Like A Rolling Stone
When Dylan got together with a polished group of studio musicians to record "Like A Rolling Stone," nothing went smoothly. They started by recording several takes of the song as a waltz, and had to come to the studio for a second day of recording after a frustrating first day.
"The song they were about to record was not a natural song," says Greil Marcus. After conducting a close study of the nearly twenty takes it took to get the song down, he describes the musicians in the studio session "circling around the song like hunters surrounding an animal that has escaped them a dozen times" and finally catching it (Marcus 225). What they caught: a rhythmic and simple rock 'n' roll guitar part from Dylan, a couple flashes of brilliance from Bloomfield, a bit of Dylan's classic harmonica, and a now-famous organ part played by Al Kooper, which was added as an afterthought when the young musician elbowed his way into the recording session (there is also a bass and a tambourine, less noticeable but key in building up the feel of the song). The version released feels almost like a live take, marked with rock 'n' roll imperfections. The song is so hard to capture that every cover, and every one of Dylan's live performances to follow, comes out different (often to a drastic degree). If Dylan and co. caught up with the song in the studio, he has arguably been chasing it around ever since.
"Dylan used to sound like a lung cancer victim singing Woody Guthrie. Now he sounds like a Rolling Stone singing Immanuel Kant," wrote a music reviewer in 1965 (Polizzotti 20).
This is not the most flattering view of the earlier work of Dylan, but it's some high praise for "Like A Rolling Stone." To sing like a member of the Rolling Stones—the biggest rock band around in the late 1960s—meant that Bob Dylan hadn't just "crossed over" into rock 'n' roll. It meant that he was on top of the whole rock world. To think and write like Immanuel Kant—merely "the central figure in modern philosophy" was also a glamorously intelligent accomplishment for a pop star. But the music itself is as strong a force in the song as the evasive, smarty-pants lyrics.
Dylan's voice has changed a lot throughout his career, and for "Like A Rolling Stone" he brought out a lilting rock sound, less sing-song and nasal, more scratchy and deep. "The voice is infinitely nuanced—at times an almost authoritarian monotone (not unlike Ginsberg reading "Howl"), at times compassionate, tragic…but also angry, vengeful, gleeful, ironic, weary, spectral, haranguing," says Greil Marcus (p. 7). It is not easy listening, not a song that can be "used as Muzak," Marcus observed (p. 99). The singing is too direct, demands attention, and grinds through the song rather than merely singing it.
"Like A Rolling Stone" starts in a relatively unassuming and gentle way: a drop onto the bass drum, guitars and some piano over the drums, and the lilt of Dylan's voice drawling out confrontational-yet-sad lyrics. The song builds slowly, the sounds combining into an ambience that is driven by rock and inspired by blues but also harks back to Dylan's folk roots. Like the best folk songs, the song feels simple, but is more complicated under the surface. Its increasing complexity and nearly improvised feel goes on for over six minutes of slow, thick rock n' roll. The recording can't be pinned down; some have called it an "event" rather than a recording. Something in this event has outlasted generations and impressed critics to no end (or melted them into indescribable reverie, as in the case of Greil Marcus, who simply cannot stop talking about how great it is decades after the fact).
As Marcus put it, the song could not be an influence in terms of form or content. There was no point in imitating the song. "Its only influence," he says, "is in the line that it draws." At least in the minds of Bob Dylan fans, the song drew a line—an ancestral line from folk music directly into rock 'n' roll, and a battle line between the folk purism of the past and the genre-defying Dylanism of the future. To this day, the listener is like the musicians in the studio, still "circling around the song," listening over and over to try to find its essence. It is the essence, not the technicalities, that makes "Like A Rolling Stone" great instead of good, mediocre, or forgotten somewhere in the incredibly deep annals of rock history.