re-examining Song for bob dylan by david bowie

I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:

Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words in truthful vengeance
Could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
Put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

You gave your heart to every bedsit room
At least a picture on my wall
And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them why they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone

Ah, Here she comes …

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Ah, Here she comes …

In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.

I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.

I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.

That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?

An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work

As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.

Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.

Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:

“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.

"I realise now he was saying goodbye."

I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.

Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.

The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.

Song for Bob Dylan

Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.

Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.

Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”

In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?

A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:

"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"

There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.

Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”

In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.

Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.

Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.

What about the final couplet:

You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?

Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather stay here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.

Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.

I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.

Final thoughts

Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.

I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.

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