"Like a Rolling Stone," 40 Years On

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mysterytramp asked,

I’d build a show around Greil Marcus’ new book “Like a Rolling Stone.??? It’s a brilliant jumping-off point for exploring the tectonic shift of American popular music and culture in the mid-1960s through the prism of Bob Dylan’s song.

and we answer.

Bob Dylan and six other musicians spent June 15 and 16, 1965 in Columbia’s Studio A in New York City and walked out with “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song — a single, a record — that according to our guest Greil Marcus changed the history of popular music.

The prism of a six-minute song is small but powerful. It provides a way to look at a musician — the man and the music — and a particular time. It’s a focus but not necessarily an impediment. We’re interested in the culture that the song was borne out of… and the culture it helped usher in.

And we want to hear from you. Do you remember when you first heard “Like a Rolling Stone?” Was it in that summer of 1965? Or perhaps in 1985? Does it resonate in your own life the way Marcus convincingly argues it has in the world of American music?

How does it feel, in short, forty years later?

Greil Marcus

Author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, among many other articles and books.

[In a Berkeley, CA studio]

Michael Pisaro

Composer and professor of composition and theory at the California Institute of the Arts

[On the phone from Valencia, CA]

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  • i never read ‘like a rolling stone’,

    i did read “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” a while ago, and i must say that my interest in music changed, it didn’t grew bigger, it just changed

    i started to pay more attention to small things…

    let me say it like this,

    a year ago i bought a lot of vinyl, i still do, but after reading invisible republic, a friend and i started ‘The Owl Jolsons’, a dj duo that only plays guitar oriented music (originals, blues, folk, rock, british invasion, punk, and so on and on), this was an idea we already had for a

  • ok, let me continue (pushed a wrong button in all my excitement 😉

    this was an idea we already had for a long time, but never really started to work on it, right after reading invisible republic we did start to dj, and after only a short year we’ve played at shows with suzanne vega, devendra banhart, vetiver, hood, feist, loudon wainwright III, john cale, magnolia electric co, and so on…

    what a year it was, and i still am gratefull to invisible republic and greil marcus because it was that last bit of motivation we needed to go from listener to participant!

    thanx Greil marcus!

  • shpilk

    Dylan has been part court jester, journalist and storyteller.

    One of my later favorites is Jokerman – {the video is even better}.

  • KenLac

    a hint: a poet once said, “Whenever a poet says ‘you’ he means ‘me.'”

  • zypherzz

    What is art afer all but an expression so personal it evades exact interpetation. I love the entire album Highway 61 Revisted but this song does express the snear he gives the photographer who took the photo on the cover on the album. I agree with Griel about not getting too hung up on lyrics. It would be like reading Whitman line by line literally … it’s absurd. This man came to me as sort of a satori one evening driving in my car a couple of years ago. I’m 51 years old and always heard Dylan on the radio but something just clicked that evening. I have since collected most of his stuff on CD. Like Zen, it’s something you can’t get a hold of … so I just lay back and enjoy the spontaneous and of course the surprise.

  • mysterytramp

    nice show, Chris…I’m glad you took my suggestion…

  • mysterytramp

    mysterytramp Says:

    July 7th, 2005 at 8:34 pm

    I’d build a show around Greil Marcus’ new book “Like a Rolling Stone.� It’s a brilliant jumping-off point for exploring the tectonic shift of American popular music and culture in the mid-1960s through the prism of Bob Dylan’s song.

  • Brendan

    Hey mysterytramp – this was, indeed, the inspiration for our show, and somehow in the hustle today we forgot to credit you on the blog. Lack of credit remedied (see post). Was it all you had hoped it would be?

  • Potter

    I first heard this song maybe in 67 in New York. His was to my ears a strange but haunting voice. It came from a deeper and more serious place than any popular singers of the day; Sinatra was all style. Dylan was not trying to please; he was trying to tell you something; he was crying something at you. It’s the refrain of this particular song that even yells it at you: “how does it feel to be on your own, like a rolling stone with no direction known” He’s not asking for an answer, he wants you to answer it for yourself. And if that’s you it haunts and it penetrates. There’s no sympathy. I never wanted to hear the other lyrics, it was the refrain that did it. If you were falling apart, It was strangely strengthening.

    It’s a painful song to listen to, but it is also about awakening to one’s real self. You can only do that when everything else is stripped away and Dylan strips it away.

