Monday, November 14, 2016
SHG: Bob Dylan: "Like a Rolling Stone"
Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”
Entered the chart on: 8/14/65
Peaked on: 9/4/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Help!” by the Beatles
Well, it took two years, but we finally get an appearance by Bob Dylan on Second Hand Goods on his own, not having one of his songs interpreted by someone else. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that the British Invasion, specifically the popularity of the Rolling Stones, didn’t have a bit of a hand in this song’s chart success. Incidentally, the Rolling Stones covered “Like a Rolling Stone” themselves in 1995 and their version is...not very good!
But never mind about that, how about the composer’s original version?
I can’t believe it. These were the days when shorter was better, remember this was the next #2 hit after the 2 minute, 59 second “Save Your Heart for Me.” And here’s Bob Dylan with this rambling six-minute number. Apparently, Columbia were really reticent to release this as a single, on account of its length. In addition to that, Dylan had a reputation as a folk singer, and they were sort of antsy releasing a song by him with electric instruments on it.
That said, this is a fascinating song. Much has been written of Dylan deciding to strap on an electric guitar for this one, and of session man Al Kooper (another Gary Lewis link!) playing the unforgettable Hammond organ part on this song. And then there’s the matter of the lyrics. They seem a bit on the harsh side, especially since he seems to be prodding the female subject on her way down a cataclysmic fall from success. Kicking her when she’s down, so to speak. That said, and this has been pointed out by other reviewers, she doesn’t strike me as the nicest person in the world. Not saying that she deserves this much scorn, but still. There’s a lot we don’t know. As with Carly Simon’s later hit “You’re So Vain,” it’s become popular to ponder if some real-life person was the inspiration for the song, especially if said person might have been somebody famous.
Really, Dylan needs to be canonized for his lyric writing (Oh, what’s that? He was?). Because he really is a master with words. The “Once upon a dime you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime,” couplet is overflowing with internal rhyme, they roll off the tongue in an appealing way, and we’re only at the start of the song! It’s not the only time that happens, the entire song is like that.
Obviously, we have to address Dylan’s voice, which I know a lot of people don’t like. Ragged and untrained, it’s definitely not pretty. But there is a raw honesty to it, and he sells the subject matter with clearly audible fire in his belly. Would Peter, Paul & Mary have been able to channel the rage and bitterness Dylan brings forth with such ease and effectiveness here? I don’t think so! And his voice is echoed by his amateurish yet oddly appealing harmonica breaks leading from the refrain back into the verse. It’s like the punctuation mark of the song.
Listening to this is kind of like listening to that scruffy street musician on the corner. Only you realize that he’s no ordinary talentless bum jabbing at a guitar for pocket change. He actually has something interesting and profound to say.
I get why this was such a big hit. How could anything be the same after this?