Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone: story and meaning of the song

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During the studio sessions for Like a Rolling Stone in June 1965, Bob Dylan could not have known that he was recording what would be called “the greatest song of all time”. However, by breaking away from the tradition and strict rules of acoustic folk to go “electric” – decidedly treason for the purists of the Folk Movement – he was aware of the radical change in his career.

In some ways, Dylan had perhaps perceived that it was the right time to build a bridge between two realms: the small and socially committed world of folk music revival and the large but ephemeral universe of pop songs. Therefore, he did not escape what may be considered a doomed role – that of genius artist and explorer of semiotic pathways – being simultaneously antenna and signal in receiving and broadcasting the powerful waves of change that were spreading in the Sixties.

Don’t Look Back (in England)

This was the result of a process of self-reflection. By rethinking his artistic identity, Dylan was able to enrich his musical and poetic world. In March 1965, the release of Bringing It All Back Home – a bipolar work, with an electric side and an acoustic one – signalled such a transition. The title, which could be taken to mean either “return something” or “get to the heart of a matter”, is quite cryptic. A possible solution is to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, during Dylan’s British tour of April-May 1965, as chronicled by Donn A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back, a fundamental docu-film.

Unkind and polemic towards a press that annoyed him by stressing his role as a protest singer and the conscience of his generation, Dylan goes on the defensive and tries to act as a circus jester or a distorting funfair mirror to avoid easy labels: instead of answering journalists, he prefers to pose questions, engaging them in a dialectic tug-of-war, or taking pictures of the photographers and entertaining other musicians, always taking refuge behind an eternal cigarette, as if to protect the signs of his new self-awareness.

We can see a restless Dylan approaching the music scene with caution, dealing with critics and fans as if almost afraid of being swallowed by them, of having no control over life and career. On stage, he seems annoyed with his folk repertoire, tired of playing solo, of being like a jukebox for an audience willing to only have its certainties confirmed. But this – as his friend Allen Ginsberg stated – is not the duty of art. An artist should not please the public but look for something deeper. In this light, it was clear that folk revival had exhausted its power.

The image of a committed songwriter that made him a star is in the background. In this documentary, Dylan appears as impudent and boastful as a 24-year-old boy can be: amused, astonished and annoyed with some journalists – to recall Mr. Jones in Ballad of a Thin Man – who gravely address him as a moral authority, a sort of secular pope of the protest song.
The English experience will clear the ideas of the young Dylan. Still a chrysalis protected by the usual dark suits that he used to wear as a paladin of civil rights, he was going to open to reveal a new and dazzling musical butterfly.

Vomiting mouths, rolling words

During the return flight from Britain, Dylan writes off a text of twenty pages, initially intended for his experimental novel Tarantula, which would eventually give life to Like a Rolling Stone: once back in his country home at Woodstock, he would transform “this long piece of vomit” – as it is often referred to in some of Dylan’s interviews – into the text we know today:

“I found myself writing this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long. It was just a rhythm thing on a paper, all my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest… out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And I’d never written like that before and it suddenly came to me that that was what I should do”.

No longer interested in writing a novel or a drama, he soon realized this song applied to a new category.

As a sublime and universal invective able to match anybody’s discontent, the final text is a long-lasting outburst full of sarcasm and surrealism; it is addressed to an imaginary “Miss Lonely”, a rich and spoiled upper-class girl who has fallen to disgrace, living on the street and homeless: “How does it feel, to be without a home, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone?”

The invective begins like a fairy tale (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine”), showing, as in any fairy tale, allegories and extravagant characters: clowns and jugglers, mystery tramps, a diplomat carrying on his shoulders a Siamese cat, a princess on the steeple, a Napoleon in rags.

“How does it feel?” Dylan cries to a new born world: it is a howl recalling that of Ginsberg ten years before, an anarchic and narcissistic cry shared by the restless youth of the time, blown into the streets of America by a wind of change that was impossible to arrest.

More than a song, Like a Rolling Stone is an emotional state, as well as an endless stratification of meanings involving a crucial moment of our recent history.

It is the hymn of a generation celebrating the search for freedom outside well-established social rules, a threat to the American way of life and its idols. It is the existential experience of a person compelled to lose their track to find themselves again, a story of fall and redemption in which failure is seen as an epiphany. It is also the autobiographic catharsis of those who have rejected a favourable status. However, apart from the many meanings and enigmas involved, the story of Miss Lonely seems to be just a pretext, if related to the mood created by the song.