    Somehow listening now ( I just listened to it again) I think that this had to be about a personal experience. How else could he sing that way? Perhaps he is the tramp in the story but it does not matter as Greil Marcus said.

    For me it will always be about that time, l967, about leaving home that was not home, comfort that was not comfortable to search for who knew what. By then I had moved from New York and found my way to a commune in Boston. We were all learning to live starting with nothing and rethinking the whole thing. This was the revolution and it was very personal. Dylan was just singing about it.

  • dgoodvin

    I remember working a terrible telephone job years ago, trying to convince folks to get their carpets cleaned. If i didn’t convince’m I didn’t eat!

    Bob Dylan and Like a Rolling Stone helped me survive those times.

    I wrote the following words down on a piece of paper next the phone I was using and looked at them through each and every long day:

    “How does it feel

    To be on your own

    With no direction home

    Like a complete unknown

    Like a rolling stone?”


    “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”

    These words literally saved my life.

    You know, you can go through your whole life and NEVER hear the truth. As I sat there making all those calls, the truth was all I had to survive on, and Bob supplied it for me. Not the bible, not my college education, not the advertisements that told me what i needed to be happy, not teachers or politicians or newspapers or any of the rest of the crap that wanted me to “go along to get along!, but Bob (along with folks like Henry David Thoreau and other folks, but thats another story, another email, another program).

    Thanks for reading,


  • Potter

    I blew the words on that. Thanks Dale. No direstion home. Once you have left, you don’t go back. But also, you don’t know where ou are going.

  • carl

    I have to say that this really is just a song about a girl. That’s what it comes down to. When I read about the Warhol and the Factory and Edie Sedgwick, not even knowing about Dylan’s involvement with her, his song came to mind.

    Of course if that were the end of it, there would be nothing more to talk about. I imagine the lyrics of this song emanating from the mouth of every schizophrenic, unwashed homeless person I see on the street. It is the ultimate accusation; you do not have to have fallen to feel its power, because it speaks to you “in your prime”. It is a song about the ultimate disintegration and tendency toward entropy of all. It is also the song that the bullied sings to the bully at his 25th high school reunion. It is a mean mean song. I imagine it being sung to Augustus Pinochet by the “disappeared”, to George Bush by a prisoner on death row, to the lyncher who was just convicted in Alabama. It just says “you will get yours, see you in hell”

  • ptrig

    To interpret “Like a Rolling Stone” as simply a put-down song is to over simplify it. It is the interpretation that I would have made up until a couple of years ago when I began to play music with others in a band. I would have examined the words, said, “Aha, he’s talking about a girl. And he’s not being nice. No, sir. King Robert, he is not being nice at all.” Dylan wrote some incredible words. They dance about with rhyme and ca-ca-cadence. But what makes “Like a Rolling Stone” so extraordinary is the tension that the musicians add to these words. What they play and how they play it. What Dylan sings and how he sings it. Pop, let’s go, says the snare. And we’re off. Leisurely at first. A nice fanfare. A trot of sorts. But Dylan’s vocals are elsewhere. Out ahead of every one else. They speed up, he slows down. They meet momentarily. But by “Mmmmmemeeeeeaaallllll” we can sense where they are heading. It takes a while to get there. Dylan’s spitting venom in verse two. The piano is stumbling. The other musicians lift it up, carry it forward. Whoa, where did that guitar come from? What are you doing? Yeah, I see. I can do that. Verse three things are happening. Happening? Ending, falling apart. There are no prisoners. You’ve got to keep up. Hold it. Here we go? Did you just do that? Who’s playing lead? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter any more. It’s a ride. Looping and twirling. Pushing towards collapse, but never falling into the brink. By the last verse the musicians are only locked together at the turns. Otherwise they are off, drifting, exploring new territory.

    The song could not be the same twice. It couldn’t be played the same twice because the musicians didn’t know what they were supposed to be playing. There’s chaos. It can’t be heard the same twice, either. There is too much going on. Parts coming, parts going. Parts suggested but never played. You begin to anticipate, but then are taken elsewhere. You can’t hear it all at once. You never will.

    It’s not about a girl. It’s about exploration and discovery. It’s an incredible moment of musicianship caught on tape. It’s the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” condenced into 6 minutes and 6 seconds.

  • carl

    Yeah, well I was talking about the song and the lyrics. You are talking about the performance and characteristics of ensemble. Regardless, it’s still a song about a girl.

