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"Like a Rolling Stone" is a 1965 song by the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Its confrontational lyrics originate in an extended piece of verse Dylan wrote in June 1965, when he returned exhausted from a grueling tour of England. After the lyrics were heavily edited, "Like a Rolling Stone" was recorded a few weeks later as part of the sessions for the forthcoming album Highway 61 Revisited. During a difficult two-day preproduction, Dylan struggled to find the essence of the song, which was demoed without success in 3/4 time. A breakthrough was made when it was tried in a rock music format, and rookie session musician Al Kooper improvised the organ riff for which the track is known. However, Columbia Records was unhappy with both the song's length at over six minutes and its heavy electric sound, and was hesitant to release it. It was only when a month later a copy was leaked to a new popular music club and heard by influential DJs that the song was put out as a single. Although radio stations were reluctant to play such a long track, "Like a Rolling Stone" reached number two in the US charts and became a worldwide hit.

The track has been described as revolutionary in its combination of different musical elements, the youthful, cynical sound of Dylan's voice, and the directness of the question in the chorus: "How does it feel?". "Like a Rolling Stone" transformed Dylan's career and is today considered one of the most influential compositions in post-war popular music and has since its release been both a music industry and popular culture milestone which elevated Dylan's image to iconic. The song has been covered by numerous artists, varying from the Jimi Hendrix Experienceand the Rolling Stones to the Wailers and Green Day.

Writing and recording[edit source | editbeta]Edit

In the spring of 1965, returning from the tour of England documented in the film Dont Look Back, Dylan was unhappy with the public's expectations of him, as well as the direction his career was going, and seriously considered quitting the music business. In a 1966 Playboy interview, he described his dissatisfaction: "Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation ... But 'Like a Rolling Stone' changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don't dig you."[3]

The basis of the song came from an extended piece of verse. In 1966, Dylan described the genesis of "Like a Rolling Stone" to journalist Jules Siegel:

It was ten pages long. It wasn't called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn't hatred, it was telling someone something they didn't know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that's a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, "How does it feel?" in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.

[4]

During 1965, Dylan composed prose, poems, and songs by typing incessantly. Footage of Dylan in his suite at the Savoy Hotel, London, captures this process in Dont Look Back. But he told two interviewers that "Like a Rolling Stone" began as a long piece of "vomit" (in one account 10 pages, in another 20 pages) which then acquired musical form.[5] He never spoke of any other major composition in this way. In an interview with CBC radio in Montreal, Dylan called the creation of the song a "breakthrough", explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career. He said that he found himself writing "this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took 'Like a Rolling Stone' and made it as a single. And I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should 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."[6]

From the extended version on paper, Dylan crafted four verses and the chorus in Woodstock, New York.[7] The song was written on an upright piano in the key of G sharp and was changed to C on the guitar in the recording studio.[8]Dylan invited Mike Bloomfield, lead guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, to play on the recording session. Asked by Dylan to visit his house in Woodstock for the weekend to learn new material, Bloomfield later recalled: "The first thing I heard was 'Like a Rolling Stone'. I figured he wanted blues, string bending, because that's what I do. He said, 'Hey, man, I don't want any of that B.B. King stuff'. So, OK, I really fell apart. What the heck does he want? We messed around with the song. I played the way that he dug, and he said it was groovy."[9]

The recording sessions were produced by Tom Wilson on June 15–16, 1965, in Studio A of Columbia Records, 799 Seventh Avenue, in New York City.[1][10][11] In addition to Bloomfield, the other musicians enlisted were Paul Griffin on piano, Joe Macho, Jr. on bass, Bobby Gregg on drums, and Bruce Langhorne on tambourine,[11] all booked by Wilson. Gregg and Griffin had previously worked with Dylan and Wilson on Bringing It All Back Home.[12]

On the first day, five takes of the song were recorded in a markedly different style from the eventual release—a 3/4 waltz time, with Dylan on piano. The lack of sheet music meant the song was played by ear. However the essence of the song was discovered in the course of the chaotic session. They did not reach the first chorus until the fourth take, but after the following harmonica fill Dylan interrupted, saying, "My voice is gone, man. You wanna try it again?"[13] This take was subsequently released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.[13][14] The session ended shortly afterwards.[15]

When the session re-convened the following day, June 16, Al Kooper joined the proceedings. Kooper, at that time a 21-year-old session guitarist,[16] was not originally supposed to play but was present as Wilson's guest.[17] When Wilson stepped out, however, Kooper sat down with his guitar with the other musicians, hoping to take part in the recording session.[18] By the time Wilson returned, Kooper, who had been intimidated by Bloomfield's guitar playing, was back in the control room. After a couple of rehearsal takes, Wilson moved Griffin from Hammond organ to piano.[18] Kooper then went to Wilson, saying that he had a good part for the organ. Wilson belittled Kooper's organ-playing abilities, but as Kooper later said, "He just sort of scoffed at me ... He didn't say 'no'—so I went out there." Wilson, surprised to see Kooper at the organ, nevertheless allowed him to play on the track. Upon hearing a playback of the song, Dylan insisted that the organ be turned up in the mix, despite Wilson's protestations that Kooper was "not an organ player."[19]

