Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: July ’65, Columbia
12 weeks; No. 2
“I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight,” Bob Dylan said of his greatest song shortly after he recorded it in June 1965. There is no better description of “Like a Rolling Stone” — of its revolutionary design and execution — or of the young man, just turned 24, who created it.
Al Kooper, who played organ on the session, remembers today, “There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened.”
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 (“Ho-o-o-ow does it fe-e-e-el?”), 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.
Just a few weeks earlier, as he was finishing up the British tour immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, Dylan began writing an extended piece of verse — 20 pages long by one account, six in another — that was, he said, “just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest.” Back home in Woodstock, New York, over three days in early June, Dylan sharpened the sprawl down to that confrontational chorus and four taut verses bursting with piercing metaphor and concise truth. “The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ and ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out,” he confessed to Rolling Stone in 1988, “and when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much.”
The beginnings of “Like a Rolling Stone” can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don’t Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost/For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost.” Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for “Like a Rolling Stone,” connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
Yet Dylan obsessed over the forward march in “Like a Rolling Stone.” Before going into Columbia Records’ New York studios to cut it, he summoned Bloomfield, the guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, to Woodstock to learn the song. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to play any of that B.B. King shit, none of that fucking blues,’ ” recalled Bloomfield (who died in 1981). “ ’I want you to play something else.’ ” Dylan later said much the same thing to the rest of the studio band, which included pianist Paul Griffin, bassist Russ Savakus and drummer Bobby Gregg: “I told them how to play on it, and if they didn’t want to play it like that, well, they couldn’t play with me.”
Just as Dylan bent folk music’s roots and forms to his own will, he transformed popular song with the content and ambition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” And in his electrifying vocal performance, his best on record, Dylan proved that everything he did was, first and always, rock & roll. “ ’Rolling Stone’ ’s the best song I wrote,” he said flatly at the end of 1965. It still is.