Graham Reid | | 2 min read
When Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone snarled out of radios more than 40 years ago, its compelling sound grabbing the attention for the duration of its ground-breaking six minutes. Even today it is extraordinary.
It begins with what sounds like a pistol shot -- not the first to do so but the most memorable - then organ, guitars, and piano enter setting up a wash of chords before Dylan introduce a narrative which begins like a fairytale: "Once upon a time you dressed so fine . . ."
The voice becomes more accusatory with his sneering “didn’t you?” -- but is it a fallen sophisticate or past lover he is addressing? Or is it directed to his pampered post-war generation which “never learned how to live out on the street and now you have to get used to it“?
The song, even now, is urgent, full of mystery and the momentum never falters as Dylan becomes even more vehement.
Voted the greatest rock song of all time in 2004 by musicians in a poll conducted by Rolling Stone magazine, it is a complex masterpiece of metaphorical storytelling and announced the potential of popular music to be more than three minutes of escapist pop.
American cultural critic Marcus takes Like A Rolling Stone as the starting point for this lengthy, digressive, sometimes annoying but more often insightful, analysis of the song, Dylan’s career, the world at the time, and much more besides.
Marcus first places the song back in its context of the exciting, fast turnaround world of radio pop in 65 which started with Petula Clark’s chirpy Downtown at number one, then the Righteous Brothers big ballad You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, then Beatlesque pop by Gary Lewis and the Playboys with This Diamond Ring.
This was the innocence rent asunder by lines like “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Marcus is at his best when contextualising the song (in its social, musical and political milieux) or Dylan’s career, and recalling personal epiphanies such as being in restaurant in Hawaii in 81 when the song came on the radio and stopped conversation: “When the song was over, it was like the air had gone out of the room”.
As with many people, I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard it: in my attic retreat at my parents' house and it came on the radio. I bought it as soon as I could afford the 7/6d and played with almost maniacal intensity. I had little idea then what it meant and am not sure I am any more clear today -- and that is the mystique of the song. But it somehow connected with me, and millions of others.
Marcus explores the ritualistic understandings between artist and audience, how Dylan rarely captured Rolling Stone again in live performance, has fun with the current revisionism about Dylan’s controversial reception at Newport in 65 when he was booed (maybe the crowd was calling for a better sound mix?) and reveals an orchestrated campaign by Communist folkies against the singer on his UK tour the following year.
This is fascinating, and engagingly written, stuff.
Elsewhere he digresses into the careers of the Joan Baez, the Drifters and Robert Johnson, but takes off on a flight -- fairly typical of his frequently unconstrained intellectualism actually -- when he says the musicians on the song charged into it and found themselves in Connecticut in 1741 with Dylan as preacher Jonathan Edwards pronouncing his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
But during such tangents Marcus is astutely circling the song to swoop back in, clawing it apart even further.
It is an essay conceived as a poetic analysis and drives you back to that remarkable piece of music -- the result of a rare convergence of artist, ideas and the moment -- which is as dramatic now as it was 40 years ago.
LIKE A ROLLING STONE: BOB DYLAN AT THE CROSSROADS by Greil Marcus (Faber & Faber