpless circumstances, then you can’t get more punk than Hurt Me — and by turns, it has never seemed more heartfelt. 

Not to glamourise drug addiction by any means, but you can’t help but feel captivated by the record while you listen to it. His performance of ‘You Can’t Put Around a Memory’ is as immediately transportive as a bad smell. With chilled-out tones, he whisks you into the studio and strums away like a one-man orchestra backed by a wave of hard-earned experience. Much like Dylan, his music seems barely written and merely found. This visceral vulnerability and mystic air is a force to behold, like locking eyes with a deer at a hundred paces. 

When the record was done as though presented from the ether, Thunders drifted back into the murk of the obscure life he was living. Some months after the recording of the album, he travelled to Brighton, England, for a few low key shows and ironically, many people at the massively over-sold gigs ended up going home before Thunders even took the stage at around 3am, believing that the DJ spinning the test pressing of the record had actually been his live set.

In the end, Johnny Thunders was an almost mystic enigma. As he said himself, “No one really knows me. People think they know me.” Dylan said something very similar himself when he asserted with a wry smile, “All I can be is me, whoever that is.”

In his musical exploration, mystic tales of Dylan appearing in the studio or on stage like some wind-blown numen, much like Thunders in Paris, are plentiful. “People had told me about this incredible guy writing these incredible songs,” Joan Baez told the BBC when recalling the first time she laid eyes on him in 1961. “He was just scruffier than I had pictured. He was very scruffy. 

But what they said about the songwriting, for me, was true.” And to complete the symmetry, it has to be said that the very songwriting in question helped to inspire the punk song that Dylan wishes he had written in turn. So if Dylan wishes he wrote it, in a way, he helped to anyhow. As he said himself: “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” If that isn’t nice, what is?