#1004: 1965, Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone

by George_East on March 29, 2015

We have reached the half way mark of our top 10 greatest songs not to have featured in Songs To Learn and Sing – a feature we are running to mark the reaching of our 1000th song.

If The Beatles’ Paperback Writer expanded the possibility of what a pop song could be, it was Like A Rolling Stone that did the same for rock music.  This is a song that is so capable of interpretation that rock music’s greatest critic, Greil Marcus wrote a whole book about it.

Its lyrics with Dylan’s sneering ‘how does it feel?’  spat with seeming contempt rather than compassion, to the woman who is the apparent subject of the song and who ‘once upon a time dressed so fine’ but is now ‘like a complete unknown’, is on the face of it the very definition of bitterness.  What on earth did she do, to deserve this vitriol?

But beneath that surface reading Dylan is playing with much bigger themes – it is on a deeper reading a song about those who find themselves cast out from society and its expectations.  That if you don’t play the game, you will no longer belong, you will no longer have the support structures around you.  Dylan maybe referring as much to himself here as anyone after the bruising experience of the ‘Judas’ tour of the UK.   Yet it is rejecting these very things with all the risks that involves that is ultimately liberating: ‘when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, you’re invisible now, you’ve got nothing to steal’.

Yet it is also a song which resonates with the romanticism of the hobo lifestyle that inspired many of the dustbowl singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who themselves were huge inspirations on the early folky political Bob Dylan.   So it is a song which both celebrates the liberation from the expectations of being the great hope of the folk scene but also looks back with fondness to the lifestyle that that scene celebrated, but that perhaps commercialisation had now made false.

If you add in that extraordinary keyboard sound, its 6.13 length Bob Dylan set a benchmark for rock sophistication and rock as art, that would be aspired to ever after (if rarely reached).

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