From the beginning to the end, Dylan’s performance is invigorated by the kind of rage that can give joy and grace once one reaches the highest levels of a liberation. The spirit of the Beat Generation pervades the tune, a Romantic yearning for a free and authentic life, a quest for “beatitude”. Some lines show oneiric aspects but also reflect a Surrealistic tendency to challenge, to be free of any rational intention. A breath of fresh air from the vanguard was suddenly propelled into a pop song.

Finally, the fact that the instruments follow the singing – and not vice versa, as it usually happened – makes this song unique and revolutionary: music comes after Dylan’s voice, rolling behind a text that is really the centre of the song, as had never before happened in Rock music.

Death and resurrection

Like a medium in trance, Dylan ejects six minutes of liberation music as had never been heard before, showing the vitality of one escaping his (artistic) death, invoking one who savours the inebriation of creation and knows that this ecstasy can be experienced again only by another change of skin. This is the only way to overcome regrets – through a game of masks to prevent the consolatory power of nostalgia.

Bodily but ephemeral, Dylan weaves and unweaves the texture of the pop(ular) song, producing a new musical architecture. No more restricted to the usual three-minutes of a tune and setting apart easy melodies and lyrics, Rock emerged as a distinct form of art, an adult, multi-rooted and cultivated language able to relate itself to the so-called “high culture”, notwithstanding record companies, radio networks and the many conceited Mr. Joneses of America.

Ubiquitous but invisible, Dylan was sending coded messages to a restless generation not always fully aware of its uncertainties.

Omnipresent and elusive, he finally invites us to follow him.

To follow his hypnotic lyrics and his peculiar voice that can transport us anywhere – down the highways of the musical tradition of North-America, from the Appalachian Mountains to Louisiana. He invites us to fly to Britain with him, disguised as a trendy rock star, dressed in close-fitting suits, dark sunglasses and sporting a mop of ruffled hair.

This is why Dylan is an artist who can die many times in the course of a life, becoming therefore immortal: he is the one who pursues death till revival, purified by the secretions of his previous artistic life. He is a hero who endures the guilt of not having died young, of surviving the revolution he had himself caused.

New things at Newport

On July 25, 1965, five days after the release of the song, Dylan appears onstage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar and amplifiers, attired in a leather jacket and dark sunglasses, bringing along the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

He plays three electric tracks – the central one is Like a Rolling Stone – but the audience does not appreciate and whistle at the young/old idol for dismissing the purity and the ideals of the movement to imitate some overseas “beetles” in the pursuit of success.

Folk purists do not understand that times are really hastily changing and that the stage of Newport, that very stage where Dylan is saying his good-bye, had a few weeks before been swept away by the same winds of change: when John Coltrane and Archie Shepp had stirred the world of jazz with a free and radical music based on improvisation and their Afrocentric political claims inspired by the message of Malcolm X, assassinated some months before.

The spring air of renaissance is blowing. Dylan’s vocal timbre has never been so silvery. It is a voice that seems to enjoy the challenge proclaimed to American society, to the establishment, and especially to a music industry eager to manage the personage of Dylan on its own terms. His rage slips out of the sober, proletarian clothes of folk music to manufacture a new wardrobe of leather jackets and electric guitars: a glamorous, glittering river flows in the veins of the trickster coming from Duluth, suddenly realizing that he is just 24-year-old – too young to identify himself with a public image not tailored for him – and with a talent for interpreting a world in ebullition.

“It’s only Rock’n’Roll”, somebody may say, but the leap of quality would transform Rock into an innovative language enjoying a recognized artistic prestige. After this, things will never be the same, either for Dylan – newly aware of his ability to talk to the whole world only through rock and electric music – or for the Beatles and other elite rock artists in general.
Among the first ones taking stock of this Copernican revolution, the Beatles will now pay more attention to their own lyrics – “Dylan shows us the way”, John Lennon said in an interview – just after the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965, the first album signalling their artistic maturity.

Today we can still listen to, without understanding completely, the echo of that howl asking the world “How does it feel?” It comes from the peak of a very high mountain, a dividing ridge: that very threshold between before and after was first crossed by Bob Dylan, establishing a very important turning point in twentieth-century mass culture.

“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 around
For your next meal

How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be without a home
With no direction home?
Like a complete unknown?
Like a rolling stone?”

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