This session saw 15 recorded takes.[20] The song had by now evolved into its familiar form, in 4/4 time with Dylan on electric guitar. After the fourth take—the master take that was released as a single[21]—Wilson happily commented, "That sounds good to me."[22] Nevertheless, Dylan and the band persisted in recording the song 11 more times.[23]

Release[edit source | editbeta]Edit

According to Shaun Considine, release coordinator for Columbia Records in 1965, "Like a Rolling Stone" was first relegated to the "graveyard of canceled releases" because of concerns from the sales and marketing departments over its unprecedented six-minute length and "raucous" rock sound. In the days following the rejection, Considine took a discarded acetate of the song to a New York club called Arthur—a newly opened disco popular with celebrities and media people.[1][24] At the crowd's insistence, the demo was played over and over, until finally it wore out. The next morning, a disc jockey and a programming director from the city's leading top 40 stations called Columbia and demanded copies.[1] Shortly afterwards, on July 20, 1965, "Like a Rolling Stone" was released as a single with "Gates of Eden" as its B-side.[25][26][27]

Despite its length, the song became Dylan's biggest hit to date[21][28] and remained in the US charts for 12 weeks, where it reached number 2—behind The Beatles' "Help!".[29][30] The promotional copies released to disc jockeys on July 15 had the first two verses and two refrains on one side, while the rest of the song was put on the other. Deejays who wanted to play the whole song would simply flip the vinyl over.[31][32] While many radio stations were reluctant to play the song in its entirety, public demand eventually forced them to air the full song.[27][33] This helped the single reach its number 2 peak, several weeks after its release.[33] It was a Top 10 hit in other countries, including CanadaIreland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.[34][35][36][37]

Themes[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Unlike conventional chart hits of the time, the lyrics of "Like a Rolling Stone" were not about love, but expressed resentment and a yearning for revenge.[38][39] Author Oliver Trager describes the lyrics as "Dylan's sneer at a woman who has fallen from grace and is reduced to fending for herself in a hostile, unfamiliar world."[39] Until now, the song's target, Miss Lonely, has taken the easy way out, gone to the finest schools and had high-placed friends, but now that her situation has become difficult she has no meaningful experiences on which to base her character.[39] The opening lines of the song establish the woman's former condition:


Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?[40]

And the first verse ends with lines deriding her current condition:


Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal[40]

Despite the vitriol, the song also depicts compassion for Miss Lonely, as well as joy in the freedom of losing everything.[38] Jann Wenner has commented that "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. You've nothing to fear anymore."[41] The final verse ends with the lines:


When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal[40]

The refrain emphasizes these themes:


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[40]

Dylan biographer Robert Shelton summed up the song's meaning as: "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. '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."[42]

In a humorous vein, Dylan commented on the moral perspective of "Like a Rolling Stone" at a press conference at KQED television studio on December 3, 1965. A reporter suggested to Dylan the song took a hard line on a girl, and asked "Do you want to change their lives? or do you want to point out to them the error of their ways?" Laughing, Dylan replied, "I want to needle them."[43][44]

Commentators have tried to tie the characters in the song to specific people in Dylan's orbit in 1965. In his book POPism: The Warhol '60sAndy Warhol recalled that some people in his circle believed that "Like a Rolling Stone" contained hostile references to him; he was told, "Listen to 'Like a Rolling Stone'—I think you're the diplomat on the chrome horse, man."[45] The reason behind Dylan's alleged hostility to Warhol was supposedly Warhol's treatment ofEdie Sedgwick, an actress and model. Sedgwick has been suggested as the basis of the central character in the song, 'Miss Lonely'.[46] Sedgwick was briefly involved with Dylan in late 1965 and early 1966, around which time there was some discussion of the two making a movie together.[47] According to Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey, Sedgwick may have been in love with Dylan, and was shocked when she found out that Dylan had secretly married Sara Lowndsin November 1965.[47] However, in The Bob Dylan EncyclopediaMichael Gray argues that Sedgwick had no connection with "Like a Rolling Stone", but states "there's no doubt that the ghost of Edie Sedgwick hangs around Blonde on Blonde".[48]

