Although Like a Rolling Stone is Dylan’s most well-known song, it is certainly not his best. It’s not even the best song on Highway 61 Revisited. Lyrically, Ballad of a Thin Man is much more interesting, not to mention other contenders such as Desolation Row and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. The performance is something short of spectacular as well. Listen to it carefully. The whole thing sputters along like an old jalopy in need of a tune-up. None of the players seem to have a firm grip on the tune. They lurch all over the place, in the middle it sounds like the whole thing is about to breakdown.
Greil Marcus was given access to the tapes of the original recording session while he was researching his book, Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads. According to Marcus, the band only made it through the entire song twice (the first complete take is on the record). Just a few takes before the final version, the band was playing the song in 3/4 time. The finished product sounds like something done in a hurry.
However, the literary value of the lyrics and the exactitude of the musical performance have never determined the ultimate impact of a popular song. Record producers, talent scouts, and record company executives have emptied out their expense accounts searching for a perfect recipe but nobody has found it. Whatever it is, Like a Rolling Stone has it in spades.
I can’t really put my finger on what makes it so perfect. The closest I can come is that the song somehow captures a certain sentiment that everybody can relate to in some way. Springsteen’s Born to Run perfectly captures the lot of the lower-middle class New Jersey teenager. The Rolling Stone’s Satisfaction captures teenage sexual and emotional frustration. The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand captures the ecstatic feeling of puppy love. Like a Rolling Stone – more than any song I can think of – captures the feeling of outrage that anybody who has ever felt that they’ve been looked down on by others. It captures the anger feeling of the outsider.
Many well-known rock figures have commented on the impact the song had on them.
“The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind,” remembered Bruce Springsteen in his speech inducting Dylan into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Franks Zappa said “When I heard Like a Rolling Stone I wanted to quit the music business.”
Dylan himself said:
I wrote that [Like a Rolling Stone} after I had quit. I’d literally quit; singing and playing – I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long, and out of it I took “Like a Rolling Stone”. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.
Nobody had ever done that before. A lot of people – anybody can write – all of the things I use to write, I just wrote’em first because nobody else could think of writing them. But that’s only because I was hungry. But I’ve never met anybody, or heard anybody – I hear a lot – I’m not saying it’s better than anything else, I’m saying that I think – I think “like..” is definitely the thing which I do. After writing that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel or a play. I just had too much, I want to write songs. Because it was a whole new category. I mean, nobody’s ever really written songs [like that] before, really.
Like a Rolling Stone was a big commercial hit, at least by Dylan’s standards, rising to number two on the Billboard charts. The song certainly contributed to Dylan’s acceptance as a rock ‘n’ roll star. It helped Dylan make the transition from folkie to rock star, and played a large part in the success of his later career.
According to Shaun Considine in an article published in The New York Times, Like a Rolling Stone was almost not released as a single. Considine worked for Columbia Records at the time, and claims that the Columbia executives had decided not to release it, deeming it too long at over six minutes. He claims that he happened across the acetate and got a DJ at a popular club to play it. The audience loved it, and so did a DJ and the music director of a popular New York City radio station who happened to be at the club. Supposedly they called Columbia the next day inquiring about the record which ultimately led to it being released as a single. Seems pretty far-fetched to me, but I guess stranger things have happened.
Like a Rolling Stone would be the last song that Tom Wilson would produce for Dylan. Wilson was a Harvard graduate and had worked with many of the jazz greats, including John Coltrane. When he was first assigned to work with Dylan, Wilson was less than ecstatic.
I was introduced to Dylan by David Kapralik at a time when I was not properly working for Columbia,” recalled Wilson. “I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane… I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. [Dylan] played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted.
Wilson was known for taking an extremely hands-off approach with his artists, at times sitting in the back of the studio reading the newspaper as the sessions were rolling. Whether by design or not, this approach was very successfully with Dylan, who craved a free and loose flow in the studio. This approach also led to Al Kooper’s big break.
Kooper at the time was working as a session player and had been invited to watch the sessions. While Wilson was out of the room, Kooper grabbed his guitar and waltz into the performance room. However, after hearing blues virtuoso Mike Bloomfield play, Kooper quickly realized he was out of his league and headed back to the control booth.
