Heathcote Williams suggests that the latest recipient of the Nobel prize for literature is guilty of cultural identity theft.
A then unknown and insecure folk singer looking to forge an identity for himself latched onto Dylan’s name and by assuming it, Robert Allen Zimmerman saw a way of securing for himself an as yet unearned significance. Robert Allen Zimmerman had previously toyed with the idea of calling himself ‘Elston Gunn’ and even ‘Jack Frost’ but, as soon as he was introduced to the work of Dylan Thomas, he felt a compulsion to help himself to Dylan’s name in order to further his career as poet-folksinger. Dylan Thomas had at this point achieved near-mythic status in New York’s bohemian and literary circles and so Robert Zimmerman’s appropriation of his name was a glaringly obvious way of his trying to pass himself off as a great poet before he’d begun. As Joni Mitchell put it:
“Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”
Now that the name ‘Dylan’ has become commonplace, Zimmerman’s identity theft may seem to have little significance yet, when Dylan Thomas was born there was, in fact, no one else alive who had Dylan as their first name. The use of the name was a unique coinage and especial to Dylan’s family. Thomas’ father, David John Thomas, known as ‘D.J.’, had chosen it with a scholarly care. D.J. had noted his new-born son’s likeness to the Dylan ail Don, the “curly-haired boy” mentioned in the epic poem, ‘Mabinogion’. The mother of the Dylan ail Don, Arianrhod, gives birth to Dylan through magical means – through a wand that bestows life. D.J. was, in other words, giving his son a name that, outside its passing mention in an obscure piece of 12th century Welsh literature, had, in fact, been unused. Florence Thomas, Dylan’s mother, had her doubts about her husband’s choice since the correct Welsh pronunciation of the name was “Dullan” and Florence was worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” However, despite his wife’s reservations, D.J. had had his way and the aptness of his choice was later borne out in what Dylan Thomas referred to as “that bloody cherub picture”, namely the curly-haired portrait of Dylan by Augustus John.
‘Dylan’, D.J felt, was his son’s ‘soul-name’ – something that tied him to the soil of Wales. It was what T. S. Eliot, in ‘Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats’, called a "deep and inscrutable, singular Name". Dylan’s father had read him poetry as a child – some said he’d even read it to him in the womb – and two thirds of Dylan’s entire life-time’s output was written at 5, Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea the house which D.J. had purchased from his modest earnings as a schoolteacher and to which Dylan would often return for the cwtch (meaning his safe place; his place of affectionate hugs). Dylan’s soul-name would, like a fairy blessing, serve to bestow upon him a kind of ancestral familial magic.
The reason that at the beginning of the 1960s Robert Allen Zimmerman decided to adopt Dylan’s name was patently to help himself to some of Dylan Thomas’ poetic stardust. No reason why not to, some might say, but in an astonishingly short time, through a determined manipulation of the media, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan was able to make certain that, by the end of the decade, it was he whom people would think of at the mention of the name ‘Dylan’ and not Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas, his body barely cold, was to be pushed aside by Bob Dylan although Bob Dylan’s chutzpah would be unable to save him from a satirical jibe from his song-writing rival Paul Simon: “I knew a man, his brain so small/He couldn't think of nothing at all/He's not the same as you and me/He doesn't dig poetry. He's so unhip that/When you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas/Whoever he was/The man ain’t got no culture/But it’s alright, ma/Everybody must get stoned.”
Obviously anyone in the world of entertainment is at liberty to call themselves whatever they wish and Penny Rimbaud of Crass and the Shakespeare Sisters, for example, have hardly dented the significance of either the French poet or of the English bard but Bob Dylan’s case is perhaps different, if only because Robert Zimmerman’s helping himself to Dylan’s name and to something of his cachet has clearly sat so uneasily with the thief himself over the subsequent decades. Furthermore, fans of Dylan Thomas have found the purloining of their hero’s name irksome since there are several elements of Zimmerman-Dylan’s character that would make Dylan Thomas, were he alive, squirm with righteous revulsion. When Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York in January 1961 his driver's license read “Zimmerman.” His birth name was something that he was self-conscious about; he didn't want anyone to discover the truth. He was Bob Dylan. Nothing else. Once when Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, was asked whether his assumed name was pronounced in the same way as Dylan Thomas, he retorted, “no, like Bob Dylan.” The pilfering of the then much more famous poet’s name would bring Bob Dylan an immediate benefit but there was also to be an unforeseen cost. Bob Dylan would find himself increasingly irritated by the amount of times Dylan Thomas’ name would be brought up by interviewers just as he was trying to build up his career and to establish himself as the only person called ‘Dylan’ who mattered – the only ‘Dylan’ whom, in Bob Dylan’s view, anyone should be paying any attention to.
