"Like a Rolling Stone"

"Like a Rolling Stone" (Bob Dylan)

• Bob Dylan, single (1965); Highway 61 Revisited (1965); Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967); Self Portrait (1970); Eat the Document (film)/'66 (1971); Masterpieces (1978); Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979); Biograph/'65 (1985); Hard to Handle (video) (1986); The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–3 Rare and Unreleased, 1961–1991/'65 (1991); MTV Unplugged (1995); The Bootleg Series, Volume 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966—The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (1998)
• Bob Dylan/The Band, Before the Flood (1974)
• The Band (performed with Bob Dylan), Rock of Ages (Deluxe Edition)/'71 (2001)
• Bob Dylan/Various Artists (performed by John Mellencamp), Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993); (performed by Articolo 31), Masked and Anonymous (2003)
• The Turtles, It Ain't Me, Babe (1965)
• Dino, Desi and Billy, I'm a Fool (1965)
• The Four Seasons, Sing Big Hits of Bacharach, David & Dylan (1965); Four Seasons Sing Big Hits (1988)
• Gene Norman Group, Dylan Jazz (1965)
• Jerry Murad, What's Happening Harmonicats (1965)
• Serfs, The Early Bird Café (1965)
• The Surfaris, It Ain't Me Babe (1965)
• Billy Strange, Folk Rock Hits (1965)
• The Young Rascals, The Young Rascals (1966)
• The Wailers, single (1966); The Wailing Wailers at Studio One, Volume 2 (1994)
• Billy Lee Riley, Funk Harmonica (1966)
• Cher, Sonny Side of Cher (1967); Bang Bang and Other Hits (1992)
• Sebastian Cabot, Sebastian Cabot, Actor—Bob Dylan, Poet (1967)
• Calliope, Steamed (1968)
• The Rotary Connection, Rotary Connection (1968)
• The Arbors, I Can't Quit Her (1969)
• Hugo Montenegro, Dawn of Dylan (1970)
• The Undisputed Truth, The Undisputed Truth (1971)
• Paper Lace, First Edition (1972)
• Jimi Hendrix, Soundtrack Recordings (1973); Jimi Plays Monterey (1986)
• Bettina Jonic, The Bitter Mirror (1975)
• Spirit, Spirit of '76 (1975); Live at La Paloma (1995)
• Brakes, For Why You Kicka My Donkey (1979)
• Johnny Winter, Raisin' Cain (1980)
• Creation, How Does It Feel to Feel? (1982)
• Bad News Reunion, Last Orders Please (1982)
• Invictas, Au Go Go (1983)
• Wolfgang Ambros and Fendrich, Open Air (1983)
• Rich Lerner, Performs Songs by Bob Dylan (1990); Napoleon in Rags (2001)
• Judy Collins, Judy Sings Dylan . . . Just Like a Woman (1993)
• Mystery Tramps, single (1993)
• The Outcasts, Live!/Standing Room Only (1993)
• Mick Ronson, Heaven and Hull (1994)
• The Rolling Stones, Stripped (1995)
• Hugues Aufray, Aufray Trans Dylan (1995)
• Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, 1964–1969, Plus (1996)
• The Paragons, Sing the Beatles and Bob Dylan (1998)
• Insol, Insol (1998)
• Nancy Sinatra, How Does It Feel (1999)
• Black 47, Live in New York City (1999)
• Gerard Quintana and Jordi Batiste, Els Miralls de Dylan (1999)
• Various Artists (performed by David West), Pickin' on Dylan (1999)
• Michel Montecrossa, Born in Time (2000)
• Tiny Tim, Live! At the Royal Albert Hall (2000)
• Patricia O'Callaghan, Real Emotional Girl (2001)
• Various Artists (performed by Peter Himmelman), Alive at Twenty-five: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Silver Anniversary (2002)
• Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Sings (2002)
• Todd Rubenstein, The String Quartet Tribute to Bob Dylan (2003)
• Barb Jungr, Waterloo Sunset (2003)

Bob Dylan's greatest song? While that debate could go on forever (and has already raged long past the point of tedium), there is no dispute that upon its release in 1965 "Like a Rolling Stone" elevated rock'n'roll to high poetic art once and for all.

