MUSIC HISTORY 101: Like A Rolling Stone Revisited - A Short Love Letter to Bob Dylan
Everybody has musicians and bands that they grew up on, whether that’s from your parents, siblings or grandparents. From my Dad, all matter of music from the 60’s and 70’s was passed down to me, either played around the house or on car journeys. One that stuck amongst this wealth of music was Bob Dylan. His long-winded verses and raspy voice would be instantly recognisable to my younger self, but I didn’t truly appreciate his music until 5 years ago.
Dylan was like a jigsaw puzzle and still is. I’m enamoured by him. Whilst I repeatedly listened to his music, I’d search for interviews and clips of him. I hit gold when I watched Martin Scorsese’s masterful two part documentary: No Direction Home. The film is an intimate retrospective of Dylan’s early days to his rise to fame as a folk singer-songwriter in the 60’s capital of counter-culture, Greenwich Village, New York. Up until his controversial change of ‘going electric’. This change in musical direction left Dylan hounded by an outcry of fans who disliked it and the press who preyed on the rising star during his 1965 UK tour.
Let me rewind. Dylan established a name for himself as a folk singer-songwriter when he arrived in Greenwich Village. Although, he was influenced by the icons of his 1950’s youth, like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, it was American folk heroes like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie (check out ‘A Song to Woody’) which truly pushed Dylan to write and sing. He would absorb any folk or blues music he could find, whilst ducking his head in books of poetry. On ‘Freewheelin’’, Dylan adapted Martin Carthy’s rendition of ‘Scarborough Fair’ into his haunting and beautiful song, ‘Girl from the North Country’, whilst retaining some original lyrics: ‘for she once was a true love of mine’. Like Picasso said: ‘Good Artists copy. Great artists steal’. Dylan became an icon of the folk scene and a spokesperson for his generation, he played at the March on Washington for Martin Luther King Jr. Dylan’s songs spoke out against: racism, war and poverty and it was a clear influence on John Lennon. The surreal lyrics can be seen in Lennon-driven Beatles songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and in the song ‘Working Class Hero’ (from Lennon’s debut solo album) you can hear the echoes of Dylan’s fierce protest song: ‘Masters of War’.
But in 1965, Dylan went electric. Dylan released his fifth studio album 'Bringing It All Back Home' in March, 1965. Heavily influenced from hearing The Beatles take over the radio, Dylan was ignited to create something as fun. In July of ‘65 he released ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ a proper rock Dylan song. Instead of a love song hitting the chats, it was a song of resentment. Exhausted by the gruelling UK tour of backlash from fans and the press, Dylan expressed these feelings into music. The session band blend together like no other, from Al Kooper’s improvised organ riff to Mike Bloomfield’s stunning guitar lick’s throughout to of course, Dylan’s voice and lyrics. It’s thrilling, passionate anger condensed with powerful and surreal lyrics.
Lyrically on a basic level it’s Dylan ridiculing ‘Miss Lonely’. She opted for the easier options in life at first, attending the finest of schools with the comfort of always being able to rely on the bank of Daddy. She now finds herself in the complete opposite situation. But, Dylan is compassionate to her, saying
“When ya' ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose You're invisible now, ya' got no secrets to conceal”.
The song is liberating. Although, critics have argued over who it could be. I simply feel Miss Lonely is Dylan hiding behind an imaginary character. The song seems to be him leaving the folk scene he once loved but now began to fill with posers who didn’t truly care about the legacy of folk music. Dylan’s making a new name for himself and he’s a complete unknown again. But, mostly it’s just a metaphor for life, everybody feels lost or lonesome at times whether they’re afraid to admit it or not. The song can be interpreted to what you think it’s about and that’s the beauty of music. It’s probably why I personally resonate with it a lot lately. Unsure of the subject I’m studying at University and where it’ll take me, I feel like a rolling stone going nowhere. But isn’t everybody in the same boat? You’ll find yourself in the end.
I’ll leave you with one of the greatest performances of this song, from the famous Manchester gig of 1966 (click here for that). As Dylan and his band get in tune, a disgruntled fan shouts “Judas!”, Dylan’s had enough of this backlash for a year. He says: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” He leans away from the microphone and tells his band mates to “Play it fucking loud.”. Rightly so Bob.