Jack White, Van Morrison, Nick Cave: Everyone Wants A Piece Of Bob Dylan
Words By: Sam Pethers | August 12th, 2015
In early May 1965, Bob Dylan performed a string of solo acoustic concerts around England. At just 23, Dylan was already revered as one of the finest songwriters ever. He had released 5 critically acclaimed studio albums and his songs were being covered by just about everyone, including some of the most popular artists in the world.
When he arrived in England, fame was still very new to Dylan and he made the most of it by summoning just about every major British musician at the time to his Savoy Hotel suite in London. The Animals' Alan Price followed him around throughout the tour; The Beatles visited him on the day of his final show; Donovan played songs with him in his hotel room; and Marianne Faithfull hung around with him at the hotel on his days off from touring. No doubt Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would have received an invitation had they not been touring the USA."The man pulls the boat in and extends a hand that has a long thumbnail. His hand in mine feels smooth and cold, but giving. The man, who is Bob Dylan, said something like, 'I like your stuff,' and before I can reply, he turns the boat around and rows back to his trailer" - Nick Cave
Within days of Dylan's tour ending, both the NME and the Record Mirror had contacted those who'd spent time with Dylan. The publications were looking for some insider information on the evasive American, and both Marianne Faithfull and Donovan obliged; Faithfull, though, was much more forthcoming with personal details (read here).
Dylan must have found it difficult to understand his new friends going straight to the press to discuss their interactions with him. After all, he was still pretty new to the whole fame thing.
Faithfull and Donovan going to the media may go a long way toward explaining the guarded and reclusive nature of Bob Dylan seen since. Whilst on tour nowadays, for example, Dylan very rarely interacts with the opening acts. He generally waits until it's raining to go out site-seeing and only once every 20 years or so will he hold a press conference.
Wayne Coyne, of American band The Flaming Lips, complained about Dylan's reclusive behaviour in a Rolling Stone interview a couple of years ago. Dylan's name came up because he had recently performed with a friend of Coyne's - Jim James of My Morning Jacket - along with Wilco and Richard Thompson during the Americanarama tour of 2013. According to Coyne, Dylan didn't meet with any of the support acts on the tour, instead fulfilling the role of bitter old recluse: "I think Bob Dylan’s been kind of a curmudgeon and I think there’s a contingency of people out there who don’t want to say that. And I say, why not? We pick on Miley Cyrus, who's 17 years old. We pick on her, but someone like Bob Dylan, we just protect him even though he’s sitting there, in all actuality, not really trying very hard."
Coyne further remarked on how Dylan avoided any contact with other bands backstage at a festival in Kilkenny, Ireland. Apparently, he had expected Dylan to be "amongst all the trailers jamming his acoustic guitar trying to keep warm with us."Faithfull and Donovan going to the media may go a long way toward explaining the guarded and reclusive nature of Bob Dylan seen since.
Despite Coyne's comments, there's much evidence to suggest Dylan's respect for those he invites on tour. On the 2013 Americanarama tour mentioned above, Dylan was sure to tip his hat to all three of his guest artists. If inviting them on tour with him wasn't gesture enough, Dylan invited both Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Jim James on stage with him on multiple occasions, performing "The Weight" and "Twelve Gates To The City". Although Dylan didn't invite curtain raiser Richard Thompson on stage during the tour, he did show his respect in another way: at the show in Clarkston, Michigan, Dylan performed Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". Unfortunately, Thompson had already left the venue for the night. Despite missing the performance, however, Thompson later said that the gesture was more of an honor than when he received an OBE from the Queen of England.
Thompson was asked by an interviewer about Dylan on the tour, to which he responded, "He was very nice to me". The interviewer then asked, "What did he tell you?" Thompson replied, "Oh, that's a secret."
In 2006, Dylan invited three bands to share the support slot on his US/Canada tour: Foo Fighters, The Raconteurs and Kings Of Leon. Dylan didn't invite any of the bands to share the stage with him this time around, but he was sure to pay his respects to his guests in other ways. On the final night of the Kings Of Leon leg of the tour, the band was backstage after their performance when Dylan suddenly turned up in their dressing room unannounced. "Man, I'm so depressed, I just wanna call those other bands and tell em' to stay home. I want y'all to finish the tour with me," said Dylan. "What's that last song you played?" Lead singer Caleb Followill replied, "Trani." "That's a hell of a song." said Dylan.