Greil Marcus has alluded to a suggestion by art historian Thomas Crow that Dylan had written the song as a comment on Warhol's scene: "I heard a lecture by Thomas Crow ... about "Like a Rolling Stone" being about Edie Sedgwick within Andy Warhol's circle, as something that Dylan saw from the outside, not being personally involved with either of them, but as something he saw and was scared by and saw disaster looming and wrote a song as a warning, and it was compelling."[49] Joan BaezMarianne Faithfull and Bob Neuwirth have also been mooted as possible targets of Dylan's scorn.[28][50][51] Dylan's biographer Howard Sounes warned against reducing the song to the biography of one person, and suggested "it is more likely that the song was aimed generally at those [Dylan] perceived as being 'phony'". Sounes adds, "There is some irony in the fact that one of the most famous songs of the folk-rock era—an era associated primarily with ideals of peace and harmony—is one of vengeance."[52]

Mike Marqusee has written at length on the conflicts in Dylan's life during this time, with its deepening alienation from his old folk-revival audience and clear-cut leftist causes. He suggests that the song is probably self-referential. "The song only attains full poignancy when one realises it is sung, at least in part, to the singer himself: he's the one 'with no direction home.'"[53] Dylan himself has noted that after his motorcycle accident in 1966 he realized that "when I used words like 'he' and 'it' and 'they,' and talking about other people, I was really talking about nobody but me."[50]

Live performances[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Dylan performed the song live for the first time within days of its release, when he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965.[54] Many of the audience's folk enthusiasts objected to Dylan's use of electric guitars, looking down on rock 'n roll, as Bloomfield put it, as popular amongst "greasers, heads, dancers, people who got drunk and boogied."[27] According to Dylan's friend, music critic Paul Nelson, "The audience [was] booing and yelling 'Get rid of the electric guitar'", while Dylan and his backing musicians gave an uncertain rendition of their new single.[27]

Highway 61 Revisited was issued at the end of August 1965. When Dylan went on tour that fall he asked the future members of The Band to accompany him in performing the electric half of the concerts. "Like a Rolling Stone" took the closing slot on his setlist and held it, with rare exceptions, through the end of his 1966 "world tour." On May 17, 1966, during the last leg of the tour, Dylan and his band performed at Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. Just before they started to play the track, an audience member yelled "Judas!", apparently referring to Dylan's supposed "betrayal" of folk music. Dylan responded, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!" With that, he turned to the band, ordering them to "play it fucking loud."[54]

Since then, "Like a Rolling Stone" has remained a staple in Dylan's concerts, often with revised arrangements.[55] It was included in his 1969 Isle of Wight show and in both his reunion tour with The Band in 1974 and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975–76. The song continued to be featured in other tours throughout the 1970s and 1980s.[55] On the Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988, "Like a Rolling Stone" has been one of the five most performed songs, with 653 performances registered through 2005.[56]

Besides Highway 61 Revisited, the song's standard release can be found on four official albums: Bob Dylan's Greatest HitsBiographThe Essential Bob Dylan, and Dylan. In addition, the early, incomplete studio recording in 3/4 time appears on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.[14][57] Live performances of the song are included on Self PortraitBefore the FloodBob Dylan at BudokanMTV UnpluggedThe Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" ConcertThe Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack,[58] and The Band's Rock of Ages.[59]

Legacy[edit source | editbeta]Edit

The song's sound was revolutionary in its combination of electric guitar licks, organ chords, and Dylan's voice, at once young and jeeringly cynical.[60] Critic Michael Gray described the track as "a chaotic amalgam of blues, impressionism, allegory, and an intense directness in the central chorus: 'How does it feel'".[60] The song had an enormous impact on popular culture and rock music. Its success made Dylan a pop icon, as Paul Williams notes:

Dylan had been famous, had been the center of attention, for a long time. But now the ante was being upped again. He'd become a pop star as well as a folk star ... and was, even more than the Beatles, a public symbol of the vast cultural, political, generational changes taking place in the United States and Europe. He was perceived as, and in many ways functioned as, a leader.

[61]

Record producer Paul Rothchild, producer of The Doors' first five albums, recalled the elation that an American musician had made a record that successfully challenged the primacy of the British Invasion groups. He said, "What I realized when I was sitting there is that one of US—one of the so-called Village hipsters—was making music that could compete with THEM—the Beatles, and the Stones, and the Dave Clark Five—without sacrificing any of the integrity of folk music or the power of rock'n'roll."[62]

The song had a huge impact on Bruce Springsteen, who was 15 years old when he first heard it. Springsteen described the moment during his speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and also assessed the long-term significance of "Like a Rolling Stone":

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'd kicked open the door to your mind ... The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock'n'roll for ever and ever "[63][64]