In 1966 he was so riled by it that he allowed himself the pronouncement, “I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me.” It’s unclear quite how he could have believed this to be true since, apart from the fake Dylan’s stealing something of the real Dylan’s poetic kudos, the light-fingered Bob had also been feeling entitled to make free with some of Dylan Thomas’ actual lines. Dylan Thomas was doing rather more for Bob Dylan than the other way round. The phrase, for example, "the chains of the sea" in Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, ‘When the Ship Comes In’, matches the last line of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill: "I sang in my chains like the sea", In an article ‘How Dylan Thomas influenced Bob Dylan’, Alexander Poirer indicates other filchings and stylistic pilferings and suggests, “Lines from Thomas like “Under the windings of the sea/They lying long shall not die windily” sound like they could have been pulled directly from one of Dylan’s songbooks.” And on a record by Steve Goodman, Somebody Else's Troubles, made in September 1972, Bob Dylan contributes some harmony vocals under the pseudonym Robert Milkwood Thomas, echoing the title of Dylan Thomas’s play. Bob Dylan’s parasitic relationship with Thomas was being hidden in plain sight.
His plagiarism is, of course, legendary: the melody for his winsome song “Blowing in the Wind” came directly from an old spiritual “No More Auction Block,” and the song’s central lyric notion was lifted from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. His copyright infringements have been the subject of a remarkable number of lawsuits, notably those brought by the lyricist James Damiano. There have also been allegations of musical plagiarism from Bob Nolan and it’s long been thought that Bob Dylan’s nasal twang was a pastiche of the great vocalist Carter Stanley - of the 1940's Stanley Brothers bluegrass duo. When challenged about plagiarism however Bob Dylan only says dismissively that "Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff." But Bob Dylan’s unrestrained kleptomania would prompt the folk singer Tim Hardin to say of him:
“He's a cold motherfucker, man. He was thinking, he was listening to what everybody said all the time and going, "Uh-hummm, yup," and writing it down in his little photo-fuckin-graphic memory, you know what I mean? Taking pictures of everything and reproducing the whole lick for himself. Then he learned to give somebody else a little credit, by having their picture on the album or something. Fuck him.” In the case of his feeling free to dip into Dylan Thomas’ oeuvre in order to spice up his own work, it occurs that Bob Dylan’s misplaced sense of entitlement may stem from a kind of magical thinking: ‘I have a right to his work since I’ve taken over Dylan’s name.’ In an early Playboy interview, where Bob is invited to discuss his nomenclatural plagiarism, the freshly incarnated ‘Dylan’ lets slip a striking admission:
“Sometimes you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain name. I wouldn't pick a name unless I thought I was that person.”
When the legendary Woody Guthrie was at death's door, young folk musicians would make a pilgrimage to see their hero and to sing with him before his death. Bob Dylan was amongst them and it’s been suggested that he borrowed his vocal style from the dying Guthrie – ghoulishly copying the singer’s slurred speech, the side effect of the illness, Huntington’s disease, that was taking Guthrie's life. However Sidney Carter (author of the cheerfully exuberant hymn ‘The Lord of the Dance’), who met Bob Dylan in London, concluded that, “Dylan Thomas had more influence on Bob Dylan than Woody Guthrie did, with an image of the bard who went forth as a kind of romantic prophet, doomed to an early death.” However it’s worth noting that Bob Dylan didn’t call himself Bob Guthrie. When he made his peculiar statement, “I wouldn't pick a name unless I thought I was that person” he can only have been thinking of Dylan Thomas. But did he really think that he was Dylan Thomas? The flak which Bob Dylan has had to deal with on account of the name change could be thought of as inevitable blowback or even karma.
In order to deal with it he has had to adopt a number of increasingly bizarre coping mechanisms. He’s tried, for example, to give the impression that he’s outgrown Dylan Thomas; he’s implied that he’s a far greater poet than Dylan Thomas ever was, and then confusingly, and almost in the same breath, he’s insisted that there is no connection at all between him and Dylan Thomas. In one recorded comment he seemingly wishes to write Dylan Thomas out of history altogether. Dylan Thomas never existed. There was and there is only Bob Dylan. In an interview with the Chicago Daily News in November 1965 Bob is asked: “What about the story that you changed your name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan because you admired the poetry of Dylan Thomas?” “No, God, no.” Bob Dylan says, “I took Dylan because I have an uncle called Dillion [sic]. I changed the spelling, but only because it looked better. I’ve read some of Dylan Thomas’ stuff and it’s not the same as mine.”
