Bob Dylan, a.k.a Robert Zimmerman, has just marked his 70th birthday. I was going to say he has just celebrated his 70th birthday – but I’m not sure that the Bob does celebrations. He was born on 24th May 1941 – and he’s still going strong. This article was first published on this site in 2008.
In the summer of 1969 I told Bob Dylan he was dead. He hadn’t heard the news at the time but he didn’t appear to be too bothered. Perhaps, like the rest of us who had made it through the Sixties, Bob had become inured to rock deaths - including his own. Since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had died in that plane crash in February 1959 a whole gang of rockers had joined the great tour bus in the sky - Eddie Cochran, Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, Brian Jones, Johnny Kidd, Sam Cooke, Bobby Fuller, Johnny Burnette, Joe Meek, Frankie Lymon and countless others. There was one major difference however. They really were dead and Bob Dylan wasn’t but it didn’t matter. The story going round in the summer of ‘69 said he was and the rumour carried just enough fact to make it seem plausible.
Everybody knew that in 1967 Bob had survived a motorbike accident. By the summer of 1969 it was being suggested that Bob had actually died in the crash, the victim of an assassination plot. The story claimed that he had been replaced by a look-a-like, sound-a-like impostor. The proof - and you always need a spot of ‘proof’ to turn fiction into incontrovertible fact - was to be found in Bob’s latest album “Nashville Skyline” released in April 1969. Instead of the expected assortment of protest songs, dark symbolism and minimalist rock ‘n’ roll delivered in that familiar ever-so-slightly flat snarl, here you find a pleasant collection of cheery country songs gently crooned by some geek who had obviously just been voted “Employee of the Month” at the local K-Mart and was cutting a few tracks before marrying his high school sweetheart. They had even put a photograph of the charlatan on the record sleeve. No Bob’s big hair and 1000 yard stare for this one. Here was just some fresh-faced kid with a cowboy hat, a wispy beard and a pleasant smile….and Bob never smiled, pleasantly or otherwise. To complete the mystery there were also some suitably cryptic sleeve notes written by Johnny Cash…
There are those who do not imitate, Who cannot imitate But then there are those who emulate At times, to expand further the light Of an original glow.
What did the Man in Black mean by …“then there are those who emulate… the light of an original glow”? Was he in on the Dylan deception? Did he know that the real Bob had already shuffled off to Buffalo?
Naturally my first question on hearing the story that afternoon in 1969 was, “Who carried out this celebrity assassination and substitution and why?” The answer was immediate. Ah ha! Only the same team that brought you the Roswell aliens cover-up, the Kennedy single gunman myth, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Castro exploding cigar stunt. The C.I.A!….. and they had a motive. They hated Bob Dylan because he was subversive, un-American and stirring up the nation’s youth to question long held precepts like the righteousness of war and the unfailing wisdom of their elders and betters. Bob was corrupting young minds they thought, and he had to go…so they disguised it as a motorcycle accident.
At the time I heard the story I was working with the artist and animator Klaus Voorman. As well as being a talented painter he was also a close friend of the Beatles from their Hamburg days. He was the man who had illustrated the cover of their 1966 album “Revolver”. Look very carefully and you will see his face peeping out from George Harrison’s hair. I told him the ‘Dylan is Dead’ story. His immediate reaction was to laugh which I thought was rather disrespectful, considering that the ‘great’ Bob Dylan may now be the ‘late’ Bob Dylan. Klaus went into his kitchen. Then the phone rang. I picked it up. The voice on the other end sounded familiar. It had a northern twang that I had heard a hundred times before - on the radio, on television, on record and on film. It was the man who had written “Taxman” and was going to write “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. It was one of the Mop Tops - the Quiet One. It was George Harrison and he was asking for Klaus. Desperately trying to remain cool I shouted to Klaus that George was on the phone. Klaus said that he wouldn’t be a moment but would I like to tell George the ‘Dylan is dead’ story - so I did. I told George Harrison that there was a rumour going round that Bob Dylan had been assassinated by the C.I.A and replaced by a look-a-like-sound-a-like who, judging by the “Nashville Skyline” album, didn’t look or sound like him at all. I also told him about that cryptic sleeve notes by Johnny Cash - “ there are those who emulate at times, to expand further the light of an original glow”.
George said that he thought the story was ‘weird’ and asked if I would repeat it for a friend of his. The line clicked and then someone else picked up the phone. This person didn’t say a word but it didn’t matter. By then I was in fast forward “I’ve just been shooting the breeze with George Harrison” mode. I repeated the story. Bob Dylan is dead-assassinated-CIA-faked motorcycle accident-look-alike-sound alike, substitute blah blah. At the end of my piece a gruff American voice simply said “Yeah. Very interesting.” and put the phone down. A moment later and George was back on the line. I asked him who that person was. “That was Bob Dylan”, he said. Klaus took the phone from my icy grip and my 15 seconds of fame were over. I had been talking to Bob Dylan. No sharing of minds. No scintillating wit tossed back and forth. No analysis of “Mr Tambourine Man” or challenging questions about the bearded bloke in the background of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” film clip. I had stumbled into the world of international fabdom only to make a complete fool of myself!
Klaus told me later that George and his wife Patti Boyd were staying with Bob Dylan in his house just outside New York. Patti, the beautiful schoolgirl from “Hard Days Night” was in America learning how to fly… and I was learning how to crawl under the carpet. In June 1970 Bob Dylan released his next album ‘Self Portrait’. The wispy beard had disappeared and the familiar rasping voice was back. I didn’t notice. By then we were too busy sorting out the latest “Guess Who’s Dead?” mystery, this time involving Paul McCartney. The story sounded familiar. Paul had been killed in a car crash in November 1966 and replaced by a look-alike, sound-alike called William Campbell. The proof was concealed in obscure song lyrics, mystic symbols and hidden messages - Paul’s bare feet on the cover of Abbey Road, a secret phone number spelt out by the stars on the cover of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, a garbled backwards sentence buried in a record run out groove. Paul is no more, they all said - but he wasn’t - and neither was Bob Dylan. I know because I had spoken to him. I had told him he was dead.
Happy Birthday, Bob. May you stay forever young.
– from Martyn Day