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"Vomit." That's what Bob Dylan called the lyrical brainstorm that brought "Like a Rolling Stone" into being.
"I'd literally quit singing and playing," Dylan told a CBC interviewer in 1966, "and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took 'Like a Rolling Stone' and made it as a single." (Source)
Dylan had quit singing and playing because his sudden stardom was somewhat unwelcome. Rising to the top of the folk revival, in the midst of the swirl of social change that his songs had come to represent, Dylan had inadvertently become an icon. At 25, he was suddenly being called "the voice of a generation." His 1965 tour of the UK is well-documented in the searing documentary Dont Look Back, in which a brooding and angry Bob Dylan takes the stage to sing about peace and love to packed houses, and then returns backstage to mock and berate the people around him.
"I don't believe in anything," he told a reporter in 1965. "I don't see anything to believe in." And on the subject of his already-iconic songs about the politics of the time, "I don't have anything to say about 'em. They don't have any great message."
Whether or not Dylan really believed that his songs ("Blowing in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'") were devoid of meaning, his frustrations with the media, and with the entire idea of being a folk hero, were evident in interview after interview.
"I could tell you, I'm not a folksinger, and explain it, but you wouldn't understand it," he spat at a reporter from Time. "Do you think anybody that comes to see me is coming for any reason other than entertainment?" The folk movement had embraced him, but the embrace was at the expense of his independence. "Like a Rolling Stone," a song about both independence and loss, came out of this storm of anger.
At the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1965, in the belly of the folk beast and surrounded by obsessed fans, Bob Dylan was introduced by a woman who told the screaming crowds, "You know him. He's yours." Dylan took the stage looking "like someone from West Side Story," said guitarist Michael Bloomfield—wearing a black leather jacket and a tie-less yellow pin shirt.
According to Dylan's friend Paul Nelson, by the end of the three-song set, "the audience was booing and yelling 'get rid of the electric guitar.'" Historian Greil Marcus says, "there were catcalls and screams and shouts and cheers" (source).
What did the darling of the folk movement do to upset the crowds so deeply? He picked up an electric guitar and sang a rock song. Dylan had stumbled through a version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that had shown up on the pop charts just days before. He was abruptly thrown from being the voice of a generation to being a traitor to a movement.
It may seem illogical now that anyone should tag Bob Dylan as a "sell-out." These days, he has a long career of independent thinking behind him, and he's done a million little things to both alienate fans and assert his artistic independence (a country phase and a born-again Christian phase among them; or a Christmas album).
But back before he'd carved out such a clear place in the world for someone as weird and eclectic as Bob Dylan, the expectations coming from his mostly folk fan base were intense: the Greenwich Village sensation was their icon ("he's yours," said the announcer who brought him onstage), he was their star, and the crowds at Newport, hippies to the nth degree, wanted him to play their music. They believed that the revival of folk was a return to an imagined past of purity and a key form of resistance to popular culture. According to guitarist Michael Bloomfield, "rock n' roll was greasers, heads, dancers, people who got drunk and boogied," not the stuff of the anti-establishment folk community. (Source)
If Bob Dylan had ever believed in the hard-line ideologies associated with the folk movement, intensified fame had burst his bubble. He was increasingly detached from any one ideology, and questioning everything to the point of utter meaninglessness was the name of the game. The last thing Dylan wanted in 1965 was to be forced to stand for anything. And now there he was at Newport, surrounded by all the purity and dogma of the folk revival movement, pissing off all his die-hard folk fans. His new song was climbing on the pop charts (peaking at #2, it is still his biggest hit ever). Dylan couldn't care less about the folksters' fantasies of an unadulterated folk community. He had lost his drive to identify with the counterculture.
"This was the rebel rebelling against the rebellion" (source), wrote Robbie Robertson of Dylan's decision to go electric.
During Dylan's UK tour the following year, the self-important folk enthusiasts reportedly came up with even more distasteful and absurd responses. Groups of folk fans were in a tizzy, believing that "pop music symbolized the destruction of that [folk] community by capitalist mass society, where all land was divided, speech was class, where there were no values" (source). Dylan played a double set—half acoustic and half electric—and some folk fans actively recruited other concertgoers to walk out halfway through the set in protest of the electric set to come. In one locale, someone even called in a bomb threat to the hall before Dylan's show.
Near the end of the tour, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on May 17th, as Dylan was preparing to play "Like a Rolling Stone" (always the last song in his set), an audience member stood up and yelled out "Judas!"
"Who stands up in a crowded theater and shouts 'Judas!' at a Jew?" (source) mused Greil Marcus—much less a Jew who had penned the lyrics to "With God on Our Side," a protest song which asks "Whether Judas Iscariot / Had God on his side." Dylan, incensed, yelled out "You're a liar!" and turned to his band to tell them to "play f---ing loud." The whole scene was captured in a bootleg recording, now considered a record of one of the most groundbreaking rock shows in history.