Dave Grohl tells a similar story from the tour, though he was actually summoned to meet Dylan backstage. Grohl commented that it was like a scene from the film Goodfellas, as he was led down a long dark hallway where he found Dylan standing up against the wall in black leather pants, black boots and a black hoody. "Hey what's that song, Everlong?" said Dylan. "Man you've gotta show me that song, I wanna play that.""Look, he's the best at what I do, I know that, and so do my heroes. I got to watch my heroes meet him and saw how they reacted, whether it was Joe Strummer or Tom Waits. I'm so stoked to meet Tom Waits, and he's so nervous to meet my dad." Jakob Dylan
His subtle nods don't stop at his support acts. In 1997, Dylan titled his new album Time Out Of Mind, which he lifted from a line in the Warren Zevon song, "Accidentally Like A Martyr". Instead of crediting Zevon in the liner notes, he performed "Accidentally Like A Martyr" at concerts throughout his Love & Theft tour in 2002.
Modern artists have adopted Dylan's subtle nods. In 2003, Detroit band The White Stripes included a song on their album, Elephant, which had unmistakable similarities to Dylan's 1975 song, "Meet Me In The Morning". Rather that crediting Dylan on "Ball & Biscuit", Jack White instead gave Dylan songwriting credit by using lyrics from his 1965 song "Highway 61 Revisited": "It's quite possible that I'm your third man girl, but it's a fact that I'm the seventh son." The reference was not lost on Dylan, so in 2004 he invited White to perform "Ball & Biscuit" as the final song of his concert in Detroit. Three years later, Dylan again invited White onstage in Nashville to perform "Meet Me In The Morning", which is the only time Dylan has ever played it live.
You have to remember how strange it is, when you really think about it, that any of these anecdotes made it to press. The fact that they did tells us something important: that no other artist in living memory has had every single word they say over-analyzed to the extent that Bob Dylan has. The fact that Dylan calling out "Hey Jeff" to the Wilco singer backstage made headlines should give you some indication of what I'm talking about. If those words had come from anyone else - Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson - we probably never would have heard about it.
Jakob Dylan, (Dylan's son and lead singer of The Wallflowers), has watched his father meet people throughout his life. In 2005, Jakob recalled in an interview, "Look, he's the best at what I do, I know that, and so do my heroes. I got to watch my heroes meet him and saw how they reacted, whether it was Joe Strummer or Tom Waits. It was peculiar. I'm so stoked to meet Tom Waits, and he's so nervous to meet my dad. It's a head spin."
Nick Cave, one of the world's finest living songwriters and front-men, described meeting Dylan to MOJO magazine:
"It was raining heavily and I was standing in the doorway of my trailer in the band enclosure, watching the water rise quicker and quicker, so that now it was running into my trailer. There was a crack of thunder, I looked up and saw a man in a hooded windcheater rowing a tiny boat across the enclosure toward me. The water is now up to my knees. The man pulls the boat in and extends a hand that has a long thumbnail. His hand in mine feels smooth and cold, but giving. The man, who is Bob Dylan, said something like, “I like your stuff,” and before I can reply, he turns the boat around and rows back to his trailer."
In February 2010, Dylan agreed to perform at the White House. Barack Obama said of the event:
"Here’s what I love about Dylan: he was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal. Usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me. Usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played “The Times They Are A-Changin”, a beautiful rendition - the guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement and the song sounds completely different - finishes the song, steps off the stage… comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves… That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise."
Still, Dylan's self-protection is somewhat harder to explain. On a tour in 1998 with Van Morrison, his friend of 30 years, Dylan avoided Morrison to the point where his road manager finally pleaded, "He's got to talk to Van!"
Maybe not talking to Van is going a little too far, even by Dylan's standards. But the point is that so many people have burned Bob throughout his career, selling the story of hanging out with him to the press, that he's been pushed toward reclusion to pre-empt the inevitable betrayal. He never wanted to talk, never wanted to be the spokesperson for anything, he just wanted to write and sing his songs. And yet, a talker and spokesperson is precisely what the press turned him into after taking account of those people who'd hung out with him. "Off the record" has simply never applied where Bob Dylan is concerned and the only way he's found to combat that is to shut up completely. As such, he's clearly felt a need to express his appreciation of others in different ways.
So while Dylan may be guarded, sometimes perhaps a little too guarded, it is hard to interpret him as rude or disrespectful when you actually know the history.
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