The times, they are a-changing: Dylan makes his debut in a TV commercial, selling lingerie

Perhaps it was the side of the bed Bob Dylan got out of. When Les Wexner, the boss of the American lingerie company Victoria's Secret, asked the grizzled folkie if he would appear in the company's new television commercial, Dylan said yes.

Perhaps it was the side of the bed Bob Dylan got out of. When Les Wexner, the boss of the American lingerie company Victoria's Secret, asked the grizzled folkie if he would appear in the company's new television commercial, Dylan said yes.

No-one knows why. But Ed Razek, the company's creative director, failed to put that obvious follow-up. "I can't speculate as to his reasons," he said. "I never talked to him about why he decided to come to the party." But as a result of that inspired proposal, Dylan this week makes his career debut in television commercials, endorsing a new line of frilly bras and knickers from the mass-market lingerie firm, called the "Angels" collection.

In the commercial the singer, who turns 63 next month, scowls out from the streets of Venice, his image intercut with shots of a model, Adriana Lima, prancing through La Serenissima in bra, panties, spiked heels and a pair of wings.

Dylan's 1997 dirge "Love Sick", from the album Time Out of Mind, is the backing track. "I'm walking," Dylan intones, "through streets that are dead; I'm walking, with you in my head ... My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired."

Dylan's first foray into commercials follows product endorsements in recent years by other Sixties stars including The Who and the Rolling Stones. But the appearance by Dylan, "one of the last cultural figures from the 1960s to continue to live outside the boundaries of mainstream pop culture", as The Wall Street Journal puts it, has shocked and demoralised many of his fans.

"I'm going to have to go blow my brains out," says John Baky, the curator of a collection of Dylan material at Philadelphia's La Salle University. Many fans on websites lamented their hero had sold out; others found the juxtaposition of the wrinkled, cantankerous-looking musician with a semi-nude Brazilian model either hysterically funny or desperately sad, perhaps both. One fan, identified as D D Bonkers, said: "Strange as it is, I'm not sure if it's the mark of Dylan selling out...he's always done these goofy things...".

And that's a fact. Dylan's capacity, year after year, to startle and amaze, is perhaps his greatest gift. Ever since he emerged from Hibbing, Minnesota, with a guitar in his hand, he has appeared to be on close personal terms with Chaos ­ not the theory but the practice.

For the best part of a decade, that faculty was indistinguishable from genius. Born, artistically speaking, in folk cellars, and raised in the peace movement of the early and mid-1960s, he wasted little time breaking those bonds, turning to the electric guitar, writing the longest, and the darkest pop songs ever recorded, and, with "Subterranean Homesick Blues", inventing rap 20 years before its time.

Dylan has made a career of flying off at extraordinary tangents. Finding Jesus. Finding Jehovah. Finding Jesus again. Looking for a home in Muswell Hill. When he recently agreed to let Todd Haynes direct his biopic ­ working title I'm Not There - Suppositions of a Film Concerning Dylan ­ it should have come as no surprise that the Dylan role will be taken by seven people, including a young woman and a black boy.

Everything he does makes people squint in puzzlement. In the late 1980s, at an age when most rock stars don't care to get out of their hammocks more than twice in 10 years, Dylan began his Never Ending Tour, a punishing regime that has yet to show any sign of slacking. Was it just the alimony demands? Terminal boredom? Nobody has got to the bottom of it.

The style of his performances on these endless tour dates is another mystery, for he consistently mangles his songs, doubling or trebling the speed, changing the tune and the rhythm, so that only his most besotted fans can bear to listen to those great songs ever again. Why? Why can't he sing nice, like Paul Simon?

So now it's Dylan and knickers. Better, as one New York DJ observed, than Dylan and cat food. In his angry prime, Dylan delivered a sideswipe at the advertising industry; and he is on record as saying that he wished he'd written "(I can't get no) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, which is equally critical of Madison Avenue.

Yet with his strange looks and stranger live performances, Dylan's fame trickles down only with difficulty to a new generations of fans. That's the prosaic explanation why Dylan has got himself tangled up in pink. "The outrage that baby boomers once exhibited when their counterculture heroes 'sold out' has largely dissipated," says The Wall Street Journal's Brian Steinberg. "Mr Dylan is rarely played on mainstream radio, and he is said to be eager to freshen his fan base." Could the truth about Dylan be that dreary?

Luckily there is another explanation. Dylan has in fact "sold out" twice in three weeks. Before the knickers shock came the news that he is to endorse a new blend of Italian red wine, named Planet Waves after one of his lesser albums, produced by one of his keenest Italian fans.

So there is a more appealing explanation for Dylan's lurch into commercialism: he's in love again. Given the location shoot in Venice, and the provenance of the wine he has put his name to, he must have fallen for an Italian girl between Venice and Ancona (where the wine is produced). For, as he sings on "Love Sick", "I'm sick of love, and I hear the clock tick... Just don't know what to do, I'd give anything to be with you..."


Advertising signs that con you
into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

From 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)'

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