With power, brilliance, and dynamism, Dylan's sneer at a woman who has fallen from grace and reduced to fending for herself in a hostile, unfamiliar world carries an air of faded majesty. While some have suggested the song is autobiographical, "Like a Rolling Stone" reads more like a revenge song—the angry rantings of a twenty-four-year-old middle-class kid thrust into stardom and lashing out at the privileged sycophants slumming in his wake and feeding off his aura.

With crisp brevity, Dylan takes the language of the streets and fuses it with a cascading effect that heightens Miss Lonely's descent. Dylan's use of the internal rhyme and phrasing is at its best in "Like a Rolling Stone" as he cuts her down to size with verse after pounding verse of gleefully unforgiving, "I told ya so" vitriol. She's been to the finest schools, she's made every scene there was to make with all her fancy, high-placed friends, but now, on the other side of the looking glass, things don't seem quite so easy, do they? By taking the easy way out, Miss Lonely has, like a rolling stone, gathered no moss -- no useful, meaningful experience to use as a foundation for building her character.

"Like a Rolling Stone" also broke the mold of the two-minute single. Refusing to shorten the recording to fit radio's strict format, Dylan delivered a six-minute epic that would become his first number-one single and the then-longest song to ever hit the Top 40. If nothing else, the popularity of "Like a Rolling Stone" forced radio stations all over the world to reconsider their format, shattering a restricting paradigm and setting the stage for the development of free-form FM radio and rock 'n' roll.

In the Biograph liner notes, Dylan briefly described the creative process that produced "Like a Rolling Stone": "My wife and I lived in a little cabin in Woodstock, which we rented from Peter Yarrow's mother. I wrote the song there, in this cabin. We had come up from New York, and I had about three days off up there to get some stuff together (for the next album). It just came, you know. It started off with that ‘La Bamba' riff."

Some insight into how the song was shaped into being in the studio may be gleaned both from the piano-based, waltz-time version released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–3 and those available on Dylan's CD-ROM, Highway 61 Interactive.

Recalling the cathartic process of writing the song, Dylan told biographer Robert Shelton for his 1986 book No Direction Home: "‘Like a Rolling Stone,' man, was very vomitific in its structure ... It seemed like twenty pages, but it was really six. I wrote it in six pages. You know how you get sometimes." Dylan continued:

And I did it on a piano. And when I made the record, I called the people who made the record with me, and I told them how to play on it ... When I wrote "all you got to do is find a school and learn to get juiced in it," I wasn't making this song about school. That's their idea. Their definition of school is much different than mine. My language is different than theirs. I mean REALLY TOTALLY DIFFERENT! The finest school, I mean, might just be out in the swamps. "School" here can be anything. This song is definitely not about school.

Shelton picks up on Dylan's thought and develops it. According to Shelton, [Dylan] was probably using "school" as a symbol of a way of life. He sees horror enveloping anyone who suddenly makes a break after being closely attracted to any form of life. For some, the experience is liberating; to others, it brings panic and helplessness. The "schoolgirl" he seems to be chastising here is probably anyone afraid to step out of his or her cocoon and into life's mainstream without guidance, parents, structure, or crutches. The words seem crueler on the page than they sound in performance. 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.

Since its concert debut at the monumental Newport and Forest Hills shows in the summer of 1965, "Like a Rolling Stone" has been a constant in Dylan's repertoire, though he has continually futzed with its arrangement and his delivery. It was the icing on the cake, in-your-face knockout-punch finale during the historic 1966 electric tour; transformed into a country bellow for the 1969 Isle of Wight show; revamped with a blustery swagger for the whirlwind '74 tour with the Band (utilized to great dramatic effect by Martin Scorsese in his segment of the 1989 film New York Stories); lazily delivered during the Rolling Thunder Revue; glitzed up for the 1978 big-band world tour; and molded into various balladic shapes in the 1980s and 1990s. By the time the hot 2002 incarnation of the Never Ending Tour band hit town, Dylan and company tangled in a triple guitar showdown that raised many a roof. And it continues to do so; it's a song that he never ceases blowing new life into even after version gazillion and one.

Bobcats point to a couple of other songs, in addition to the aforementioned "La Bamba" (the big 1959 Ritchie Valens hit), as possible roots of "Like a Rolling Stone": Muddy Waters's "Rolling Stone," and Leon Payne's "Lost Highway," which begins with "I'm a rolling stone." Dylan can be seen singing "Lost Highway" in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back only a month before writing "Like a Rolling Stone." Listen to these three cuts back to back to back, and you may be able to hear where and how the seeds to a masterwork were sown.

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