Like A Rolling Stone (1965)

Bob Dylan

Highway 61 Revisited
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To go back to the day in July, 1965, when “Like A Rolling Stone” first hit the record stores and airwaves – when the popcorn really started popping and people went bug-eyed over this intrusion into the straight and narrow – would be an experience.

“Satisfaction” was perched in the #1 slot where it stayed for four weeks that month. It was followed by the unforgettably forgettable “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits. That, in turn, was followed by Sonny & Cher’s hymn to unsettled young love and a yen for domesticity, “I Got You, Babe.”

Dylan had just experienced a second-hand #1 on the charts courtesy of The Byrds’ cover of “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man.”

“Like A Rolling Stone” was off the charts in so many ways. Figuratively, it was a song like nobody had ever heard before. Defying expectations, it popped up to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and promptly disappeared when every disaffected person in the English-speaking world had bought his or her copy. (All the old folkies bought it, too, so presumably they could burn their former idol’s revolutionary hard turn into the world of Rock at their next hootenanny.)

Since then, along the way, “Like A Rolling Stone” stopped being a treasure and became an icon. Icons are enshrined. They are handled, rubbed to a soft shine, and they are used for purposes other than first intended. They are worshipped, held aloft, and offered as proof… of what, you can never tell.

Many critics cite the song as the #1 song of all time, or at the very least, of the 1960s. That’s all well and good, but the scaffolding on which the superlatives are hung is not quite sturdy enough.

It’s not a very friendly song. It has a strong whiff of misogyny. While it is very intriguing musically, it’s melody is not quite first rate. Dylan always was a master of disguise and his song of the streets of New York rings a touch phony, possibly because he is merely observing someone who struggled with life on the razzle, and most likely was dragged down by drugs. Truth is not just a set of facts. It’s also a feeling.

Other stronger songs from the same era of Dylan’s work, although less accessible, (most would never see even a minor chart position), are bigger boned and are better-developed in their ideas, musical and verbal. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” comes to mind, as does “My Back Pages.”

In his later work, the more contemplative Blood On The Tracks from 1975 among others, Dylan finds a true inner voice, and while the grand and incomparable singer-songwriter is still a poseur on Blood, there is a wink in what he’s doing. His chronicle of his youth, “Tangled Up In Blue,” is filled with sharp emotions but comes across as totally believable and he has stopped reaching too far for imagery.

On that album Dylan also writes some of the most tender, heartfelt love songs of his generation: “Simple Twist Of Fate,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and the gut-puncher, “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

We’re not saying “Like A Rolling Stone” ought to be disposed of, but rather deposed as a song that continually is placed at the right hand of the Father.

Perhaps hearing it a zillion times hasn’t helped it maintain the right to the high throne. Maybe no throne is in order for any song, to be fair. Regardless – move it on over.

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