"Old tennis shoes, vending machines, alligators that crawled through sewers, dueling pistols, the Staten Island Ferry and Trinity Church…rodeo queens and Mickey Mouse heads, castle turrets and Mrs. O'Leary's cows, creeps and greasers and weirdos and grinning, bejeweled nude models, faces with melancholy looks, blurs of sorrow…Figures from history, too—Lincoln, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rembrandt—all done with graphic finesse, burned out as powerful as possible"—so Bob Dylan described the work of Red Grooms, an artist whose work he had admired early in his own songwriting career. "I loved the way Grooms used laughter as a diabolical weapon. Subconsciously, I was wondering if it was possible to write songs like that," he recalled (Polizzotti 18).
As a piece of literature, "Like A Rolling Stone," is Dylan's response to his own musings. And it turns out, yes, it's possible to write songs "like that" (if you're Bob Dylan, anyway). In the period leading up to writing this song, Dylan was searching for his voice, and in "Like A Rolling Stone" he seems to find it.
Dylan uses a lot of visual imagery in his songs, and it should not come as a surprise that some of the greatest influences on Dylan's writing were visual artists like Red Grooms. He was inspired by Rembrandt's dark portraiture and by 19th-century impressionism as much as he was inspired by Woody Guthrie and the blues. But nothing looms larger in Bob Dylan's work than the influence of centuries of poetry. He was an avid reader who knew the works of everyone from
Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot to his contemporary hero, Jack Kerouac. Greil Marcus thinks that "Like A Rolling Stone" "probably owes more to Allen Ginsberg's 1955 'Howl' than to any song" (Marcus 123).
The way Dylan went about writing the song is telling: it was the result, he says, of a stream-of-consciousness writing session. He came out with a "long piece of vomit about twenty pages long" and cut it down to produce "Like A Rolling Stone."
That stream-of-consciousness madness, a glimpse of which we catching in listening to the lyrics of the song, can be clearly traced to the Beat poets who so deeply inspired Dylan. Allen Ginsberg was a close personal friend of his by the time he wrote this song, making a cameo in the video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues". Here are the well-known opening lines of Ginsberg's "Howl":
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Ginsberg's "best minds," his junked-up "angelheaded hipsters," stand in close vicinity to Dylan's "Miss Lonely" and "Mystery Tramp," close to lines like "You used to ride the chrome horse with your diplomat/Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat" and "The jugglers and clowns/When they all did tricks for you." They seem to live in the same world, a surreal, intensified version of an already-gritty reality. Illusion reigns supreme; all might be illusion. Dylan clearly believed in Ginsberg's poetic style, driven by the idea that an embellished run-on sentence could drive a brilliant song or a poem. In the same vein, Jack Kerouac's near-mad Dean Moriarty was Dylan's hero. Dylan might have been looking up into the "starry dynamo in the machinery of night" himself when he wrote this song.
And if he was looking into that dynamo (whatever a dynamo is), "Like A Rolling Stone" was the moment he had been hoping all his stargazing would generate. He wanted his world to open up, so that he could write songs that were about everything and nothing, songs that, as a result, were about something. "'Like A Rolling Stone' helped open the gates to a verbal flood in which he willingly went down," said Mark Polizzotti in Highway 61 Revisited.
Dylan was more proud of his work than anything he had written before, and admitted it in a CBC radio interview in 1966. "Anybody can be specific and obvious," Dylan said of his songwriting in an interview in 1966. "That's always been the easy way. The leaders of the world take the easy way. It's not that it's so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it's just that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, to be specific and obvious about. My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing. The newer ones are about the same nothing—only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called nowhere" (Marcus 33).
To write from inside of nowhere, to write something inspired by all of history, to write about nothing and make it worth something, was Dylan's own idea of the ultimate accomplishment in literature. He believes, along with not a few critics, that he attained it in this song.