Why “Like a Rolling Stone” remains Bob Dylan’s best – The Forward

It begins with the quick snap of a snare drum – a kind of bang heard around the world – followed immediately by the thud of a bass drum before the seven-piece band explodes with the theme that would propel the single. “Like a Rolling Stone” to the top of the pop charts and into the cultural stratosphere, where, after changing the notion of what a pop song could be and influencing a thousand artists to follow, rock poet Bob Dylan would ultimately win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Since 2004, “Like a Rolling Stone” held number one in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Best Songs of All Time list, until a few weeks ago, when the magazine updated its list and Dylan’s song fell to No. 4, replaced by Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” above and behind Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. These are all worthy and meritorious songs, and I have no desire to argue against any of them; moreover, this is only a list from a trade magazine and nothing more.

But “Like a Rolling Stone” was transformational, a musical and cultural phenomenon that changed everything, even inspiring the name of this magazine. Going back and listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” again (and again and again) turns out to be a religious experience. The power of the record – and it’s as powerful today as it was when it was released in July 1965 – is unassailable. It is a reminder of how rock music at its best can also have an emotional and intellectual impact; indeed, five and a half decades after its initial release and after hearing it hundreds, if not thousands of times, live and on record, it still makes me cry. (Again, I’m a sentimental jerk.)

How Bob Dylan’s Greatest Song Changed Music History – A Deep Dive Into An Accidental Masterpiece

“Like a Rolling Stone” was sort of an accidental masterpiece. It started out as a solo piano waltz – you can see Dylan practicing on the piano working out the chord changes that would become the song from the 1967 documentary film “Dont Look Back”[sic] – and through many iterations adding more instrumentation, it has retained its time signature ¾. At one point during the several recording sessions it took to arrive at the final version, he switched to the more standard rock’n’roll time signature of 4/4 played by a rock’n ‘ensemble. full roll.

It was accidental in that there was no clear strategy or plan for the arrangement; By all accounts (and you can hear that in the twenty or so studio takes included in Dylan’s box set, “The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966”) it has evolved organically into the recording studio, with the musicians even swapping their instruments until it sounds right. Dylan himself remained on the piano through many versions before switching to electric rhythm guitar (after which Paul Griffin switched from organ to piano).

The distinctive organ sound that hovers in and around the entire song is the result of a last-minute stealthy approach by Al Kooper, a guitarist too intimidated by the in-room presence of Michael Bloomfield – one of the most great blues-rock guitarists of all. time – to pick up his ax. Determined to be part of the proceedings anyway, he got behind the organ, without an invitation from Dylan or nominal session producer Tom Wilson – who nearly broke Kooper when he saw him sitting down. to the Hammond through the control room window. But Dylan and Wilson gave up, and guitarist Kooper ended up playing some of the most memorable organ chords in rock history. (Kooper and Bloomfield would continue to work together on various projects over the following years. Since this article appears in the Forward, it should be noted that in addition to Dylan, Bloomfield and Kooper were the other Jewish musicians in the room.)

How Bob Dylan’s Greatest Song Changed Music History – A Deep Dive Into An Accidental Masterpiece

While seven instrumentalists playing live cannot produce a Spectorian “wall of sound”, there is something Spectorian in the end result. (Dylan had talked with Phil Spector at the time about the possibility of working with him as a producer.) Perhaps it was another kind of “sound barrier,” a thick electric explosion of power rock even before it was born. there is such a thing. Dylan of course led the charge with his oversized, sneering voice, seemingly fueled by grudge and rage, albeit against whatever or that is a discussion that could go on for much longer than the record’s six and a half minutes. time. The length of the trail alone was overwhelming; until “Like a Rolling Stone”, pop singles followed an unspoken rule limiting them to about three minutes maximum (determined in part by the amount of music that can be contained on one side of a single at 45 rpm). But even at twice the standard length, the song’s atomic explosion makes it go by in a flash.

I focus first on the music because too often writing about Dylan is writing on his lyrics to the detriment of the sound. But the sound of the record is an integral part of the words; to consider one without the other, or in relation to the other, is to miss by a kilometer what Dylan achieved with “Like a Rolling Stone”. The song took rock ‘n’ roll into another realm, beyond the innocent (or not so innocent) stories of teenage love and lust into a world of, well, literature, like the said the academy. Literature, and whatever the word says about voice, vision, attitude, and reach.

“You went to the best school okay Miss Lonely, but you know you were just drinking juice,” he sang, as if making that argument. Has Dylan been influenced by Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Allen Ginsberg and “La Bamba” and “Twist and Shout” among others? Of course he was. But it took Bob Dylan to inspire The Beatles to switch from “Drive My Car” to “She Said She Said”. Dylan practically anticipates this when he sings: “You used to have so much fun with Napoleon in rags and the language he used / Go see him now, he’s calling you, you can’t refuse.” And refuse it, no one did.

How Bob Dylan’s Greatest Song Changed Music History – A Deep Dive Into An Accidental Masterpiece

Well, maybe some have. The committed folk purists of the Newport Folk Festival who booed his electric band, the iconic rowdy at Manchester Free Trade Hall who shouted “Judas!” (only for Dylan to turn to his band and order them to “fuck it loud”), and those who have complained that Bob Dylan can’t sing. But time has left them all behind. Dylan predicted all of this when he sang, “You said you would never compromise with the mysterious bum, but now you realize / He’s not selling any alibis.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” was the right song with the right sound at the right time and in the right place. It was the sonic embodiment of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. It became the anthem of alienation, a dagger at the heart of the American dream. Those who didn’t take Dylan seriously as a little over a year ago he warned, “Your sons and daughters are out of your control / Your old road is aging fast,” in “The Times They Are a-Changin ‘”, could no longer put their heads in the sand.

Bruce Springsteen, who was originally billed as a “new Dylan” when he was signed to Columbia Records, Dylan’s label, by the same big label boss John Hammond, who signed Dylan, said this about “Like a Rolling Stone”:

“Dylan cleared your mind and showed us that just because the music was physical didn’t mean it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song to contain the whole world. invented a new way of sounding a pop singer, went beyond the limits of what a recording could accomplish, and he changed the face of rock’n’roll forever.

How Bob Dylan’s Greatest Song Changed Music History – A Deep Dive Into An Accidental Masterpiece

As previously noted, reviewers have spent thousands of hours writing thousands of words speculating who the “you” is to whom the second person story is directed. Candidates range from Andy Warhol to Marianne Faithfull to Edie Sedgwick to Joan Baez. Nothing, however, could be more limiting and untrue, a terrible misinterpretation of the open and complete rant that is “Like a Rolling Stone”, in which Dylan rhetorically asks, “How does it feel to be on?” your own, without direction home, like a complete stranger, like a rolling stone? ”Implicit in the lyrics themselves, there is evidence that the“ you ”is Dylan himself, the son of Beatrice“ Beatty ” Stone.

And implicit in the lyrics themselves is a form of rhetoric that was part of Robert Allen Zimmerman’s birthright: the song’s central narrative device is a question, a narrative strategy that is used in the writing and commentary. Jews and is integrated into the grammar and vocabulary of the Yiddish language. “How does that feel? ” Indeed. It’s great when I listen to “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Seth Rogovoy is Contributing Editor of The Forward and author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).

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