Bob Dylan, who turns 75 today, may well be the voice of his generation. If Chuck Klosterman is to be believed, Dylan might even be the face of rock music in centuries to come. What cannot be denied, however, is that Dylan’s distinctive songwriting, singing, and playing have inspired scores of imitations and parodies, ranging from flattering to scathing, over the course of the last half century. The spoofs started pretty early in Dylan’s career, too. In 1965, for instance, a young and highly skeptical Paul Simon penned an unkind Dylan parody called “A Simple Desultory Philippic” that first appeared on his obscure solo debut before resurfacing on a 1966 Simon And Garfunkel LP called Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme. The record makes an attempt to imitate both the arrangement and lyrical content of a typical Dylan song, including numerous references to pop-culture and political events of the day.
The very next year, a comedy troupe called The Hardly Worthit Players, who had scored a major hit with a version of “Wild Thing” sung in the style of Sen. Robert Kennedy, recorded a version of “White Christmas” credited to the pseudonymous character “Bobby The Poet,” a Dylan stand-in. The idea here is that Sen. Kennedy has summoned Dylan to the recording studio to record a campaign song that will appeal to college students. The stubborn singer responds with his own raspy, folk-rock take on the familiar Christmas tune, much to Kennedy’s consternation. “He refuses to compromise, Senator,” says an apologetic underling.
Dylan remained a target for satirists in the ’70s. A pre-SNL, pre-Spinal Tap Christopher Guest perfected his nasally, whining Dylan impression, a skill he got to use as a regular on such National Lampoon-branded projects as Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour. A typical example of Guest’s Dylan-based humor is an ad for a nonexistent compilation album called Those Fabulous Sixties. In this sketch, the spiritual leader of the counterculture has been reduced to a common pitchman. At the time, the real Dylan had not actually done any commercials. That would change in decades to come.
By the ’80s, with the tumultuous days of the ’60s a distant memory, Dylan was largely reduced to a series of tropes in the popular imagination. A burnout from a previous era, he strummed an acoustic guitar and played an out-of-tune harmonica while singing impenetrable, perhaps meaningless lyrics. That’s a fun image to play with, and it serves as the basis for some highly enjoyable records. A great example is “Polka Dot Undies” from 1986 by the duo Bowser & Blue. In this pseudo-Dylan ditty, the singer always seems to be on the verge of talk-singing something obscene, but at the last second, he delivers some non sequitur that doesn’t rhyme or fit with the lyrics in any way.
Eventually, the king of pop music parodies, “Weird Al” Yankovic, had to do his own Dylan takeoff. It was inevitable. Surprisingly, it took him until 2003, when the track “Bob” appeared on the Poodle Hat album. This is very much in the Bowser & Blue tradition, imitating the sound of Dylan’s classic recordings and poking fun at his penchant for nonsensical lyrics. Here, the gimmick is that every line Yankovic sings is palindromic: “Lisa Bonet ate no basil / Warsaw was raw / Was it a car or a cat I saw?” The video for the song, meanwhile, is a close parody of the famous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence from Don’t Look Back.