1965

Like A Rolling Stone

Written and Recorded by Bob Dylan

Produced by Tom Wilson

Song copyright © 1965; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

I have the audacity to play “Like A Rolling Stone” in my show, just about every night. I did it as a lark, to show off to some of the guys in my band that I knew all the words. But I was immediately struck by the audience response to the song. From six-year-olds to seventy-year-olds — they all know the chorus to that song. I couldn’t put it away; every night, it’s a unifying thing. I think it’s somehow part of the fabric of our culture.

— Country singer Rodney Crowell, from Greil Marcus’ book
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

”Like A Rolling Stone” is not only one of the most popular rock songs of all time, it is also one of those whose appeal is the most mysterious. Whereas it is easy to see how other Dylan songs became anthems for a generation — songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” — it is harder to see how this song attained such a broad and enthusiastic audience. A song like “Blowin’ In The Wind” appealed to the masses by asking a series of pointed moral questions and then explicitly saying that the questions are unanswerable. But the climactic line of this song is itself an unanswerable question, and one with less obvious relevance: “How does it feel … to be … like a Rolling Stone?” What on earth was going on here, and why did people get so excited by it?

As we will see, the greatness of the song lies in the intricacy of its working, the way so many parts come together to make a cohesive, compelling and unique whole. The challenge in describing the recording is to look at it piece by piece and yet still be able to put it back together at the end and see it work. Let’s take it a step at a time.

A good place to start is in the relationship of the words to the music. A criticism leveled at much of rock, and at Dylan in particular as he began making rock music rather than folk, was that the words were hard to hear. Certainly in much of rock music this was true, and intentional: foreground and background merged, the words and vocals became part of the mix, part of a “wall of sound” in some cases.

But in this recording, that usual criticism does not apply. It is not that the music is not full and loud: organ, piano, electric guitar and bass, drums, and tambourine are all working together, making for a complex musical tapestry. But all this music never overwhelms the vocals. As a matter of fact, they simply form a rich background, with Dylan’s vocals clearly in the foreground, every word and nasal intonation clearly etched and standing out in sharp relief from the instruments. This will mean more to us as we come to understand more of the song, but for now let’s just take this to mean that the words are important, and need to be understood.

Hey, man, you know, I can’t.... I mean I’m just me, you know. I can’t, really, man, I’m just playing the song. I know — I don’t want to scream it, that’s all I know —

— Bob Dylan, speaking to musicians during the recording sessions for
“Like A Rolling Stone,” from Greil Marcus’ book,
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

So with that thought in mind, let’s look at the lyrics and see what they have to say. (Note that I’ve broken the verses into short lines at times to make it easier to see the rhyming scheme — more on this later.)

Once upon a time
You dressed so fine,
You threw the bums a dime,
In your prime,
Didn’t you?

People’d call,
Say, “Beware doll,
You’re bound to fall.”
You thought they were all
Kiddin’ you.

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out.
Now you don’t
talk so loud.
Now you don’t
seem so proud
About having to be scrounging
for your next meal.

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
To be without a home,
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You’ve gone to the finest school
All right, Miss Lonely,
But you know you only
Used to get
Juiced in it.

And nobody has ever taught you
How to live on the street
And now you find out
You’re gonna have to get
Used to it.

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis,
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to
Make a deal?

How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be on your own,
With no direction home,
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You never turned around
To see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down
And did tricks for you.

You never understood
That it ain’t no good,
You shouldn’t let
Other people get
Your kicks for you.

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat,
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at,
After he took from you everything
He could steal?

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
To be on your own,
With no direction home,
Like a complete unknown,
Like a rolling stone?

Princess on the steeple
And all the pretty people,
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’
That they
Got it made.

Exchanging all
Precious gifts,
But you’d better
Take your diamond ring, you’d better
Pawn it, babe.

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse.
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets
To conceal.

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
To be on your own,
With no direction home,
Like a complete unknown,
Like a rolling stone?

