17. Like A Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan 1989 (?) – 2013
I believe this is what might be referred to as “messing with the big boys”. I’m not going to kid anyone with a Greil Marcus impression (although I reckon I could muster a “what is this shit ?” to a few Dylan albums) and I’m no Dylanologist so I won’t try to be either. However, it would be wrong to avoid Dylan in this list as, firstly, I am a huge fan and, secondly, so much of what I love in popular music can be traced back to him in some way. Given his catalogue it’d also be relatively easy to pick out something suitably obscure or lesser known but it wouldn’t be true for me: this was the song that made me “get” Dylan and it is a magnificent fucking juggernaut of a record.
I have American radio to thank for this. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect I would have caught up with this song at some point in my life, but the first time happened to be on some classic rock station in the States. You know the ones – we guarantee to play “Stairway To Heaven” (full seven minutes, no commercials) in the next half hour: don’t touch that dial. I imagine the novelty wears off if you actually live in the States but, personally, I bloody love those stations. Anyway, there I am, on what must have been one of the last holidays I took with my parents and sister, sitting in the back of the rental car, and on it comes.
Bang. That snare drum. Everything in my world stopped when I heard that stick hit that drum. It’s just one beat. One note. It snaps you to attention like a gunshot. Bruce Springsteen later said “…on came that snare shot that sounded like someone had kicked open the door to your mind” and I’m not going to argue with Springsteen.
After that snare, and a heartbeat on the kick drum, comes the band, tearing into the song as if they’re trying to grab hold of it and wrestle it to the floor before clinging on for dear life. Al Kooper’s organ – astonishing that the part had just come to him – dances on top of the rising swell, propelling them all forwards, pitching them into Dylan’s words.
Dylan is many things but principal amongst them he’s a writer, a poet. Early on in his career his words are so good that he needed little else to sustain a song: an acoustic guitar, some repurposed traditionals, and that dizzying, ineffable poetry. For me though the golden mid period (early-mid period, what do you call it ?) that began with “Bringing It All Back Home” and culminated in “ Blonde On Blonde” remains the best marriage of his words and music. Three of the greatest albums ever made ? You bet. In fifteen months ? Oh yes. It’s staggering. Throwing off the constraints of working purely in folk forms – and the (perceived) constraints of his audience’s expectations at that time – seemed to release a flood of creativity in him.
In his own words “Like A Rolling Stone”, in written form, initially emerged as ten or twenty (it wouldn’t be Dylan if he was consistent) pages of “vomit”, spewed out on his typewriter. It’s easy to hear the bile in the song and, for a long time, that was mostly what I took out from it: that snarling, sneering how does it feel ? Dylan’s vocals, along with the whipcrack song start, and glorious tumult stirred up by the band, make for a hugely visceral song. For a while you just sit and let the force of it hit you full in the face. And revel in it. As a means of giving expression to an utter disdain for something then it takes some beating and, from time to time, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel that way.
Very recently though the song has really opened up to me in another way, largely because of the final couple of lines which have cast the entire piece in a different light. If most of the song is the hurricane that blows everything away then the final couple of lines are the acceptance that it’s all gone and finding salvation in being free of it all:
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, with no secrets to conceal
The protagonist in the song has, in pretty literal terms, lost everything and is now effectively invisible – everyone has seen her fall, there’s nothing to hide, and she’s got nothing left to lose. It’s not hard to take a less literal read on this too: stripping everything back, having your secrets revealed, can be liberating – nothing can touch you now. In that context the chorus doesn’t necessarily have to echo with quite the same mocking refrain:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
Maybe it actually feels pretty good: free to do anything, go anywhere, be anything you want. Emotionally that’s the essence of what I take from it now.
The other thing that fascinates me about “Like A Rolling Stone” is how raw it is, how it’s almost constantly on the brink of falling apart. Famously Dylan and the assembled band struggled to record it, attempting it across a dozen or so takes but only running through the entire song once – the version preserved forever – on take 4. It was, in many respects, a glorious accident; from changing the original time signature from a 3/4 waltz to the now standard rock and roll 4/4, Dylan switching from piano to guitar, and Al Kooper – a session guitarist not even booked to play on the song at all – deciding to sit in and contribute that Hammond organ part. It sounds like a glorious accident, seven people creating something in that moment, with the ever present threat of the whole thing collapsing at any moment. There’s a section towards the end (in the lead up to “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”) which would simply never be released now as the song almost self destructs – people drop out of time, lose their way, are allowed to catch up, and then the whole thing just about coheres again through the chorus. The whole thing is almost like something that found them rather than the other way round, something in the room that they heard or felt and did their best to reproduce. Maybe that’s why they struggled to replicate it.
So we’re back in a hire car on holiday in the States. I’m sat in the back utterly transfixed for six minutes. We’re a long way from musing on the nature of creativity – twenty pages of vomit alchemised into one of the most famous songs ever recorded via one complete take and an essentially busking organ player. A very long way from the sense of release in being revealed or being open. Even still some way from what became an abiding interest in 60s counter culture, particularly in the States (it was Ken Kesey and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” that fully lit that fuse). Just at the start of those things. Some of them only becoming apparent now.
How does it feel ? How does Dylan make me feel ? Like my world just got a whole lot bigger.
There’s an interesting “interactive” video on Dylan’s site if you want to hear the original version of the song (here: http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html). It was surprisingly hard to find the original on Youtube which is why I went with the infamous “Judas” performance at the top of the entry – I love that version too (the confrontation in it is compelling) and the whole back story although they kinda lurch into the song and it doesn’t have that same snare crack that hooked me in the first place.
Addendum (March 2014): the vagaries of the internet… that “Judas” performance has now been removed from Youtube as well so I’ve had to stick a less than satisfactory version from Letterman on instead. You all know it anyway, right ?