I’ve got a complicated theory to advance here, and I hope you’ll hear me out on this one. Like those internet sleuths who’ve uncovered Bob Dylan’s thieving from Civil War era poet Henry Timrod, I too think the bard has been stealing. But it’s more convoluted than that. Let me put it this way: Dylan’s been stealing from someone who was stealing from Dylan. Although maybe the theft was, at the time, from a future, not-yet-realized Dylan. Basically Dylan’s been mimicking Ronnie Wood who was somehow channeling a version of Dylan to come. I think Duke Ellington once said something like "It’s not plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself." Maybe the rule holds true here too.
Recently EMI released a career-spanning two-CD Ronnie Wood anthology. I was very excited, having been thoroughly jazzed by one of Django West’s early posts of a tune from Ron Wood’s first solo record, "I’ve Got My Own Album To Do." But after spending some time with the set, I was disappointed. The collection left me with two impressions: 1) whoever compiled the anthology somehow astoundingly managed to leave out the sporadically good material from Wood’s solo records, while larding it with much of the plentiful mediocre stuff – it’s not like there’s so many great Ronnie Wood tunes out there that one can justify withholding any of it, much less when you’re beefing the collection up with work that Ronnie did with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and a lame Stones tune (Mick and Keith probably wouldn’t give him the rights to any of the good stuff off Black and Blue). 2) The other response was, My God! Ron Wood was ripping off Dylan. Much of this stuff sounds like it was lifted directly from Slow Train Coming or Infidels. It’s so blatantly like Dylan that Ronnie should really have been embarrassed. Someone should have told him it wasn’t ok to do that. Only thing is, the lyrics are real dumb, like the fetal alcohol version of Dylan. Then again, it answers the question: is Dylan good only because he’s a brilliant songwriter? Answer: No, since Ronnie’s poetry-free Dylan-esque tunes are good, it’s not just the lyrical artistry.
It was only after repeatedly shaking my head in disbelieve about the Dylan-mimicry that one day I noticed that these particular Ron Wood tracks were recorded around 1974 and 75, around the time of Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks. But it wasn’t these Dylan records the Ron Wood seemed to be pilfing from. It was the Dylan circa 1979 -83. But how could this be? Was Ron Wood adumbrating the Bob Dylan to come, or was Dylan, the famous magpie, simply finding inspiration in the music of someone who had practically already copied Dylan’s style? Remember, Dylan had already shape-shifted a few times already, doing whatever country-crooner thing it was that he did on Nashville Skyline. And it was about this time that Dylan, on the cover of his record Desire, seemingly emulated a record cover by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. It’s worth noting that Dylan later famously copied those who’d copied Dylan. He began performing live versions of "All Along the Watch Tower" that drew significantly from Hendrix’s cover of the Dylan song. And when I saw Dylan in Hartford in around 2002 or so, I remember he did a version of "Wicked Messenger" that seemed to me to borrow the riffage from the version that the Small Faces (in the incarnation with Rod Stewart and ... Ron Wood) did on the record First Step. Dig the oddball five-beat phrases thrown in on "We Better Talk This Over" from Street Legal (1978), Dylan’s art rock phase.
"Breathe on Me" - Ron Wood
"We Better Talk This Over" - Bob Dylan
"Wicked Messenger" - Small Faces (The Faces)