At first glance, the song seems to be about class division. The woman addressed by the singer is clearly from the upper class, having gone to the finest schools, consorted with diplomats, and exchanged precious gifts with friends and family. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the “mystery tramp” and “Napoleon in rags.” The dramatic movement in the song, at this level, is simple: some event has caused the woman to fall from grace, to be cast out from the upper social circles, and to have joined the ranks of those who have no material possessions.

There is more going on here, though. The words are also about illusion and understanding, deception and truth. The song repeatedly describes ways in which the woman failed to see what was really going on around her. She never saw the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, thought that people were joking when they said she was riding for a fall, failed to realize that the diplomat was using her, and so on.

It’s worth noting how quickly and deftly Dylan introduces all of this. The first line encapsulates the class issue and tells us of the woman’s fall: “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, in your prime, didn’t you?” The second line then tells us how blind the woman was to what was going on around her: “People used to call, say ‘Beware, doll, you’re bound to fall,’ you thought they were all kidding you.”

It is instructional to compare this song to a couple of similar ones written about the same time: “Positively Fourth Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The former is about someone who claims to be a friend of the singer’s, and concludes with the most biting put-down in all of rock: “Yes I wish, that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes. Then you’d know what a drag it is to see you!” Similarly, the latter talks about someone who is clueless, each chorus ending with the line, “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

In all three of these songs, Dylan the singer is directly addressing an individual who has been unaware, unenlightened. What makes “Like A Rolling Stone” different from the other two, and more interesting, is that it is more than just a character sketch, more than just a scathing commentary; in this song, there is dramatic movement: the woman who has been unaware has experienced a fall, and from that experience, has an opportunity to change, to learn, to grow. And, brilliantly, each verse describes one more experience from which the subject might learn, takes the subject to the brink of enlightenment, asks the key questions whose answers would provide resolution, then… stops, begins again, and repeats the process.

Now let’s turn next to the structure of the song. Let’s start with just the first four mini-lines, as shown above.

Once upon a time
You dressed so fine,
You threw the bums a dime,
In your prime,

The short line length, the fairy-tale opening, the simple words and images, the straightforward aaaa repeating rhyme — all these elements work together to create the feeling of a children’s song, of a child’s world. “Little miss Muffet / Sat on a Tuffet / Eating her curds and whey” uses similar devices to similar effect, for example. In conjunction with the themes we have discussed, these devices suggest that the woman in our story started her adventure with a certain childish, simplistic approach to life, apparently thinking that everything around her was placed there solely for her own amusement.

But then Dylan does something really interesting. The first extended line, or verse, or whatever we call it — the first sentence, certainly — is not yet finished. The singer pauses, and then tosses off the following question.

Didn’t you?

What is this? A fifth line that doesn’t rhyme with any of the first four, yet is clearly part of this first sentence. Do you see what Dylan is doing? He is using the very structure of the song to let us know, to let the woman know, that there is more going on, more to the song, and more to life, than this simple children’s world. The words are about illusion and reality, deception and truth. But the lines, verses and rhymes are also playing with these same ideas, first making us think that this is a simple children’s song, then showing us a larger world of which this childish beginning is no more than a piece.

The next extended line uses the same structure.

People’d call,
Say, “Beware doll,
You’re bound to fall.”
You thought they were all
Kiddin’ you.

But note that, by pairing these two similar verses, and ending that hanging fifth line with the same rhyme in both (the same word, in this case), he is at the same time building a larger structure, a richer pattern. So now we can see that the longer rhyming scheme is aaaab ccccb. Thematically, the effect is in concert with the words: the gradual revelation of a larger, more complex world than the one we started with.

Let’s see what comes next.

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out.
Now you don’t
talk so loud.
Now you don’t
seem so proud
About having to be scrounging
for your next meal.

This is a different melody now, and a different verse structure. The rhyming pattern is now ddeefg. Again, though, Dylan employs the same device, ending the line/verse/sentence with an unmatched rhyme, leaving us hanging, waiting for closure, wondering how the pattern completes itself.

Now, finally, we hit the chorus.

