Was Dylan Thomas the first rock 'n' roll poet?

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1. Lived fast, died young

Dylan Thomas died too soon for rock 'n' roll. He passed away in New York City on 9 November 1953, just three months after Elvis Presley’s first Sun Studio recording session.

But he left a legacy which was much admired by generations of musicians. His hell-raising lifestyle foreshadowed the many excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll era, while his words inspired songwriters and performers including John Lennon, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan.

While several poets of the 18th and 19th centuries – Byron, Coleridge, Rimbaud – combined artistic greatness with decadence and excess, Dylan Thomas was a modern day pioneer: the drinking, smoking and womanising, the early death, not to mention the remarkable literary talent which made his name immortal.

2. Once upon a time in America

Before the Beat Generation arrived in the 1950s, and rock musicians performed there in the '60s, Dylan Thomas was a regular in the bars of Greenwich Village in Manhattan.

3. Straight, no chaser

Excess and indulgence have long been hallmarks of modern music. In Dylan Thomas's day jazz and soul greats such as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Miles Davis all struggled with drug addiction, and later on rock 'n' roll brought a new wave of musicians eager to sample the darker side of life.

Unlike Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and many others, Dylan Thomas lived long enough to avoid the infamous '27 Club' of rockers who met their demise at that age. But his itinerant lifestyle and wild behaviour undoubtedly led to an early death.

With his wife and children back in Britain, Thomas lived the high life in America. He was treated like a celebrity, partied with Richard Burton and read his works to crowds of adoring listeners. He also had an affair with Liz Reitell, the assistant to his tour agent John Brinnin.

Thomas's death in New York at the age of 39 followed months of ill health, which included breathing difficulties, gout, gastritis, blackouts and a fractured arm from falling down stairs when drunk. He was constantly short of money, and relied on charm, goodwill and the patronage of sympathetic friends.

Despite his ill health and excessive behaviour, his image as a hell-raiser was carefully cultivated. To the end he channelled his gifts into producing works of graceful and evocative poetry and prose which stood in contrast to his chaotic personal life. As his obituary in the Times put it: "None has ever worn more brilliantly the mask of anarchy to conceal the true face of tradition."

4. Music of elements, that a miracle makes!

Dylan Thomas's life and works have inspired many rock, pop and folk musicians since the 1960s. Here's a selection of performers who have referenced him.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) took his name from Dylan Thomas. "Instead of Robert Allen it would be Robert Allyn," he wrote. "I'd seen some poems by Dylan Thomas. Dylan and Allyn sounded similar... The letter D came on stronger."

Douglas R Gilbert/Getty Images

John Cale

John Cale set a number of Thomas's poems to music for his 1989 album Words For The Dying. In 1999 he performed 'Do not go gentle into that good night' for the opening of the Welsh Assembly. He also has a song titled A Child's Christmas In Wales.


Nick Cave

There She Goes, My Beautiful World, a track on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 2004 album Abattoir Blues, contained the lines: "Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull/And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St Vincent's hospital."


St Vincent

Annie Clark took her stage name, St Vincent, from the same Nick Cave song. Clark described the New York hospital where Dylan Thomas died as "the place where poetry comes to die." St Vincent was also the middle name of her great grandmother.


Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards cited Dylan Thomas as a favourite author, and 1998's Ready For Drowning was reportedly inspired by the poet's life. In 2010 Nicky Wire said he'd written a Doctor Who script about Dylan's final days in New York.

Kate Southall/BBC

The Kinks in 1968

The lyrics of Polly, the b-side of The Kinks' 1968 single Wonderboy, mention Polly Garter from Under Milk Wood. That play also helped inspire the album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, released in the same year.


Although she more often cites Arthur Rimbaud as a key influence, Patti Smith – another former Hotel Chelsea resident – has spoken of her love of Dylan Thomas's work. She gave poetry readings and performances in Laugharne in 2008 and 2012.

Andy Sheppard/Redferns

Eggs Laid By Tigers

Danish trio Eggs Laid By Tigers base their lyrics on Thomas's writing. The name comes from a quotation: "I wrote endless imitations, though I never thought them to be imitations, but rather wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers."

