Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," issued July 20, 1965, presented a problem for his label, Columbia. With its angry, whip-crack music and snarling, mocking vocal, the track signaled, if there was any remaining doubt, that Dylan was through with folk music. The composer of "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "The Times They are A-Changin'" had moved on, irrevocably so.
AM radio disc jockeys had a problem with it too: The track was more than six minutes long, about twice as long as the brief songs preferred for a format designed to fit in as many commercials as possible. ("Help!" by the Beatles, released two months prior to the Dylan single, clocked in at a tidy 2:18.)
But "Like a Rolling Stone" was undeniable and all the elements that make it as affecting today as it was 47 years ago were immediately evident. The musicians featuring Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Al Kooper on organ and Bobby Gregg on drums whose opening whack on the snare drum is like gunfire rip into the track and Dylan responds with a stinging vocal that's as much spit and it is sung.
The lyrics dazzle no rock composer before or since has written anything that's both as specific and kaleidoscopic. (The "rolling stone" reference isn't culled from the Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone," by the way, but from Hank Williams' "Lost Highway.") Here there is little attempt to be cryptic or mystical. "Like A Rolling Stone" is about revenge. It's pure vitriol designed to devastate, a screed aimed directly at its victim. The subject of his wrath is someone of some financial means who's fallen from a lofty perch or is Dylan projecting what he'd like to happen to "Miss Lonely"? (Remember, the opening lyric is the fairytale-like "Once upon a time ) Money's gone so friends have fled. Turns out the haughty player's been played.
It's probably a mistake to think Dylan is addressing a lover who's scorned him or even a woman: The use of "Miss Lonely" is the only genre-specific phrase in the song, though he employs the term "doll" and advises "You'd been lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it, babe." The song's last verse ends with a bit of harsh advise: "Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse/When you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose/You're invisible now/You've got no secrets to conceal." "Like Rolling Stone" is bitter to the end. The narrator is addressing the damned.
Bob Dylan has said "Like a Rolling Stone" is his best composition. It's widely admired by rock musicians who see it as the pinnacle of the form. Frank Zappa said the recording made him want to quit the business. "If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do," he said of the track, "I don't need to do anything else." What "Like a Rolling Stone" did was validate rock as an art form.
What's your opinion of "Like a Rolling Stone"? Can you recall the first time you heard it? Bruce Springsteen said he was with his mother in the family car listening to the radio when he first came across "Like a Rolling Stone." (The snare shot, he said, "sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.") Does it still seem as thrilling to you as it did back then?