His British fans persisted: "He went really commercial," said one fan on film. "I don't know what he's trying to do, I think he's conceding to some sort of popular taste," said another. "I think it's a bad thing. I think he's prostituting himself."
And yet another: "It makes you sick listening to this rubbish now."
Dylan was not without an ego (quite the opposite, actually—the documentary Dont Look Back shows him as a near egomaniac), and he reacted to this harassment with venom and rage, flatly rejecting the folk label. "Folk music is a bunch of fat people," he said in 1966. "I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There's nobody that's going to kill traditional music." (Source)
But what did Dylan's new read on "traditional music" mean? What was behind this accusatory and vengeful song that turned into such a huge rock hit?
According to Greil Marcus, "the song did not explain itself at all" (source). It could not be summed up as an attack or an act of bravado any more than it could be called a break-up song, or even a song about lost innocence.
The lyrics seem to address a woman, once well-to-do and sheltered, who now lives a bohemian lifestyle. She has let go of all her comforts and adopted a new identity, leaving her floating in a philosophical abyss. She's pawning her diamond ring and living on the streets, and Dylan wants to know how she feels about poverty now that she's in it. But even as he destroys innocence with the bitter flavor of the lyrics ("how does it feel?" seems to mock more than empathize), he manages to uplift and romanticize the new world that "Miss Lonely" lives in now. "To be on your own/No direction home" is as romantic as it is miserable and meaningless.
"Like a Rolling Stone" really was a rebellion against a rebellion. Dylan's increasing alienation from the folk movement that he had come out of was coupled with an increasing doubt about the power of "the movement" to change things. He saw countless young people like himself letting go of the past, pushing against everything they had come from in a growing insistence on creating a new society. But somewhere along the way, Dylan lost faith in that new society. He found himself afloat, an icon for a generation who didn't know where he came from or where he was going. He didn't know what to make of it all.
The nature of the "complete unknown" could be political: "That time (or is it the time created by the song?) seems to have been the last moment in American history when the country might have been changed, in a fundamental way, for the better" (source, 6), wrote composer Michael Pisaro in 2004. "The song, even now, registers this possibility, brings it to a point, focuses your attention on it, and then forces you to decide what is to be done."
Some believe that the song places personal transition (as opposed to political transition) in sharp focus. Loss of belief, cynicism and alienation—all close to Dylan's immediate personal experience—emanate from every line. Unlike Dylan's wistful political pieces of the past, this song was really about a person whose beliefs, no matter how fiercely held, could not carry them home.
"A song that seems to hail the dropout life for those who can take it segues into compassion for those who have dropped out of bourgeois surroundings," wrote Dylan biographer Robert Shelton. "'Rolling Stone' is about the loss of innocence and the harshness of experience. Myths, props, and old beliefs fall away to reveal a very taxing reality." (Source)
Writer Mark Polizzotti argues that the song still idealizes these losses, saying, "If 'Blowin in the Wind' and 'The Times They Are A-Changin' had elevated collective yearning and youthful impatience to anthemic levels, 'Rolling Stone' did the same for alienation." (Source)
Jann Wenner agrees, saying, "Everything has been stripped away. You're on your own, you're free now. [...] You're so helpless, and now you've got nothing left. And you're invisible—you've got no secrets—that's so liberating." (Source)
Each critic has an argument to make, but one of the most persistent truths about "Like a Rolling Stone" is that its truth, its "message," never becomes completely clear. No one is completely sure what it means, and that's part of what keeps it interesting.
"Confused—and justified, exultant, free from history with a world to win—is exactly where the song means to leave you" (source), writes Marcus. In a way, it's an anti-message anthem with an anti-message message. Confused? Try studying Taoism (it would probably help you understand Dylan).
What would it be like to be "free from history with a world to win"? Or to be "on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown"? What does it feel like to lose everything you believed in, and to wander the streets wondering what will come next without feeling attached to any particular outcome? It sounds like a question for the religious-minded—which might be why so many have tagged Dylan as a sort of prophet.
Few can describe this feeling of mental wandering quite as well as Bob Dylan himself:
It wasn't that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambitions to stir things up. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick... I didn't know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was [...] If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that's still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that. As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight and I knew a little bit about history, too—the history of a few nations and states—and it was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point, and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check in with. A certain rude rhythm was making it all sway, though. It was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong. (Source)
In the mid-1960s, many people thought society was on a tipping point it might never come back from. It was a nuclear world, a revolutionary world, a world of hippies and resistance fighters and the Black Panther Party and the death of John Kennedy and the beginnings of a miserably long war. Bob Dylan was also on a ledge, looking for songwriting he could hold onto, that would penetrate his growing sense that "whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong." With an outlook underscored by such intrepid doubt, how could you say anything at all?
"Like a Rolling Stone" was what Bob Dylan found to say. Where did he find it?
"It's like a ghost is writing a song like that," he said in 2004. "It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don't know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song." (Source)