Whilst clearly admiring each others’ work, 1960s icons Bob Dylan and John Lennon also occasionally found themselves amid friendly creative quarrels and petty spats. Dylan became well acquainted with The Beatles throughout the latter half of the 1960s, but his first criticism came following the release of the Fab Four’s 1965 album Rubber Soul.
Dylan was under the impression that Lennon had ripped off his trademark style in the classic track ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’. Referring to the Rubber Soul track in an interview shortly after its release, Dylan opined with notable asperity: “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny and Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it.”
Dylan hid his retaliation within the 1966 track’ 4th Time Around’, which famously took aim at Lennon with the lyrics: “I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”. This friendly feud showed no sign of ending here as it spilt over into the 1970s following the split of The Beatles.
Lennon released his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, in 1970. Despite receiving mixed reviews upon its release, the album is now considered among the greatest post Beatles solo albums with classic tracks like ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Mother’ and ‘God’.
In ‘God’, Lennon addresses God as “a concept by which we measure our pain.” Later on in the song, he lists some of the other things that he doesn’t believe in. As he chants his Descartian list, Lennon rejects magic, I Ching, the Bible, tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, mantra, the Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Bob Dylan (using his real name Zimmerman) and the Beatles.
Lennon’s strange list contains some understandable items, such as Jesus and magic, but many of the former Beatle’s fans were surprised to see the likes of Dylan and Elvis on the list.
In December 1970, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, sat down with Lennon and Yoko Ono to discuss the new album.
Addressing ‘God’, Wenner asked Lennon, “How did you put together that litany in ‘God’?”
Lennon asked: “What’s litany?”
Wenner clarified: “‘I don’t believe in magic,’ that series of statements?”
Lennon replied: “Well, like a lot of the words, it just came out of me mouth. ‘God’ was put together from three songs almost. I had the idea that ‘God is the concept by which we measure pain,’ so that when you have a word like that, you just sit down and sing the first tune that comes into your head and the tune is simple, because I like that kind of music and then I just rolled into it. It was just going on in my head and I got by the first three or four, the rest just came out. Whatever came out.”
Later in the interview, Wenner asked Lennon why he chose to refer to Bob Dylan by his rejected birthname, Zimmerman, instead of Dylan.
Lennon explained that it was “because Dylan is bullshit. Zimmerman is his name. You see, I don’t believe in Dylan and I don’t believe in Tom Jones, either in that way. Zimmerman is his name. My name isn’t John Beatle. It’s John Lennon. Just like that.”
It appears that Lennon’s list was born from a range of different feelings, and therefore, he isn’t, as some might have derived, comparing Hitler to the likes of Dylan, Elvis or Jesus. In the song, Lennon seems instead to be almost dispassionately listing whatever came to his head in an effort to illustrate his solipsistic outlook.
While Lennon explained that he used ‘Zimmerman’ because Dylan was a false stage name, it seems reasonable to derive that Lennon included Dylan in the list with a hint of malice following their feud in the ’60s.
Listen to John Lennon’s ‘God’ below.