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Bob Dylan: fake, cultural thief, shameless and now… Nobel Prize winner

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Bob Dylan: fake, cultural thief, shameless and now… Nobel Prize winner

Heathcote Williams doesn’t join the mountain of praise heaped on Bob Dylan for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.


The title of Heathcote Williams’s memoir, Of Dylan Thomas and his Deaths, reflects the author’s belief that the great Welsh poet died twice, not once. He writes, “It can be said that he was to suffer no less than two deaths at American hands.”The first death, contrary to the accepted claim that he died of a drinking bout, refers to his “mistreatment with morphine by an incompetent and flamboyant doctor” in New York, who misdiagnosed his condition and “brought on the coma from which he would never recover.”

The second death came in the form of cultural theft when a famous imposter — namely Bob Dylan — stole his identity by exploiting his name, then denied it, and lied about it. “Less than a decade after his death,” Williams writes, the poet’s identity “was eerily pilfered so that the Dylan Thomas that everyone had come to know, and love pre-1953 would be eclipsed by his name being borrowed or, more properly, stolen.”

Williams is thoroughly familiar with the ways of show business, having been both a film actor and screenwriter. “[O]bviously anyone in the world of entertainment is at liberty to call themselves whatever they wish,” he writes. “Penny Rimbaud of Crass and the Shakespeares Sister, 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 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.”

There are plenty of meaty reasons for Williams’s contempt for the world-famous performer. He quotes Joni Mitchell, who put it this way: “Bob 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.” Folksinger Tim Hardin was even more succinct. Williams writes that “Bob Dylan’s unrestrained kleptomania” would prompt Hardin to say: “He’s a cold motherfucker, man.”

Williams also cites Paul Simon’s satirical jibe in the song “A Simple Desultory Phillippic …”: “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.”

But the meatiest reason involves a larger issue than the “elements of Bob Dylan’s character that would make Dylan Thomas, were he alive, squirm with righteous revulsion.” It is precisely this: “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.”

Williams writes that when Bob Dylan “happily does what Dylan Thomas never did, and that is to sell out to any and every commercial outfit and does so on an industrial scale, it is perhaps tempting to recall Norman Mailer’s harsh verdict on him: ‘If [Bob] Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.” Williams adds:

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, “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.

In a “Super Bowl Sunday” TV ad seen by more than 100 million American viewers Bob Dylan rattled an extraordinary concoction of jingoistic rhetoric to promote Chrysler, a company noted for building the M1 Abrams tanks that were used during the Vietnam War. “So let Germany brew your beer,” he tells the world. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” With stunningly meaningless gravitas, he concludes: “Is there anything more American than America?”

Or more shameless than His Bobness?

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on 13 October 2016. Heathcote Williams’ latest book is Brexit Boris: From Mayor to Nightmare and the next performance of his theatrical series Poetry Can F*ck Off is at London’s Cockpit Theatre on Sunday 23 October: details here…

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8 Responses to Bob Dylan: fake, cultural thief, shameless and now… Nobel Prize winner

    1. I’m a fan of both Dylan’s. However I find the idea that “Dylan Thomas who never once sold out” ludicrous

      Why else did Dylan Thomas go to America? Dylan Thomas’ patrons were Margaret Taylor, Princess Marguerite Caetani and Marged Howard-Stepney. I think that speaks for itself.

      Bob Dylan is great! Enough of the slander!

      Comment by Charlie Baylis on 21 October, 2016 at 9:01 am
    2. Huh

      Comment by Nick Dunne on 21 October, 2016 at 6:54 pm
    3. Bad artists copy. Good artists steal. –Picasso

      I’m a fan of Heathcote’ work – well, not all of what I’ve read, but most of it.

      I could say the same about Bob Dylan – don’t admire everything he’s done or said, but he’s come up with some cracking stuff. And I can appreciate that as a teenager he was so taken by Dylan Thomas’ work, that he took his name as an alternative to the distinctly less catchy Robert Zimmerman. Can also understand that he may have been a bit embarrassed about it at first.