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
To be without a home,
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Do you see what happened there? “How does it feel” is repeated. The first occurrence rhymes with the last line of the preceding verse, “For your next meal,” and also rhymes with the second “How does it feel.” So we end up with a 5-line chorus, with the last three lines rhyming, finally leaving us with no unfinished business, no unrhymed lines. The whole, intricate pattern, one line dovetailing with the next, has now been revealed. And it is nothing like what we started with, nothing like a simple children’s song. Look at the whole rhyming scheme: aaaab ccccb ddeefg gghhh.

And so, of course, having just created one of the most interesting, powerful and unusual verse/chorus structures in all of rock, Dylan proceeds to get maximum value for it: he repeats it three more times, with different words, all reinforcing and building on the same story, the same themes, his only variation being minor deviations from the strict aaaa rhyming scheme of the first two lines.

I had them play me the fucking thing five times straight before I could say anything. What I realized while I was sitting there was that one of US — one of the so-called Village hipsters — was making music that could compete with THEM — the Beatles and the Stones and the Dave Clark Five — without sacrificing any of the integrity of folk music or the power of rock ‘n’ roll.

— Record Producer Paul Rothchild, from Greil Marcus’ book
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

The music reinforces and adds to the meaning found in the words. We begin with a single crack of a drum stroke, a brief pause, then we are suddenly immersed in a rich, swirling mix of organ, piano, guitars, drums and tambourine. (Audio clip - 96K.) Musically, the chord structure is regular, almost stately, with a rising cadence to the first two lines, a brief pause at the top, then a descending cadence to the last couple of lines, before entering the chorus. (The group Procul Harum achieved a similar effect with organ and overt use of Bach’s melodies in their song “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” but here Dylan and companions achieve a classical, church-like feel with similar instruments, and Dylan’s chords and melodies.)

It’s hard to find words that do justice here. The music is at the same time ethereal and earthy, classical and improvisational, stately and sensuous, austere and warm, hallowed and irreverent. The instruments weave together in intricate patterns, yet at the same time move the song along at a measured pace, alternately relaxing and pushing at just the right places, supporting and emphasizing the effects of the words. The overall effect is of being in a church, yet a church that acknowledges all the rich complexities and mysteries of human existence, foregoing any easy moral judgments. And always, even when a discordant note is struck, even when things do not turn out to be simple or straightforward, there is this haunting, pervasive beauty. (Audio clip - 144K.)

The way in which this studio recording was created resonates with the story expressed through the lyrics. The epilogue to Greil Marcus’ wonderful book, Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, tells the story through an annotated transcript of much of the conversation that took place during the two days of recording sessions. This was a temporary assemblage of musicians who had never played together before. It included Michael Bloomfield, a young blues guitar wizard of the time, who was brought in and then expressly told not to play his typical blues runs. It also included Al Kooper on organ, even though his preferred instrument at the time was guitar, and producer Tom Wilson laughed when he saw him sitting behind this unfamiliar instrument.

There is nothing like any sort of system evident in the recording session. To traditional professional musicians, it would have seemed like mayhem. There were no charts, no arrangement. Dylan lacked any sort of language to convey to the others whatever sound he may have wished to hear. It seems simply a process of trial and error, and mostly error, with the recording tape continually rolling, ready to capture whatever might emerge, and with most of the takes breaking down mid-song after obvious failures. There was general satisfaction expressed after only one take — the one that eventually became the master — but even then, there was no indication that anyone thought that they were done, or had produced what would eventually be hailed as the most masterful rock recording of all time.

So we can see that, just as Dylan tells the woman in the song that the simple order to her life was an illusion, there was no simple, obvious order to the way in which this masterpiece was recorded. The music was recorded by musicians who were then unknowns, who were themselves rolling stones — Bloomfield walked into the recording studio with his guitar slung over his shoulder, not even having a case for it — who happened to come together for a few days to work together in this loose fashion, and then moved on. The recording sessions were themselves a reflection of this reality that Dylan was singing about.

What is also evident in the transcripts from the recording sessions is the difficulty — not only of producing a masterpiece — but of playing the song with any sort of success whatsoever. This is also evident by the facts that, even though this song is famous, it has been covered by other artists on relatively few occasions, and with nothing like the success of this originally released recording. As with many other rock works of art, the recording is of a piece: lyrics, music, vocals, instruments all come together to make a whole, without any of the parts being able to stand on their own, even the song itself.

