During arguably David Bowie’s break out album, Hunky Dory, the soon-to-be Starman wrote an ode to a hero. ‘A Song for Bob Dylan’ would feature on the singer’s 1971 LP and become a unique moment in Bowie’s career. Rather than a song designed to lavish praise and adoration on the freewheelin’ troubadour, this track was crafted to make a statement.
Bowie himself once highlighted the song’s significance in a 1976 piece in Melody Maker, in which he 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.”
The singer continued: “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, later showing his true affections for Dylan.
While it would be easy to assume that Bowie, therefore, saw Dylan as a contemporary to be competed with, the truth is, Bowie has always held a deep appreciation for Dylan. He’s heaped praise on the unique position Dylan is in when performing live as well as complimenting his writing too when he said in 1997: “His albums have a great class to them, even those albums where he is actually playing songs of long-dead blues singers. His writing, his song texts, leave me speechless. “
Below, there are three occasions when Bowie took the songs of his hero, Bob Dylan and recharged them with his unique star power. Paying tribute and making the songs his own, here we have three times David Bowie covered Bob Dylan perfectly.
David Bowie’s 3 Bob Dylan covers:
‘Maggie’s Farm’ – Tin Machine
Perhaps our favourite of the three covers noted below, Bowie’s band, Tin Machine, deliver an absolutely rip-roaring version of Dylan’s classic ‘Maggie’s Farm’. First performed at La Cigale in Paris, Tin Machine would eventually release the song as a full-blown cover as part of a self-titled double A-side.
Released on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s 1965 ruminations on a crumbling society, ‘Maggie’s Farm is comprised of fast-paced lyricism and an unstoppable wit that’s often cited as a precursor to rap, this style truly sets the tone for the rest of the album and marked out Dylan as a unique force.
By 1989, Bowie was still being his unique self, creating new soundscapes different from the last and pushing himself creatively. It was this desire that led him to Tin Machine and one of his most advantageous artistic periods. This cover of a Dylan classic is the perfect metaphor for his searing talent.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – David Bowie and Mick Ronson
As part of Mick Ronson’s final solo record, Heaven and Hull, Bowie jumped onto the cover of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1965 classic. Never shy to show his admiration for Dylan, Bowie famously wrote a song in tribute, or perhaps more accurately, directly aimed at the great man where he would sing: “Now hear this Robert Zimmerman, though I don’t suppose we’ll meet.”
“I think he hates me,” Bowie once said in an interview after their first meeting. However, the years would go by, and mutual respect would develop between the two. While it may not reside high on some of Bowie’s best vocal work, it’s the connection that is happening both behind the scenes and on centre stage.
A friendship rekindling and an adoration that has gone back decades brought together in unison.
‘Trying to Get to Heaven’
Newly released as part of the 2021 celebration of Bowie’s birthday, five years after his death, ‘Trying to Get to heaven’ has been polished up into a truly impressive piece of work. Beginning with a dark sky and an ashen outlook, Bowie can’t help himself but re-jig Dylan’s original circular narrative into something a little more linear.
By cutting Dylan’s second verse and moving the fourth and fifth into something a little more rushed, Bowie builds tension and pace with every note. Soon enough, as the desperation reaches fever pitch, Bowie commits to the song and, seemingly, never let go. While it is up for debate who does the song better, there can be no doubt that Bowie’s version is bristling with urgency.