Dylan's contemporaries in 1965 were both startled and challenged by the single. Paul McCartney remembered going around to John Lennon's house in Weybridge to hear the song. According to McCartney, "It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful ... He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further."[65] Frank Zappa had a more extreme reaction: "When I heard 'Like a Rolling Stone', I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else ...' But it didn't do anything. It sold but nobody responded to it in the way that they should have."[65] Nearly forty years later, in 2003, Elvis Costello commented on the innovative quality of the single. "What a shocking thing to live in a world where there was Manfred Mann and the Supremes and Engelbert Humperdinck and here comes 'Like a Rolling Stone'".[66]

Although CBS tried to make the record more "radio friendly" by cutting it in half and spreading it over both sides of the vinyl, both Dylan and fans demanded that the full six-minute take be placed on one side and that radio stations play the song in its entirety.[67] "Like a Rolling Stone"'s subsequent success played a big part in changing the music business convention that singles had to be under three minutes in length. The surreal cast of characters and Dylan's verbal inventiveness also represented an innovation in Top 10 singles. In the words of Rolling Stone, "No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time."[68]

In 1966, Dylan told Ralph Gleason: "'Rolling Stone's the best song I wrote."[69] In 2004, speaking to Robert Hilburn, Dylan still felt that the song had a special place in his work: "It's like a ghost is writing a song like that, it gives you the song and it goes away. You don't know what it means. Except that the ghost picked me to write the song."[70]

More than 40 years since its release, "Like a Rolling Stone" remains highly regarded, as measured by polls of reviewers and fellow songwriters. A 2002 ranking by Uncut and a 2005 poll in Mojo both rated it Dylan's number one song.[71][72] As for his personal views on such polls, Dylan told Ed Bradley in a 2004 interview on 60 Minutes that he never pays attention to them, because they change frequently.[73] Illustrating his point was the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time poll by Mojo in 2000, which included two Dylan singles, but not "Like a Rolling Stone". Five years later, the magazine named it his number one song.[72][74] Rolling Stone picked "Like a Rolling Stone" as the number two single of the past 25 years in 1989,[75] and then in 2004 placed the song at number one on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".[76] In 2011, Rolling Stone again placed "Like a Rolling Stone" at the top of their list of "500 Greatest Songs Of All Time".[77] In 2006, Pitchfork Media placed it at number 4 on their list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s".[78]

Accolades[edit source | editbeta]Edit

List Publisher Rank Year of Publication
500 Greatest Songs of All Time Rolling Stone 1 2010[77]
200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s Pitchfork Media 4 2006[78]
100 Greatest Rock Songs VH1 4 2000[79]
500 Songs That Shaped Rock Rock & Roll Hall of Fame N/A 1995[80]

Cover versions[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Many artists have covered "Like a Rolling Stone", including Johnny ThundersDavid Bowiethe Four SeasonsSixto Rodriguezthe RascalsJudy CollinsJohnny WinterCher,AnberlinSpiritMichael Boltonthe CreationDavid Gilmourthe SurfarisAl StewartJohn Mellencamp,[81][82] The Wailers,[83][84] Green Day,[85] and the Rolling Stones.[86]Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, performing with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, recorded a live version at the Monterey Pop Festival.[87] Hendrix was an avid fan of Bob Dylan, and especially liked "Like a Rolling Stone". "It made me feel that I wasn't the only one who'd ever felt so low ..." Hendrix said.[88] After the second verse, Hendrix skipped to the fourth. Hendrix played the electric guitar, and music critic Greil Marcus described the atmosphere of the Hendrix recording thus:

Huge chords ride over the beginning of each verse like rain clouds; the tune is taken very slowly, with Hendrix's thick, street-talk drawl sounding nothing at all like Dylan's Midwestern dust storm."

[89]

The song has also been covered in various languages. Hugues Aufray covered the song in French as "Comme des pierres qui roulent" (Aufray Trans Dylan, 1995), Austrian Wolfgang Ambros included an Austrian-German dialect version "Allan Wia a Stan" on his 1978 LP Wie Im Schlaf which reached position 8 in the Austrian charts for 8 weeks,[90] German band Bap created a dialect of Cologne version "Wie 'ne Stein" on its LP Vun drinne noh drusse and Lars Winnerbäck did a performance of the song in Swedish titled "Som en hemlös själ", literally "Like a Homeless Soul".[91] Articolo 31 recorded an Italian version titled "Come una Pietra Scalciata" (literally, "Like a Kicked-off Stone") for their 1998 album Nessuno.[92] Articolo 31's version is a hip-hop song which contains overdubs of a confused girl's voice, rapped parts and DJing. This version contains only three verses and is four and a half minutes long.[93]

Charts[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Chart (1965) Peak

position

Canadian RPM Singles Chart[34] 3
Dutch Singles Chart[36] 9
German Singles Chart[94] 13
Irish Singles Charts[35] 9
UK Singles Chart[37] 4
US Billboard Hot 100[95] 2

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