Like other bogus attempts to romanticise his past, namely that he was an orphan, that he jumped freight trains, that he was brought up on an Indian reservation, this was a blatant attempt at deception: ‘Dillion’ was indeed the surname of a family in Hibbing, Robert Allen Zimmerman’s birth-place, but there was certainly no “Dillion” in the Zimmerman family. In a 1978 interview with Playboy magazine, Dylan repeatedly denied taking his stage name from the poet only to be undermined by Paul McCartney. McCartney gives the lie to Bob’s disingenuous denials that there was any connection between the two, “We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him. I am sure that the main influence on both (Bob) Dylan and John was Dylan Thomas. That’s why Bob’s not Bob Zimmerman – his real name.” Hardest to swallow of all of Bob Dylan’s apologetics and one that suggests that his identity theft has unbalanced him altogether is his contention that his original self (Robert Zimmerman) has actually been killed off thanks to a Hell’s Angel (coincidentally called Bobby Zimmerman). in a motorcycle accident and was, according to Bob’s delusional narrative, “transfigured in a religious way.”
In September 1977 the Soviet Literature Gazette dismissed Bob as “nothing more than a money-hungry capitalist now” and when Bob Dylan displays his contempt for a poet whom he says he’s outgrown and when he happily does what Dylan Thomas never did and that is to sell out to any and every commercial outfit and when he does so on an industrial scale, then perhaps it’s tempting to recall Norman Mailer’s harsh verdict on him: “If [Bob] Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.” Joan Baez’s reward for fostering Bob Dylan’s career was betrayal and ridicule. She had introduced Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side,” into a performance of her own and she’d then recorded it on her 1963 album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.” Her generous support gave him credibility in radical circles and the two of them would sing his songs together at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963. Then in July of that year, she’d invite him on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. His biographer, Robert Shelton would write: “Baez, the reigning queen of folk music, had made Dylan the crown prince”. Despite this, Bob Dylan refused to allow her to appear on stage and cold-shouldered her out of his tour; and dumped her during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about him, “Don’t Look Back”. Joan Baez however was cut from a different cloth. When her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 made her an overnight star, she would have the moral integrity to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola.
Bob Dylan by contrast was eager to embrace every opportunity to sell out, to court American capital and to have the troubadour bow to Mammon. Unlike Dylan Thomas who never once sold out – who never ‘shilled’ for anyone –his deadly Doppelganger would prove as keen as mustard to have his voice serve any and every American corporation. Sidney Carter once said, “The word poet means different things to different people. Strange, you can talk about a commercial artist, but you can’t talk about a commercial poet. A poet has to have something holy as well to have genius.” Dylan Thomas once said wistfully but cheerfully that he’d never earned enough from poetry “to feed a goldfinch” and he hadn’t. He left just under a hundred pounds upon his death. The fake Dylan has been voraciously, all-consumingly commercial. Bob Dylan would sing "I Want You" for a commercial for Chobani yogurt; he would sing “Love Sick” for a lingerie company, Victoria's Secret; he’d appear in an ad for the Cadillac Escalade and he’d be shown driving Cadillac’s gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle as he strums, and he’d sing what had been, once upon a time, his generational protest song, "The Times They Are A'Changin'" whilst the advertising company that had hired him projected seductive images designed to convey the virtues of the Bank of Montreal.
Bob Dylan's ad for Chrysler
Bob Dylan’s seemingly insatiable material appetite prompted Joan Baez, his former lover – and along with Pete Seeger and Country Joe McDonald the musical bedrock of the US peace movement – to enquire of him, “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be poor, Bobby?” When he was fourteen Dylan Thomas wrote a poem entitled Clown in the Moon, “I think, that if I touched the earth,/It would crumble;/It is so sad and beautiful,/So tremulously like a dream.” By contrast, the raddled Bob Dylan in his ten-gallon cowboy hat and in his open-topped Chrysler limo stuffed with cash gives the finger to climate change and fondles Chrysler’s remunerative defense contracts as he rides roughshod over that same shared earth, for money. Aldous Huxley once introduced a Stravinsky composition based on a poem of Dylan Thomas’ by quoting a line from Mallarmé which says that “poets purify the dialect of the tribe.” Thomas’ namesake would seem now to be determined that poets should be desacralized and that the language of the tribe be reduced to a money-grubbing sales pitch.
Robert Zimmerman’s cultural theft is to be copyrighted: ‘Dylan’ is to become a brand, set in Wall Street stone. Goldman Sachs, in association with a company called SESAC, have issued bonds in Dylan Inc., bonds that are backed up by the artists’ royalties. You could hardly sell out or be sold out more definitively. Shares in the megastar are to be quoted on the New York stock exchange – here is the ultimate copper-bottomed proof surely that Bob Dylan writes blue-chip poetry. Rock critics and fellow artists have not been slow in showing their contempt: “After decades of carefully manicured deification by Columbia Records,” wrote the music critic Jonny Whiteside, the time has come “to flout indoctrination and examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade-A phony.” Further disdain has come from his fellow songwriter, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, “Dylan's songs are marijuana leftovers. Dylan is the type of person you'd want to punch out at a party.” Bob Dylan started his career at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village; its Manager, Sam Hood, a close friend of Phil Ochs, permitted himself the succinct: “He [Dylan] was such a prick.”