  • Potter

    The Mona Lisa is a painting about a girl.

  • carl

    Well I have never really liked the Mona Lisa, but that is beside the point. I think that what I am trying to convey is that songs don’t just float in on the ether. This one came from somewhere personal; it has a personal history, a social history, and a political history. I suppose I was being a bit disingenuous to start out by saying it was “just” about a girl, but I qualified that. Protaganists in good songs are always devices for creating metaphors, and the “girl” in this song is no exception. Forgive me for not drawing all the metaphorical ripples that emanate from these lyrics (which of course would be impossible), but just the ones that occurred to me in the moment.

    Yeah know though, why are we glorifying 6 minutes of studio time anyway? There are lots of brilliant performances that occur by happenstance and can never be reproduced. We are lucky to have this one on vinyl, but I doubt Bob gives this particular studio session a second thought among his lifetime of performances.

  • Potter

    I used the Mona Lisa because it is universally known and easy to grab but I could have picked any painting, for instance, that was about something on the surface but had depth. From my own experience, leaving a comfortable home to wander was pretty common then. And giving up comfort and perhaps wealth to do it was also common. So in a way this was , for me anyway, floating on the ether, or the spirit of the time.

    Recently, in an interview, Dylan said that he did not know where these songs came from. Also he said that he did not think he could do that anymore. He seemed like a person who had struggled just to stay unspoiled and that took everything from him. Still I love some of his more recent recordings.

  • newfrog

    How does it Feel to finally have an inkiling of what Dylan’s been ringing on about these last 40+ years? That’s what I thought listening to your podcast. I listened to your whole program and I thought one of the best parts was the opeing where Greil Marcus set the stage. The lead up to the song’s recording. You see I was just born there in 1965. I was a squaling baby in Chicago while Dylan was squaling in a New York studio asking me, you and everyone how it felt to be on our own. There I was freshly incarnated and he asked how it felt to be here in the world without the warm wet protection of mother around me any more. There was america just recently having had it’s beloved and charismatic leader ripped from it’s embrace leaving the nation clutching at the bloody bit’s left behind by the assasin’s bullet. Suddenly every american was fatherless. There was Dylan asking himself how it felt to be dissillusioned with his folk music and still looking for some sound to support his spirit. What was he asking you about?

    So… while I thought the show was excellent and you really lucked out with your callers (I especially liked Eileen), I have to say you missed the spiritual component of the song. The pained wonderment full of surprise and possibility that we feel after a great loss. When all you relied on is suddenly gone and yet you find that against all odds you are still around. Existing despite everything. That to me is what the song is all about. Of living along a muddled life holding on to all kinds of things that ultimately have no substance and somehow you get thown out of that muddle and stood up on your own two feet for the first time. Alive in the world. Surprised it could happen this way.

  • Mark

    I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” when I was 15. I was mesmerized by it. I lived in Saugerties NY at the time and Bob Dylan lived a few miles away in Woodstock. We wanted to believe he were a hometown guy although we knew he really wasn’t. I saw him once or twice at the Cafe Espresso in town, I think, but that may have been wishful thinking. The resonance of “Like a Rolling Stone” stuck with me for many years but only in the past few years did I realize the true improtance of the song. I guess I lived the true meaning of the song by becoming very influnced by the resulting music that followed its release. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to meet Al Kooper and read his book “Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards” and formed the conclusion that “Like a Rolling Stone” was a pivotal point in Rock’n’Roll. I have listened to the song hundreds of times and have put the CD player on repeat while driving to work so as to hear it over and over. I can, I believe, identify the very point in the song when the mood of the song changed and as a result music changed for ever. It is my belief that when Al Kooper got acclimated to the B3 and Dylan heard the carnival sound coming from the organ, he found his new avenue and left Woody Guthrie and entered the Rock’n’Roll sound he desired only a few years before. In high school it is said he admired Little Richard and played the piano before the guitar.

    About half way through the song Dyaln says “alright” and the rest is history. Check out Al Kooper’s acount of the day in “Backstage Passes….” and then listen to the song 20 to 30 times and see if you agree. Everything in my musical past is either before or after “Like a Rolling Stone”.

    Dyaln still amazes me and his album of a few years ago “Time Out of Mind” is a masterpiece. He is an artist of the stature of Picasso, Hemingway, Steinbeck or Walt Witman.

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