Sunday Music – Like A Rolling Stone – The Bob Dylan Series (Part 8)

Posted on Sun 05/23/2010 by


Today’s music video is ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Bob Dylan.

This video was posted to You Tube by Columbokeijisun

This is probably one of the most celebrated songs of the modern music era, so to play a ‘cover’ of this song just would not seem the right thing to do. Even though the song was in fact covered by numerous artists and bands, the original from Bob himself is the version that most people would recognise.

What then makes this one of the most celebrated songs of the modern era? There’ s nothing new I can add to what has been said about this song, but for those who only have a passing interest in Bob Dylan, some of those things are worth repeating.

Whenever lists come out of the Top 100 or Top 500 songs of the modern era, the numbers at the top vary, and sometimes considerably. However, this one song is always up there in any and all of those lists, and in fact on some of the more influential ones ranks usually at Number One.

This song marks a turning point on so many fronts that they just cannot even be documented here.

Right from the very start, the song itself was almost stillborn, but even before that, the song has a history.

Bob himself was at the crossroads. He had reached somewhat of a hiatus, even though he had only been on the music scene for three years. He was already a huge hero of the folk music scene, and everyone knew his name. In popular music areas, his name was becoming known, but mainly from the numerous ‘cover’ versions of his songs, as a virtual who’s who of the music scene recorded their versions of songs written by Bob. Bob had reached that stage where he was looking for a new direction himself, and it is said he was even considering leaving the music scene altogether, although when you are this prolific, something like that would be but a fleeting thought. He had reached the stage where that although obviously happy with his already vast body of work, it might have seemed there was a ‘much of a muchness’ feel about it. He was still writing songs like there was no tomorrow, but as is the case with people on the verge of genius, they are always looking for a new challenge.

He had just come home from a tour of the UK where he played to huge audiences, but such a long and gruelling tour took its toll.

This song started out as a long and rambling verse, and then when he set it to music, he couldn’t quite get it right, further accentuating any doubts that may have started.

I want you to understand this next bit clearly. This song was scheduled for release on his 6th studio album. Since his “Freewheelin’ album, this was the fifth album in two years. In this day and age when artists and bands release albums with a fair time between them, Bob was releasing them at a prolific rate, and all of them were selling well, and songs were being lifted by other artists and made into hits.

A lot of things just rushed out as Bob wrote this song, probably a reflection of his dark demeanor at the time. Still not able to get it right, he was at the piano waiting for inspiration when the phrase ‘How does it feel’ came out at him almost in slow motion, and this then gave the song some binding. He looked to record the song in an electric, and a rock format, moving inexorably away from his former ‘folk’ roots with just his voice being amplified for live audiences.

With the song now in the studio, Bob was still looking for more, and gathered around him a group of session musicians already adept at playing in a full band format. Foremost among them was guitarist Mike Bloomfield. A young new guy also turned up at the session as a guitarist, but unheralded as he was, and with such celebrated musicians already there, he had little hope of playing. This was Al Kooper, a 21 year old and just starting out. During one of the breaks in the recording session, he seated himself at the Organ, and when the session started again, his presence was noted, and there were some protests as Kooper was a guitarist with little to no experience on the Organ. Being a musician however, he could pick up the music by watching the other musicians playing the chords and notes on their instruments. Because of that, he was always just that fraction of a second behind them when playing the notes. After that session Bob was in the room listening to the playback, and he picked up the organ playing an eighth of a bar behind the rest of the music. Kooper had this little riff he had been playing with, and this combined with that slight difference was what Bob noticed the most, asking that the organ be accentuated, something another in the room commented on, the fact that Kooper was not really an organist.

This galvanised Bob, and even though the song was just about right, this added something to it in Bob’s eyes.

Thus, the song was born, and went onto that sixth studio album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, which was finally released in August of 1965.

This however, was nowhere near the end of it. In fact, the song, now born, looked like it might actually be stillborn.

Bob played the song at the Newport Folk Festival a few weeks later, and the cheers for Bob were almost drowned out by the boos. There were two schools of thought on that. The first was that Bob had ‘sold out’, because amplified music was not part of the regular folk music scene, and here was one of Folk Music’s biggest heroes playing music with an electric guitar and a band. However, the real reason was most probably that the sound quality of this performance was really bad, and at a dedicated Folk Music venue, they were not all that adept at getting amplified music right. There was distortion, feedback, and incorrect levels, both for instruments and microphones. In fact there is a legend that Pete Seeger himself wanted to cut the cables with an axe. Pete Seeger’s act of itself was also misconstrued. Some people took it that even he was enraged by the ‘electrification’ of the music and wanted to cut the cables, when the real reason was probably closer to wanting to get Bob’s microphone level set correctly, so people could better hear Bob’s lyrics, which he considered important for people to hear.

A lot of this might have more to do with Bob’s first real outings with a full and electric band. In this day and age when the ‘roadies’ get everything set up perfectly before the performance, in those days, the guys just walked on, plugged in, and let fly, so the levels were in fact all over the place. The band only played three electric songs before walking off stage. Bob came back later and played an acoustic set, but now the legend of this performance had already started to generate the rumours it became known for.

Even now, this was still not the end of it for this wonderful song.

Radio stations played songs that were two and a half minutes long and that was it. Anything longer was out of the question, and Columbia Records did not even want to release it to radio, because of the song’s length at just over six minutes, more than twice the length of any songs for radio.

That was it then. The now released song was stillborn at birth. But was it?

One of the Columbia people took one of the discarded acetetes to a new disco in a time long before disco’s were, well, discos. The crowd heard the song and went almost ballistic, demanding that the song be played over and over….. and over. In fact, that acetate was worn out on that first night, and one of the most celebrated songs of all time had new life breathed back into it. A radio DJ was at that disco that night and the following morning rang Columbia asking for, and in fact, demanding a copy of the song. It was released on a double sided single, which radio stations played and then turned over to continue the song, because the listeners asked for the full song.

It spent 12 weeks in the Charts and in fact rose to Number 2, and following from that, became a monster Worldwide hit for Bob. To date in fact, it is the highest position ever reached by a single done by Bob himself.

Since then, the song has become one of the most celebrated songs in the modern music era. In a time when love songs were all the rage, this song is almost one of revenge.

What I have here is just a short compilation of some of things in the life of this song. It is one of the most recognisable songs from the last 50 years, and for so many reasons. Other artists and bands all look at this song with a respect unrivalled when compared to other songs. Some of the biggest stars of the time looked at this song with a reverence unparalleled when comparing it even to their own songs.

It has been covered by a who’s who of artists and bands, but as soon as you hear that distinctive opening snare shot on the drums and then the distinctive Al Kooper inspired opening riff of the studio version of this song, you just know that this is Bob Dylan at his absolute finest.

That studio version opening is what everyone recognises almost immediately, and I can’t find a studio version to link to, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, not that it matters, because you don’t even really need to be a Dylan afficionado to recognise that opening ten seconds of this song, literally, the first ten seconds. So that’s why the only version I do have to post is in fact that version from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Everyone has a favourite Dylan song, but everyone loves this one.