The bitter songs Bob Dylan and John Lennon wrote about each other

In a way, you could chalk up a fair amount of The Beatles’ history to Bob Dylan. It was the folk legend that first introduced the group to weed, the gateway into their spiralling experimentation of the late 1960s. Dylan and George Harrison especially struck up a close friendship, helping to expand the guitarist’s viewpoint, straying outside of rock as a strict or stringent thing to instead bring in elements of folk, blues and beyond. However, that friendship might just have been the issue as John Lennon and Dylan didn’t see eye to eye, either out of personal differences or, depending on who you ask, perhaps jealousy.

Once The Beatles had crumbled and collapsed into a mess of bad interpersonal relationships, Lennon couldn’t seem to help himself from taking shots at Harrison. He seemed especially hurt by his biography, telling Playboy, “In his book, which is purportedly this clarity of vision of his influence on each song he wrote, he remembers every two-bit sax player or guitarist he met in subsequent years. I’m not in the book.”

He saw that as a statement of irrelevance, adding, “My influence on his life is absolutely zilch and nil.”

However, one of those “two-bit” guitarists is Dylan, adding insult to old injury as Harrison seemed to hold the folk star to greater acclaim than his own bandmate. “Bob Dylan is the most consistent artist there is,” the guitarist once said, “even his stuff, which people loathe, I like.” He made no secret of his deep admiration for Dylan, both as an artist and as a person. It was a feeling that the rest of the Beatles used to share, once dubbing him their “idol” as they met him in 1964. But as Harrison grew closer to him, and the careers of the two musical front runners of The Beatles and Dylan ran alongside one another, it got catty.

“George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney,” Dylan once said of the band’s set-up. While he was a huge and vocal fan of Harrison’s work, he made his thoughts on Lennon’s efforts clear early as his 1966 record Blonde On Blonde contained a dig at the artist.

From the introduction through to the dancing rhythm, ‘Fourth Time Around’ feels like a parody of ‘Norwegian Wood’ – and that’s because it is. The Beatles’ track, the first album they made after meeting Dylan, appeared to the singer as an attempt to copy him as Lennon leaned into a more poetic folk sound. When he heard Rubber Soul, Dylan said, “What is this? It’s me, Bob. [John’s] doing me! Even Sonny & Cher are doing me, but, fucking hell, I invented it”.

In response, Dylan decided to show them how it was done. ‘Fourth Time Around’ is his hit back, mocking the people who copy him or use his sound to boost their own as he sings, “I never took much, I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”

From then on, Lennon and Dylan never saw eye to eye. In fact, it only got worse the closer Harrison grew to the American artist, as they bonded over music and philosophy, both having complex connections to spirituality and religion: Dylan with Christianity and Harrison with his blossoming interest in meditation. Those ideas found their way into Dylan’s late 1970s and ’80s lyrics, especially with one song, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ laying it out clearly, singing, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Really, Lennon doesn’t have a leg to stand on as he himself played around with religions and different schools of thought throughout his life. But this track and Dylan’s spiritual side rubbed him up the wrong way. A year after the folk singer dropped his track, Lennon recorded ‘Serve Yourself’, a direct hit back as he sings, “Well you may believe in devils, and you may believe in lords / But Christ, you’re gonna have to serve yourself, and that’s all there is to it.”

Throughout the lyrics, Lennon takes jabs at Dylan’s swapping and changing of religions. Comparing the musician’s seemingly blind following of whatever belief system took his fancy that year with his fan’s blind following of him, the ex-Beatles’ observations make no secret of their target. “Anybody who wants to hear Dylan just because of who he is isn’t gonna understand what Dylan is saying now or then,” he said outright in an interview, “They’re just following some kind of image. They’re the sheep anyway.” As Harrison was certainly in this crowd, following and fawning over Dylan’s every move, it seemed to be a dig at his old friend, too.

They say don’t meet your idols, and there is perhaps no better example of that than Lennon and Dylan. From sharing mutual admiration to throwing musical punches, their early illusions of each other were certainly burst.

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