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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. (Source, 225) What they caught: a rhythmic and simple rock and 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-and-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. (Source)
This isn't 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 and 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, smartypants 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. (Source) It isn't easy listening, not a song that can be "used as Muzak" (source, 99) Marcus observed. 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's 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 and 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 couldn't 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." (Source)
At least in the minds of Bob Dylan fans, the song drew a line—an ancestral line from folk music directly into rock and 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.
"Like a Rolling Stone" owes a great deal to the traditions of folk, country, and blues that influenced Dylan before he went electric, and the name is a tribute.
Though Bob Dylan followed folk history and folk music closely, he was a very critical listener and there was little that he loved. His favorite songwriter was Hank Williams, whose 1949 release "Lost Highway" (actually written by Leon Payne) tells a story of a delinquent boy with nothing left, and starts with the lines "Like a rollin stone / all alone and lost." This is one of Williams' signature songs, and the 1965 documentary Dont Look Back features a great scene of Dylan enthusiastically singing the song while Joan Baez helps him remember the lyrics. Dylan once said, "I started writing songs after I heard Hank Williams."
Muddy Waters' 1950 "Rollin' Stone" is one of the most famous songs to connect the old acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta to the electric blues, the newfangled 1950s Chicago genre out of which rock and roll first emerged. Waters was a huge figure in the electric blues revolution, and everyone from Chuck Berry to the Beatles was inspired by him. But no one was more inspired than those young Brits who actually named themselves after Waters' song: the Rolling Stones.
When Dylan released "Like a Rolling Stone," the so-called British invasion (the extreme popularity of British bands like the Beatles and the Stones in the U.S.A.) was at a peak. The Rolling Stones were some of the biggest rising stars, and people couldn't help but wonder when they first heard about the song: Is Bob Dylan trying to one-up the Brits? Is he mocking them?
When the public actually heard the song, however, nothing was so obvious. Bob Dylan seemed to be entering the world of the Rolling Stones with both reverence and skill. Eventually, the Stones and Dylan would sing the song together, with Mick Jagger only jokingly suggesting that Dylan wrote the song for them. It would be more accurate to say that Dylan knowingly wrote the song for a whole history of musical inspiration that came before.
"Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I came from," Dylan wrote in his autobiography. "I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere from it, even down into the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors… It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood." (Source)
Though "Like a Rolling Stone" doesn't suggest a specific setting—and the lyrics feel decidedly more urban than rural or interstate-bound—Dylan named the whole album Highway 61 Revisited. The album title is an obvious tribute to both his geographic and his musical roots; he grew up outside of Duluth, Minnesota, on the northern end of a stretch of road that produced such greats as Charley Patton and Son House (fathers of the Delta Blues), Muddy Waters (who traveled up and down Highway 61 to build his early career), and B.B. King.
The legendary Robert Johnson (who Dylan admired greatly) is also said to have sold his soul to the Devil at an intersection with Highway 61. Although Dylan didn't go down a blues road on this album in a musical way, Highway 61's history and legacy provide the setting for "Like a Rolling Stone."
"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. (Source)
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. Hey, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.) 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 shouldn't 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" (source).
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-conscious 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 "Howl" by Ginsberg:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the n**** 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'd 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" (source), said Mark Polizzotti in Highway 61 Revisited.
Dylan was more proud of his work than anything he'd 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." (Source)
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.