I’m used to there being a music director. Having grown up in the studio, there was always someone in charge, whether it was the arranger, the artist, or the producer. There was no one in charge at that session — in charge of the general chaos.

— Al Kooper, talking about the recording sessions that produced
“Like A Rolling Stone,” from Greil Marcus’ book
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

On top of all this rich instrumental tapestry is Dylan’s voice. The beginning melody reveals the influence of Chuck Berry, with complete lack of melodic variation, all the interest coming from the rhythmic nuances. Dylan takes the opening words, the simple children’s song, and sings all the notes at the same pitch, again emphasizing the simplicity of this opening worldview, with a stop-and-go rhythm the only musical element hinting at something more complex. (Audio clip - 64K.)

Again, it is hard to find enough to say about Dylan’s singing. It rides easily on top of the music, so that he is free to raise the volume for emphasis, but does not need to scream to be heard. It is full of real human inflection and character, yet also delivers the melody and the words. His voice pours out with the texture of Kentucky bourbon, country molasses, or Tupelo honey, thick and rich and full of character, with a slightly nasal twang. The delivery is not free of emotion, yet neither is it overly emotional: there is no feeling of condemnation, or anger in his words. But listen to the way he carves the edge off the notes when he sings “your next meal,” stretching the final word, sliding from one note to another within the same syllable, sounding like a buzz saw approaching a knot in the wood. (Audio clip - 92K.) Or listen to the “Awww…” before he starts the second verse, “You’ve gone to the finest school….” (Audio clip - 96K.) Dylan, the singer, the character in the song, is completely at home here. He is free to be himself. There is no pretense, no artifice, no strain, no discomfort. In this complex world, this life of tragedy and betrayal, of discovery and regret, of adventure and mystery, he is simply himself, and a match for the world.

The voice is infinitely nuanced — at times almost an authoritarian monotone (not unlike Ginsberg reading “Howl”), at times compassionate, tragic (the voice of Jacques-Louis David in his painting of Marat) — but also angry, vengeful, gleeful, ironic, weary, spectral, haranguing. And it would sound this way in ancient Greek or contemporary Russian. There is so much desire and so much power in this voice, translated into a sensitivity that enables it to detect tiny vibrations....

— Composer Michael Pisaro, from Greil Marcus’ book
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

On this note, considering Dylan the singer, and his presence in the song, let’s come back to the song as a dramatic work. For there is something else happening here, something we have not discussed yet. The main character in the song, seemingly, is the woman whom we are observing, who is being described, with a cast of minor characters all around her. Yet there is another major character: the singer himself. We know nothing about his actions. In fact, one of the unexplained mysteries of the song is the relationship between the singer and the woman. There is no reference made to how they know each other. To our knowledge, Dylan has been neither friend nor lover. Yet his presence in the song is too strong for him to simply be some neutrally omniscient observer. And the artistry of his observation, the craft of the song, the sharp penetration of his insights into the woman’s life, the music of his companions, and the sheer presence of his voice, make him a person, a character in the story. Who is he, and what role does he play?

One could call him by many names: the joker, the observer, the teacher. But ultimately he is the artist. He is one who observes life, who is involved in life, and yet can step back and see the larger whole, and fashion his own expression to reflect, and comment on, and mirror this reality. He is one who can immerse himself in all the gritty details of life, yet never lose sight of a larger picture. He is one who can stand in the vacuum of the eyes of the mystery tramp, and feel no need for a simpler and more comforting reality. He is one who sees and understands what is going on around him, sees through the illusions, sees the truth, and sings of it, expressing all this rich complexity through art. As Dylan said of blues singer Robert Johnson, “He seems to know about everything…. Neither forlorn or hopeless or shackled — nothing hinders him.” (Chronicles: Volume 1)

Now, finally, let us consider this final, haunting question that ends every chorus, that ends the song, that completes all the patterns: “How does it feel … to be … like a rolling stone?”

