by Josh Lieberman
“There is no way to accurately or adequately laud Bob Dylan. He is the Homer of our time. The next Bob Dylan will not come around for another millennium or two, making it highly unlikely that it will happen at all.” — T-Bone Burnett, foreword to Rolling Thunder Logbook
Critics have always been quick to proclaim someone as the Next Dylan. “No sooner was Dylan Dylan,” says Gene Santoro in Highway 61 Revisited, “than the search was on for the Next Dylan, the New Dylan — a list that, over the decades, accumulated dozens.” Pity the poor soul who writes intelligent lyrics, sings a bit off-kilter, strums a guitar, and — hoist the millstone! — plays harmonica. Meant to be a compliment, the Next Dylan label has traditionally been more of a burden to overcome. Though this “Next Dylan” business may only be lazy journalistic shorthand, or the lame idea of publicist Craig Q. Schlump — or, of course, something originating from fans — it’s still worth taking a look at a few of those who have been so anointed.
Let’s get an absurd one out of the way first. In 1966, Dick Campbell released an album, Dick Campbell Sings Where It’s At, that one could charitably describe as Dylanesque. Or as Allmusic would later put it this one really takes the cake for sheer ill-conceived weirdness.” Possibly the only people who considered Campbell a Next Dylan were a few executives: Mercury Records signed Campbell and produced this rip-off album in an attempt to capitalize on Dylan’s success. While the public didn’t buy it, he’s included here as a rock curio.
There’s room for one more near-parody from the 1960s. When this single from The Mouse and Traps came out, Greil Marcus remembers people asking, “Have you heard the new Dylan?”
Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan, also an occasional Next Dylan) became a massive hit in 1965. On his album of the same name McGuire covers two Dylan songs, “She Belongs to Me” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
David Blue and Dylan were good friends, and Dylan rubbed off on him: “I sounded like [Dylan],” Blue told Melody Maker in 1975, “and didn’t have any idea what I was doing.” More notable than Blue’s music was his acting. Blue shows up in two of the oddest films in rock history: Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, where he appears as a pinball-playing monologist, and Neil Young’s apocalyptic, Devo-centric Human Highway, in which he plays a milkman.
In the early 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III would joke about being a member of “The New Bob Dylan Club,” which included some of the fellows you’ll meet below. Later on Wainwright wrote the humorous tribute “Talking Bob Dylan.” “We were new Bob Dylans, your dumbass kid brothers,” sings Wainwright. “Bein’ the new you is one hell of a job.” Wainwright also sings about Self Portrait, Dylan’s reviled 1970 album, “Well, it was an interesting effort.” (If you’re into Dylan this is the sort of thing you find funny. If not, sorry, and we can just move along.)
John Prine was one of those Wainwright counted as a member of the Dylan Club. Dylan himself is a fan, heaping praise on Prine in a 2009 interview: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’ the soldier junky daddy and ‘Donald and Lydia,’ where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
You may have heard of Bruce Springsteen. His career requires little analysis here other than to say that if his second album had continued in the vein of his first, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., he might not have overcome his universally applied Next Dylan label. Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, drew comparisons to Astral Weeks — so now he was not only the Next Dylan but the Next Van Morrison as well. (That Springsteen was making appearances wearing the same shirt as Dylan, as seen in the video below, probably did little to quell comparisons.)
When Elliott Murphy’s first album came out in 1973, Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson called it “easily the best Dylan LP since John Wesley Harding.” Rolling Stone took it a step further and titled Nelson’s review, “He’s the Best Dylan Since 1968.”
“People will tell you that [Steve] Forbert sounds like the early Bob Dylan,” Nelson wrote in a later piece (collected in Everything Is An Afterthought), “but even if they’re right, they should be ignored. In 1979, such an approach is misleading and won’t get you to the heart of this or any other matter. Anyway, people will tell you anything.” (Fun bit of musical trivia: Nelson nicked that “heart of this” line from Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song.”)
Plenty of fans were probably ready for another Next Dylan in the early 1980s, what with Dylan in the middle of his born-again phase. Enter Willie Nile.
You don’t hear too many women labeled the Next Dylan, but certainly a few critics have pointed to Patti Smith. It’s probably one of the weaker comparisons. While it’s true that when Smith burst on the scene she was an instant poet laureate, her music wasn’t all that similar to Dylan’s. Still, I welcome any excuse to listen to her excellent cover of Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards,” a song that merits inclusion in any critic’s list of Ten Great Yet Truly Bizarre Dylan Songs.
A few years ago the Next Dylan label was mentioned in every conversation about Swedish songwriter Kristian Matsson, who despite being only about as tall as this horse records under the name The Tallest Man on Earth.
Of course there are many more. But then there is really only one.
Related: The Forgotten Music Of Ronnie Lane
Josh Lieberman would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like him for a member.