Early in his career, Dave Bowie acknowledges Bob Dylan’s “truthful vengeance” that “brought a few more people on/ And put the fear in a whole lot more” with “Song For Bob Dylan” on his 1969 album Hunky Dory. Surely the aspiring performer admired the resounding impact of Dylan’s biting lyrics and his uncanny skill in addressing political subject matter. But Bowie’s homage follows in Dylan’s own vein, the lyrics amounting to a stinging critique of Dylan’s pessimism and tendency toward exclusion. Either in satire or esteem, Bowie mimic’s Dylan’s vocal and musical style in the track.
In the next phase of his career, Bowie moves vastly away from the folk scene of Bob Dylan, spearheading the glam rock era, taking what he may from punk and new wave, dropping pop hits on MTV, and the reference is largely forgotten until twenty years later, when Bowie appears as a member in the band Tin Machine. The group, formed in 1980, was composed of Bowie, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales, and his brother Hunt on drums. Joe Levy of Spin Magazine described the band’s sound as “[a]gressive, direct, brutal and stylishly plain, it combines the energy of the rock avant-garde with traditional R&B rhythmic punch.”
In September 1989, following the May release of their debut, self-titled album, the group released a single. The double A-side record contained the title track, “Tin Machine” on the front, but the back held a live recording of the band’s cover of Bob Dylan’s well-known “Maggie’s Farm.”
The song appeared on Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home, which was released in 1965. But significantly, “Maggie’s Farm” was the opening song of the set in which Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The audience, expecting the acoustic ramblings of their folk-hero, was less than enthused by the dramatic shift of style when Dylan took the stage with an electric guitar. The crowd booed and hissed, and it was rumored that Pete Seeger cried. Though his decision to mix folk song-writing with electric blues guitar shocked and upset the audience of the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan’s innovation marked a breakthrough in artistic freedom for musicians, effectively collapsing the boundaries between genres. Dylan’s cheeky maneuver opened the door for his future career, allowing him to bring the socially-engaged lyrical aesthetic of folk music to a wider rock audience.
The song itself is one of insurrection, in which the main character describes the oppressive actions of his employers, and his refusal to continue working on the farm. The closing lines “Well, I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you. To be just like them/ They sing while you slave and I just get bored,” bring home the larger political implications, relevant both to Dylan’s discontent with topdown capitalism and his desire to pioneer his own musical style.
Tin Machine’s cover the song can also be viewed in its political intentions. Bowie was undoubtedly aware in 1989 of the impending disassembly of the Berlin Wall. He lived in West Berlin for three years, playing a concert near the wall in 1987 that supposedly sparked rioting on the East side of the city by discontented would-be attendees. If we consider Bowie’s initial criticism of Dylan’s anarchist notions, then his cover of “Maggie’s Farm” may be his later understanding of Dylan’s democratic principles.
Tin Machine’s cover of “Maggie’s Farm” points back to Dylan’s electric debut in 1965, drawing a parallel on the group’s desire to engage a musical style not widely popular in 1989. The band sought to return to the roots of rock music, performing Dylan’s tune in an upbeat and driving tempo that related it more the 1970s than Dylan’s original. Nonetheless, by covering the song, Bowie and the band evoked notions of authenticity, non-conformity, and artistic independence.