Here we find it impossible to consider this phrase in isolation, for it resonates throughout the rock generation. One of rock’s greatest bands named themselves “The Rolling Stones.” The most famous journal of the times was called Rolling Stone magazine.

To understand the power of this phrase, let us go back to a blues song originally written and recorded by Muddy Waters in 1950. It is a simple, haunting recording: just Muddy’s voice, his electric guitar, and the bass of Ernest “Big” Crawford. Musically, there is little in common with Dylan’s song. There is power and dignity in Muddy’s voice, and in the raw, stinging, beauty of his electric guitar phrases. But the story he tells, like that of many blues songs, is one of failure, of lives barely realized, lives where opportunities are so few that their losses never even rise to the level of tragedy. Muddy says he wishes he could be a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea. He visits a woman who is cheating on her husband. He remembers his mother predicting that he would be a rolling stone. Then he talks about going back down the road, saying his time isn’t long.

That’s it. His voice and guitar trail off at the end of each verse, repeating each final line three times, with falling inflection and volume, reinforcing the failure and aimlessness implicit in the words, the sense that we will never know how this life ends, that he will simply fade out, leaving only this song as testament to his life.

This phrase also appears in the song, “Lost Highway,” written by Leon Payne, recorded by Hank Williams, and partially sung by Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s film documentary, Don’t Look Back.

I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost,
For a life of sin, I have paid the cost.
When I pass by, all the people say
“Just another guy on the lost highway.”

A rolling stone — what did this phrase mean to Dylan, as he offered it up conclusively, the music exultantly punctuating his words, surging, soaring around him? And what did this phrase and this song mean to a generation of mostly white kids singing and listening to rock music in the sixties and seventies?

Consider their situation: on one hand, members of this generation had the predominant white culture that they were immersed in, had grown up with — affluent, successful, powerful. On the other hand, they had a legacy of blues, folk and country singers, and those they sang about — poor, disenfranchised, powerless.

Yet, miraculously, many of these children and young adults growing up in the sixties discovered there was another dimension to this cultural contrast. For despite having all the obvious advantages, many members of the predominant white culture were essentially clueless, much like the woman that Dylan sings about. They drank too much, they laughed too loud, they noticed too little the prices paid for their fun by those around them, they realized far too little of what was really going on, even as their leaders swept them into tragic and ultimately meaningless conflict in Viet Nam.

And yet despite having almost none of these same advantages, these blues, country and folk artists created authentic, original and meaningful artistic expression, and obtained the dignity, understanding and clarity of vision that goes along with all of this.

So this phrase, “a rolling stone,” that meant a lack of material possessions, a lack of home, a lack of belonging for those who first sang it, became a symbol of liberation for the rock generation. Because those who adopted it — Bob Dylan, Brian Jones and Jann Wenner — saw, and made us see, that these material ties also enslaved us, restricted our perspective, blurred our vision, dulled our senses, and blinded us to our own creative potential.

This is why Dylan asks the question: “How does it feel … to be like … a rolling stone?” And this is why millions sang along with him. For he is singing, not about the reversal of fortune of one woman, but about the transformation of a generation. He is singing this phrase because, in allowing ourselves to feel the answer to this question, we were — at least for some of us, and at least for some time — able to liberate ourselves from our position and our place, able to see through the deceit and illusion around us, and able to achieve that clear, transcendent, crystalline vision that can only be bestowed by art and artist.

“Like A Rolling Stone” is a song about values, about meaning, about the transformative nature of art, about human development, and about the complex fabric of human existence. It contrasts the importance of perception, insight and an integral view of the world with the more transient solace of material possessions and gratification of worldly desires. It is about a system of values in which the possession of money, status and power is less important than the ability to creatively express our deepest feelings and most enduring sensibilities — the ability to make and appreciate art.

This is about growing up, this is about discovering what is going on around you, realizing that life isn’t all you’ve been told. So now you’re without a home, you’re on your own, complete unknown, like a rolling stone. That’s a liberating thing. This is a song about liberation.

— Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine,
from Greil Marcus’ book
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads

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