Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan (1965)

... the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control ... the subject matter - tho meaningless as it is - has something to do with the beautiful strangers ... the beautiful strangers, Vivaldi's green jacket and the holy slow train

Whatever you say, Bob. Liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited notwithstanding, this song meant everything to an entire generation, and still today - when that snare drum is struck and the opening strains pour out - the power of Like A Rolling Stone over Dylan fans is inescapable. It's one of an elite group of songs from that time period that broke the mold, to the extent that there was one - a song that got so real, with its contempt of the phony, the clueless and the self-important, that it seemed more a palpable organism than a song. Never clear who exactly it was directed toward - some claiming the flagellation was an expression of his own self-loathing at a difficult time in his life rather than any specific individual - it's not at all necessary to know the answer.

In terms of his use of the language, Dylan to me is very Shakespearean. In Macbeth, where Shakespeare writes, "Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I'm struck dumb by the power of the particular words, weapons of artistry slashing illusions all to bits. Like A Rolling Stone, a work of art from a different century, does the same.

But it's not just the enormous impact of the words on the page. It's the delivery. It's the instrument - the electrifying Dylan voice, bending words into syllables you never knew existed, snarling his verse to his heart's - and our - delight. No one can tell me he has a terrible voice. It is the precise opposite - beautiful, the more so if you can watch him when he sings.

In his 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen, remembering when he first heard Like A Rolling Stone on the radio riding in the car with his mother, described Dylan's voice as one that "reached down and touched what little worldliness a fifteen-year-old high school kid in New Jersey had in him at the time.

"Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock and roll forever."

Was Dylan just a vessel from which the poetry flowed? As with Hendrix, it can seem as though he doesn't have a lot to do with what's happening in front of us, like he was hand-picked to be our generation's oracle and is just bringing us what we're supposed to hear, in that time, in that place.

In 2004, Rolling Stone named Like A Rolling Stone #1 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, saying, "No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time." That's debatable, of course, but I have no problem with them making the claim. It's a masterpiece.


karmasartre said...

Wow. Great write-up. I know people have devoted whole books to this song, but you just nailed the whole thing.

cornbread hell said...

what karmasartre said...

Robert Loy said...

Maybe it's just because I've heard it too many times, but this is nowhere near my favorite Dylan song. At the top of the list is "Brownsville Girl." Talk about poetry; every time I listen to this one a new turn of phrase grabs hold of me, and that last line never fails to devastate me. A distant second would be "Gates of Eden" from the album "Bringing it All Back Home," with "Hard Rain" pulling in the bronze medal.

Linda G said...

Good choice, Wendy.

Positively 4th Street...what a great putdown song. It must have been meaningful at some time in my life.


I'm with the concensus...great write up.

Since you are obviosuly a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.

cornbread hell said...

dear mr. grasty,
this is one *shameless plug* i'm happy to see.

i'll look for your book. it sounds like fun.