      Wish artists wouldn’t put one another down.

      Comment by Felix on 21 October, 2016 at 9:17 pm
    4. this is bonkaz nonsense

      Comment by jezdobbs on 22 October, 2016 at 1:49 am
    5. The idea of ‘selling out’ is one of the chief legacies of ‘rockism’ under which McCartney was ‘conservative’ (commercial) and Lennon was ‘revolutionary’ (posturing). Sure, using music in ads is shitty but have we forgotten that these things can be done against the wishes of writers (who have assigned their rights for exploitation)?
      In this way, ‘getting published’ is ‘selling out’ since the words are, for commercial purposes, no longer yours. Dylan Thomas left a hundred pounds? Why didn’t he get himself a drink?

      Comment by Michael K on 22 October, 2016 at 7:30 am
    6. Because this piece is so small minded it is unworthy of IT.
      Did Bob Dylan sell out when he wrote for George Jackson, or the Hurricane? When he marched and sang in some of the civil rights movements’ great events? Do we know whether he donates the cash from the ads to the Southern Poverty Law Center? Does Heathcote Williams play with his own name, leaving out his given name because doing so makes it trip better off the tongue? Does Heathcote Williams sell out when he takes a Hollywood cheque? Do we really care about arch self publicist Norman Mailer’s opinion as to Bob Dylan, since is comes with nothing more substantive than a sneer?

      Comment by Artemis on 2 November, 2016 at 2:47 pm
    7. Dylan is as fake as he is a nasty two faced p.o.s.

      But then I find a lot of people to be that way these days. It’s not so much that times they are a changin, it’s more like they changed and he took advantage of them, and became a flag bearer for your average talentless, overrated, greedy, ego afflicted pop “stars” of modern times, who are in turn, flag bearers for your average nasty, arrogant, greedy, selfish, inpatient shithead in the street with a sense of self entitlement.

      And as for your Joni Mitchells, who holds herself up as the opposite of Bob Dylan (ie not fake) she doesn’t seem to understand the irony that for so many people to have heard of her, and for her career to be as big as it is, by definition she has sold out. If she was a genuine article, not many people would know who the hell she is, and even less would care.

      They are all hypocrites waiting for perfect moments to do the perfect stabbing motions to each other. The whole scene makes me sick.

      Comment by The Wandrin' Judas on 13 June, 2018 at 8:38 am
    8. Reading this piece and the comments under it made me laugh out loud! Is this 1965 revisited when Dylan was called “Judas” for going electric (i.e., turning towards “commercial” rock and roll?). The two greatest contributors to modern popular music, rock and roll etc, are Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Why, because their musicality, structural inventiveness, lyrics, complexity and unabashed invention changed popular music forever, making it broader, more intelligent, subtle, complex and frankly better. We got the LP and concept album instead of the 3 minute ditty. There are plenty of other important contributors including the R&B artistes of the 1950s and earlier. Joni Mitchell, good as she is, does not even figure! I’m in a poetry reading group and after Bob’s Nobel Prize we devoted two months to studying his lyrics. I came away even more impressed by his genius. I think the accusations of selling out are problematic in this day and age. Every sportsperson who wears commercial logos on their shirt (or even free Nike kit) is selling out. Capitalism eats everything! The ultimate anti-capitalist rock movement Punk, with slashed clothers, safety pin and razor blade jewelry, cocking a snoot at bourgeois values and the royals was eaten whole and marketed to everybody in the form of slashed jeans and other distressed clothing lines – to this day! But I don’t blame John Lydon for marketing butter! The questions to ask are: is their music good? Is their message edifying? (Even the Sex Pistols were edifying!) And only the first question really counts!

      Comment by Paul Ernest on 13 June, 2018 at 3:48 pm

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