After the session started, Wilson moved Paul Griffin from the organ to the piano. Seeing an opportunity, Kooper suggested to Wilson that he play the organ, since he “had a great part”. Wilson scoffed at the idea, but when he left the room for a phone call Kooper got behind the organ anyway. Wilson decided not to kick him out upon his return. Turns out he really did have a great organ part, and his contribution certainly adds a critical element to the final product.
Many commentators have speculated about who the song could be about. The most common thought is Edie Sedgwick, a very beautiful society girl who hung around Andy Warhol’s Factory during the mid-to-late sixties. Sedgwick was from a wealthy, extremely dysfunctional Boston family. One of her brothers committed suicide and another had severe psychological problems. Her father was a real piece-of-work.
According to the Warhol Superstars website, Edie first met Dylan in December of 1964. Dylan side-kick Bobby Neuwirth said Sedgwick came to meet them in a limousine (her prefer mode of transportation) at the Kettle of Fish, a renown folkie bar in Greenwich Village. The next year Sedgwick met Warhol who, entranced with her beauty and style, made her the star of many of his subsequent “films”, which to me anyway, were more like poorly made home movies.
Sedgwick and Warhol were inseparable for a time. However, Sedgwick eventually had a falling out with Warhol and left The Factory. Supposedly at Dylan’s urging, she signed a film contract with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. She had a long affair with Dylan’s 60’s sidekick, Bob Neuwrith. She lived extravagantly, with little self-control, eventually falling into a long period of drug addiction and psychological problems. She died of an overdose at the age of 28.
There is no hard evidence that Like a Rolling Stone was written specifically about Sedgwick. Obviously, the song can be interpreted on many levels. That being said, the lyrics and the song and Sedgwick do fit together neatly. The title of one of Warhol’s films that Sedgwick starred in is, Poor Little Rich Girl, obviously refers to Edie’s privileged childhood, and the lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone can easily be interpreted as being about the same type person. “You used to laugh about/everybody that was hanging out”, and, “you went to all the finest school all right, Miss Lonely/But you know you only used to get juiced in it”, just to sight a few obvious lines. According to several sources, Warhol and his cohorts at The Factory all assumed that Like a Rolling Stone referred to them.
George Plimpton edited a book of interviews about her, Edie Sedgwick, Edie: An American Girl, which tells the tale of her wealthy but dysfunctional family and the details of her life as it spun completely out of control.
The first live performance of Like a Rolling Stone took place not long after the song was recorded, at the famous Forest Hills concert in New York. Kooper was joined by two members of what would soon be known has The Band, Levon Helm on drums and Robbie Robertson on guitar. They practiced for the show for about two weeks.
Judging from the available bootlegs, the performance was not great, although some of it could be attributed to the terrible sound of live audience recordings made at this time. Kooper said the crowded booed at the end of the song, which was odd since it was a top ten hit at the time. He felt they reacted that way because they had read about the booing at the Newport Folk Festival, and felt it was somehow expected of them.
There have been a number of unfortunate performances of this song over the years. The country version Dylan released on Self Portrait is pretty awful. Even worse is the Vagas-ized version on At Budokan. The sleepy version recorded for Unplugged is, at best, ok. Listen to any of the umpteen versions done during the Never Ending tour, when Dylan’s old man’s voice could no longer sing it with the forcefulness the song demands.
The only version I have heard that might surpass the original can be found on Live 1966 – Royal Albert Hall, a recording that captures Dylan’s sublime performance at Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, England on May 17, 1966. By the time of this performance the band had been playing the song for an entire year and had finally gotten it down. (The performance was actually from the Free Trade Hall, but a bootleg version had circulated for years with the incorrect Royal Albert Hall title, so they just keep the name.)
As noted earlier, the 1966 electric tour was met with a lot of resistance from Dylan’s fans. The booing was especially fierce in Europe. At the Free Trade Hall performance, a member of the audience shouted out “Judas” to Dylan, just before the band started Like a Rolling Stone. The comment surely was meant to convey the fan’s anger at Dylan having “sold out” the folk scene by playing pop music with electric instruments. Dylan, obviously irked, responds with “I don’t believe you, you’re a lair”, then shouts to the band to “play fucking loud” just before they start “Like a Rolling Stone”. See C.P. Lee’s book Like the Night for the full story of the Judas incident.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal.