20 July 2015
In a recent New York Times profile of the photographer Robert Frank, Nicholas Dawidoff describes the impact of his book The Americans—starting with its opening image—this way.
“The Harvard photography historian Robin Kelsey likens it to the splash of snare drum at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ ‘It flaps you right away.’ …That is the miracle of great socially committed art: It addresses our sources of deepest unease, helps us to confront what we cannot organize or explain by making all of it unforgettable.”
That is certainly true of both those works of art and worth considering today, the 50th anniversary of “Like a Rolling Stone” being released as a single. Frank’s Beat Era masterpiece went on the road to see and show us the disaffected Americans not brightened by suburbanization and make us acknowledge “the other;” Dylan’s convention-defying song announced rock ‘n’ roll would become the voice—his voice—for disaffected Boomers out to revolutionize everything they could touch. Including rock ‘n’ roll, itself.
But there was a difference. Frank quietly went on the journey that produced The Americans in 1955 with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. It was a struggle to get the resultant work published—in 1958 in France and 1959 in America. Even then, as Dawidoff point out, its impact was slow. It is still seeping into our awareness today. “(It) would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like Moby-Dick’ and Citizen Kane—works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there,” he writes.
That is where “Like a Rolling Stone”—every bit the “American experimental classic” of those others—is different. From virtually the moment it was released as a single, the culture was ready for it. That’s an understatement. It detonated like a missile.
It was truly radical, as so many writers before have pointed out, especially Greil Marcus in his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, which details its recording in June 1965.
That startling drumshot of an opening: Al Kooper’s beckoning, carnivalesque Hammond B-3 organ part and Michael Bloomfield’s electric-guitar curlicues run around Dylan’s own determined rhythmic playing. And over which, Dylan’s strange lyrics seem triumphant, yet also full of warning, as his unglamorous voice brimming with attitude, holds onto syllables as if they were gleeful riders on a hurtling-downward roller-coaster. He sings phrases like “Mystery tramp?” “Chrome horse with your diplomat?” “Napoleon in rags?” as if they were a new language, a secret code, masquerading as popular song.
As it went on for just a bit over six minutes, it was both intellectual incitement and a soulful sing-along rocker—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl joined with both sides of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
After an initial period during which Top 40 radio tried to play a shortened version of the song supplied by Columbia Records, Dylan (and much of the public) forced stations to play the full version.
There was great drama surrounding that at the time. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, there were two Top 40 stations at the time and one played the short version but also programmed Barry McGuire’s doomy yet more familiarly structured folk-rock protest song “Eve of Destruction.” The other banned McGuire as too negative but played “Rolling Stone” the way Dylan intended. And each bragged they had more courage than the other.
Dylan was already a celebrated folk-based songwriter at the time, and his ambition to cross over to electric rock ‘n’ roll as a performer was no secret. But his earlier stab at a hit record, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” seemed derivative (of Chuck Berry, especially) and almost a novelty. Time has altered that view, of course, but at the time it was underwhelming, given the amount of press he was getting as a writer. It had scraped the Top 40 earlier in 1965, and gave no indication of what was to come.
Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart had “Like a Rolling Stone” at No. 91 for the week ending July 24, which means it was it getting sales action even before it was officially available. It was in the Top 40 by Aug. 14, the Top 10 by Aug. 28 and No. 2, just behind the Beatles’ “Help!” and every bit as big a hit by Sept. 4.
Perhaps the most important thing about the song’s impact is that while it was indeed revolutionary art, it was directed straight at teenagers. And by their sheer number, those ages 13-19 in 1965 made the country take notice of them.
In 1946, the start of the Baby Boom that officially ended in 1964, the number of Americans born jumped startlingly to a record-breaking 3.47 million from 2.8 million in 1945. That number stayed at 3.5 million or higher through 1952. They also had their own unified means of communication in Top 40 radio. (Dylan, of course, was not one of them. He was 24 when “Like a Rolling Stone” struck.)
With 50 years of study, it’s easy today to see the song’s surrealistic lyrics for what they were—a knowing retort, but empathetic, to a privileged woman who has had her comeuppance. As such, its attitude and subject matter aren’t the song’s most progressive aspect. Both Dylan and the Top 40 had been there before. In fact, one of the song’s namesakes, the Rolling Stones, had explored the same territory with much less complexity earlier in 1965 with “Play With Fire.”
But that’s not how “Like a Rolling Stone”’s intended audience heard the song. They saw themselves as the subject, the “you,” at the same time they were being shaken by their country’s violence in the mid- to late-1960s. Many were preparing to seek radical change in so many ways, and that idea was both scary and liberating. “Like a Rolling Stone”’s refrain, “How does it feel / To be on your own? / With no direction home,” quickly became prophetic to them. It was a call to liberation.
The ghost of “Like a Rolling Stone” runs through the lyrics of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which Crosby, Stills & Nash released as a single shortly after National Guard troops killed four students during a 1970 protest at Kent State University: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own.”
Recently, I was having lunch with a friend from high school who had just signed up for Medicare. After explaining the process to me, he said, “Jesus, can you believe we’re 65?”
I answered that, yes, years have passed too quickly, but I felt lucky to have been a teenager in 1965, at the exact time “Like a Rolling Stone” was released and directed right at me. It was a momentous event then, and it still feels that way now.