Bob Dylan assumed Dylan Thomas’s name but he took on nothing of Thomas’s character, and far from possessing Dylan Thomas’s magnanimity towards his fellow poets, as attested by Vernon Watkins, it would seem that the fake Dylan was so envious of his rock and roll rivals that, given the opportunity, he’d sadistically torment them. He once reduced the emotionally fragile Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to tears in Max’s Kansas City. Bob, backed up by his roadie, cornered Brian for Bob to tell him that his voice was crap; that his band was no good and that Brian (who’d admired Bob) had no musical talent. When Bob felt that his fellow folk singer Phil Ochs was threatening to overtake him (thanks to Phil Ochs’s rather more trenchant, more issue-based and more radical songs –such as ”, ‘Draft Dodger Rag’ and ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore’, with lines such as, “Even treason might be worth a try/The country is too young to die”) Bob threw Phil Ochs out of his limo in a fit of pique saying ," I can't keep up with Phil. He just gets better.” Happily for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs’ suicide would end the competition that was causing Bob such discomfort. Was his supplying John Lennon with heroin born of a sadistic and envious desire to destroy him? who knows, but Bob Dylan’s coolness and hipsterism is surely no more than a euphemism for a kind of grunting, self-regarding nihilism. Dylan Thomas was most certainly more fun. Years later the myth of Bob Dylan as a counter-cultural icon would finally be exploded. ‘The business of America is business’ declared US President Calvin Coolidge and few would deny that the US’s most successful business is war. Those maintaining that the countercultural values of the sixties had something of the eternal verities about them gulped to see Bob Dylan accepting the Congressional Medal of Freedom from a drone-wielding President who’d just passed the largest defense budget in US history, nay world history. So much for Dylan Thomas’s pacifism, Bob Dylan was now joining the Masters of War club with all the imperial baubles to prove it: the medals and the money and the share portfolios.
Perhaps such misjudgments and sell-out moments can be attributed to excessive drug use, maybe that explains the weird paths that his endless identity quest have led him on, like embracing the racist eliminationist murderer Rabbi Meir Kahane, telling Time magazine,
“He's a really sincere guy. He's really put it all together.”
Nonetheless the trahison des clercs still does its best to establish this grotesque as the US Empire’s national treasure. Here is the distinguished US novelist Joyce Carol Oates on Bob Dylan at sixty: "Dylan" was a self-chosen name in homage to the great, legendarily self-destructive Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose lush, lyric, over-the-top poetry presumably influenced many of Bob Dylan's songs.” Joyce Carol Oates comments that it must have “seemed an act of extraordinary chutzpah” for Robert Zimmerman “to anoint himself with the poet's internationally famous name” but now, forty years later,” Bob Dylan’s fellow American declares with a triumphal and patriotic pride, “Dylan is an American classic whose fame far surpasses that of his namesake, who seems to have entered an eclipse.” The roaring sound of the sea as it rushes up the mouth of Afon Conwy, the River Conway in North Wales, is known as "Dylan's death-groan" and the name refers to the hero of the Mabinogion who drowned, but for a while it could also be taken to refer to the drowning out of Dylan Thomas, “The boisterous broth of a boy” with a voice of gold; the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”, Swansea’s “man of words”.
It was drowned out for several decades by a mercenary American – sneering, scowling, spiteful, and self-regarding; a supreme sell-out with an ugly, grating, amphetamine-fuelled voice and the values of Wall Street. Now, mercifully, things may have come full cycle. During Dylan Thomas’s centenary year it’s been proposed that, much like the Scottish Burns’ Night, there should be a Dylan Day. Should that happen it will be Dylan Thomas who’ll be associated with it rather than Bob Dylan. Dylan Thomas’s namesake was invited to Wales to join in the centenary celebrations due to be held in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Apparently Bob Dylan’s staff expressed polite interest but then, for reasons best known to His Bobness, as he’s known to his more devoted followers, the invitation was declined. No reason was given but Bob Dylan might have had a certain apprehension at the thought of being overshadowed by an inconvenient revenant in the shape of Dylan Thomas, given Thomas’ now revived and much enlarged stature. There is nothing so constant as change and who knows that it’s not Bob Dylan’s turn to suffer an eclipse whilst Wales’s boy of summer steps back into the sunlight, free from the irksome shackles of lladron enaidiau or soul stealers.
This is a version of an article first published earlier this year in INTERNATIONAL TIMES, The Newspaper of Resistance.