When Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (purchase/download) hit the airwaves on July 20, 1965, things would never be the same. The impact was enormous. Revolutionary. And it's no overstatement to say that this extraordinary song was instrumental in reshaping not only Bob Dylan's career, but in many ways, the entire spectrum of American popular music. That single crack of the snare and the collision of sound almost too perfect to be real. And then, like the world's oldest fairy tales, the opening phrase, "Once upon a time..." which quickly shifts into a vindictive portrait of phony Miss Lonely, who has descended into dues-paying and despair somewhere, no doubt, along Desolation Row.
How It Gelled
In 1965, ready to quit the music industry with all its underpinnings, Dylan was trying to become a poet and novelist, a serious literary artist. Heavily submersed in Beat literature, and fraternizing with Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and the like, he'd been scratching out his own amphetamine-charged free-form screeds using a Kerouac-inspired first-thought-best-thought writing style. The bulk of prose written during this epoch would eventually become Tarantula, Dylan's "novel" published in 1971 (compare prices).
However, a chunk of this verbiage ended up mutating into what Rolling Stone magazine would christen in 2004, "the greatest song of all time." As Dylan explained, "I'd literally quit singing and playing, and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about 20 pages long, and out of it I took 'Like a Rolling Stone' and made it as a single."
The “long piece of vomit” emerged in late May 1965, around the time Dylan was wrapping up his acoustic tour of England, captured in D.A. Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back. Even in the film, you can see flourishes of the song emerge, such as the scene with Dylan in a hotel room, playing an impromptu version of Hank Williams' song "The Lost Highway" (purchase/download) with its opening line “I'm a rollin' stone, all alone and lost.”
But it was back in the states in a Woodstock, New York cabin rented from Peter Yarrow's mother that this prose actually congealed into lyrics. According to Dylan, “I never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, 'How does it feel?' in a slow motion pace... I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight.” Written to the tune of Richie Valens' 1958 song “La Bamba,” Dylan boiled his long screed down to four verses and that immortal chorus. But realizing he could create serious art through the medium of pop music, the song still stands as Dylan's biggest breakthrough. As he related: “I didn't care anymore after that about writing books or poems or whatever.” He was back to stay as a songwriter.
The Gods Descend on Studio A
A lot of magic has occurred at Columbia's Studio A in New York City, but few events would pale the June 15-16, 1965 sessions, when Dylan would produce one of his career masterpieces. Dylan's instructions to guitarist Mike Bloomfield were explicit: “I don't want you to play any of that B.B. King shit.” While Bob knew precisely what he didn't want, after five unsuccessful takes on the first day, he still hadn't hit the note he was looking for either. Others in the studio included, Paul Griffin at the piano, Joe Macho Jr. on bass, Bobby Gregg playing drums, and Bruce Langhorne ("Mr. Tambourine Man") playing tambourine. Plus Al Kooper, who was invited into the studio by producer Tom Wilson as a stand-by guitarist.
On day two, with the song's final shape still stuck in limbo, Kooper seized the moment when he shanghaied the Hammond B3 organ and laid down the organ riff that would cast the song with its winning texture. After a few rough runs, the furies swept in, and the fourth take became one of those rare, transcendental moments of sheer godliness that can never be reproduced. Likening the event to catching lightening in a bottle, perhaps Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin said it best: “The confluence of important words, that frat-rock melody, its steady rhythm of hatred, a happenstance of masterful musicians, and the hippest producer on the block fused together, and stayed together, for the six solid minutes it took to break all the rules. For all time.”
At six minutes, “Like a Rolling Stone” would alter the acceptable song length for radio airplay. Normally for longer songs like this, record companies would cut an abridged single for radio, usually whacking out a few verses and fills. With the average song clocking in at the traditional three minutes, Dylan met with much resistance from the record company. A six-minute song was unheard of, they said. It was unrealistic. Radio stations wouldn't play it. But Dylan stuck to his guns. Unorthodox to the times, “Like a Rolling Stone” was released as a single on July 20, 1965 in its full six-minute glory, soon appearing as the opening track on Dylan's first all-electric album—the August 30, 1965-released Highway 61 Revisited (compare prices).
The Live Debut
For the 24-year-old Bob Dylan, the song's live debut at the Newport Folk Festival was a nightmare of epic proportions. On July 25, by the end of the set opener, “Maggie's Farm,” the once-stoic veneer of Newport's once-kind folk had melted away and was replaced with ugliness and rage. The incensed crowd wanted the acoustic Dylan, the predictable Dylan, not this electrically amplified hybrid prototype. “Sellout!” they yelled. “Get off the stage!” By the time the band jumped into “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan's breakthrough song got washed out by a wailing wall of booing folk fans.
But this incident didn't stop the song from rocketing straight up the charts to No. 2, bested only by the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction,” which had held the No. 1 position all summer. With “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan was suddenly in the big leagues. An icon. And by achieving the heights of poetry through the medium of pop music, he'd bridged the unbridgeable, altering the course of popular songwriting. The bar was raised, and with the door wide open, other major acts would also begin approaching popular music as an avenue of creating serious art. As Dylan said, “'Like a Rolling Stone' changed it all.”