Johan Knattrup Jensen

On 2004's Beat Cafe, his 23rd studio album, Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan set the poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night' to music.


Simon and Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel's 1966 Bob Dylan parody A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission) includes the lines: "He's so unhip, that when you say Dylan/He thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas/Whoever he was."

Ivan Keeman/Redferns

5. Dylan and The Beatles

From 1964 The Beatles began exploring new ways of writing and recording music. John Lennon was particularly influenced by Bob Dylan, who encouraged the group to experiment with wordplay.

"I'm sure that the main influence on both Dylan and John was Dylan Thomas," said Paul McCartney.

"We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him, and the fact that Bob Dylan wrote poetry added to his appeal."

In 2014 McCartney was asked which British authors were his favourites. "I've always been a big fan of British writers, but two of my favourites are Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas," he said.

Jann Haworth and Peter Blake worked together on the artwork for The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now acclaimed as a pop art masterpiece, it featured a collage of famous faces chosen by the group and the artists.

The two Dylans, naturally, were included. Dylan Thomas was reportedly one of John Lennon's choices.

The Beatles' producer, George Martin, spoke of the lineage which linked them. "Dylan Thomas, the Welsh author, was a great influence on Bob Dylan, and I think that the kind of words that Dylan Thomas would construct came down through Bob Dylan into John Lennon."

In 1988 Martin paid his own tribute to Dylan Thomas by producing a musical version of Under Milk Wood. Its predominantly Welsh cast included Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Mary Hopkin and Bonnie Tyler.

6. Sweet and fumbled music

The musicians who have set Dylan Thomas's words to melody were perhaps drawn to his richly lyrical and rhythmic writing. Thomas was obsessed with the sounds and cadences of words, thrived on wordplay and verbal rhythms, and often worked within formal, orderly structures.

Under Milk Wood, Thomas's masterpiece play, is awash with sounds, from the singing of Captain Cat, Polly Garter and Mr Waldo to Mrs Organ Morgan, who exclaims: "Oh, I'm a martyr to music." Thomas's broadcast Memories Of Christmas also mentions carol singing, party songs and "the untuned piano in the parlour".

A recording pioneer

In the 1950s Thomas helped kickstart the United States audiobook industry. In 1952 two New Yorkers, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, heard the poet reciting his works on stage and asked him to record for their new record label, Caedmon.

"We had no idea of the power and beauty of this voice," said Holdridge. "We just expected a poet with a poet's voice, but this was a full orchestral voice."

Thomas was short of material, which was potentially disastrous for the label. When asked if he had anything else to record, Thomas said: "Well, I did this story that was published in Harper's Bazaar that was a kind of Christmas story."

That story was A Child's Christmas In Wales. According to Holdridge: "That was dusting off something that undoubtedly would have remained buried and that became one of the most loved and popular stories recorded in the 20th Century and certainly gave us the start that we needed to become a viable company."

A second recording session followed in 1953, and by 1962 400,000 Dylan Thomas LPs had been sold. The Caedmon collection helped to cement his place in American history, and in 2008 his first recordings were selected for the United States National Recording Registry.

7. Who was the first rock 'n' roll poet?

Although he directly inspired many modern musicians, Dylan Thomas wasn't the first poet leading a wild lifestyle. Which of these mavericks would get your vote?

Dylan Thomas

The alcoholic, adulterous hedonist.

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Dylan Thomas

With a reputation for heavy drinking, adultery and hedonism, Thomas's physical health declined and he died, following a morphine-induced coma, aged 39.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The weaver of drug induced fantasies.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge was an opium addict who wrote Kubla Khan after a drug-infused dream. Opium initially focused his creativity but later impaired his health and work.

Arthur Rimbaud

The restless, libertine wild child.

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Arthur Rimbaud

Rimbaud lived a vagabond life and gave up writing before his 20th birthday. His brief, wild affair with Paul Verlaine was fuelled by absinthe and hashish.

Lord Byron

The rogue who scandalised society.

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Lord Byron

Famously described as "mad, bad and dangerous to know," Byron scandalised 19th Century society amid rumours of marital violence, adultery, incest and sodomy.