In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine (named after Muddy Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone”) ranked Bob Dylan’s song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” number one in their list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song in its original draft form was very long — about ten pages — more like a short story or film treatment than a song. Right before the studio recording sessions for the album Highway 61 Revisited (June 15 and 16, 1965), Dylan distilled the lengthy composition into four manuscript pages (handwritten on stationery from the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington DC) containing four verses and a chorus. The song is about a woman who lives a life of privilege and who loses everything, and in the process is liberated from pride, materialism, and expectation, albeit with some new challenges. The singer’s tone, initially contemptuous, gradually becomes more compassionate and laudatory. Robert Shelton, Dylan’s biographer, explains it this way: “[The song] seems to hail the dropout life for those who can take it segues into compassion for those who have dropped out of bourgeois surroundings. ‘Rolling Stone’ is about the loss of innocence and the harshness of experience. Myths, props, and old beliefs fall away to reveal a very taxing reality.” And like many of the greatest songs in music history, the songwriter was inspired by a muse. In a 2004 interview Dylan explained, “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that, it gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except that the ghost picked me to write the song.”
“Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s first rock song, had a major impact on his career. When he initially wrote the song, soon after an exhausting European tour, Dylan was ready to walk away from music. “Last spring , I guess I was going to quit singing,” he explained, “I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation … But ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” Apparently, people really dug this long (six minute) rock song, and it climbed the charts to reach the number two spot in Billboard charts. In just a short time, Dylan was transformed from a popular and beloved folk singer to a legendary rock star.
“Like a Rolling Stone” also had a major impact on the music industry as well as several music artists. In selecting Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as the number one song out of the 500 greatest songs of all time, the editors of Rolling Stone wrote: “The most stunning thing about “Like a Rolling Stone” is how unprecedented it was: the impressionist voltage of Dylan’s language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice, the apocalyptic charge of Kooper’s garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield’s stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time. Bruce Springsteen, who was just 15 years old when he first heard Dylan, was blown away: “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind … The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock’n’roll for ever and ever.” David Kinney, who examined the impact of Dylan through the legions of obsessed fans (“Dylanologists”), eloquently describes Dylan’s seemingly paradoxical charm, and at the same time addresses the question: “Why do people like Bob Dylan?” Kinney writes: “It starts with the voice. We know what you’re thinking. That the man cannot sing, that he yelps, grunts, and caterwauls, that he sounds like a suffering animal or a busted lawn mower… Dylan’s voice is… is a wonder of the world to [his fans]. It’s human, real, and above all expressive. It embodies rapture, heartbreak, rage, bitterness, disdain, boredom,. It can be by turns biting, sarcastic, and deeply funny. It’s freighted with weirdly spellbinding magic. It’s what pulls us — the faithful — to the foot of the stage, and keeps us there for a lifetime.”
And the song, an anthem for an entire postwar generation, did go further, setting a new world record. On June 24, 2014 Sotheby’s auctioned Dylan’s original lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone, handwritten in pencil to an unidentified bidder (no doubt a very affluent Dylanologist) for $2.1 million — a world record for the price of a popular music manuscript. In addition to the lyrics, the manuscript includes revisions, marginalia (like notes and appointments) and doodles of a bird, hat, and an animal with antlers. This auction price topples the old record set by John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for “A Day in the Life” that sold for $1.2 million in 2010. So, Bob, how does it feel?
For further reading: No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton, Ballantine (1986)
Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin, Harper (2003)
Bob Dylan: All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track by Jean-Michel Guerdon (2015)
The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob by David Kenney, Simon & Schuster (2014)
Dylan: The Biography by Dennis McDougal
Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews edited by Jonathan Cott (2006)
The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Epstein (2011)
No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton, et al, Hal Leonard Corp (2011)
Another Side of Bob Dylan: A Personal History on the Road and Off the Tracks by Victor and Jacob Maymudes (2014)