The first time I listened to Bob Dylan was after seeking him out. I was a junior in high school and had been in a serious Beatles phase for a few years. I had listened to every Beatles song multiple times, even buying bootleg Beatles albums with murky sound quality and murky origins with my friend Mike Vago from a tiny record shop in a weird half-mall in Edinboro, PA. Anything to hear new Beatles music. But I had exhausted all my options to hear more Beatles music. Of course there was music on the radio, but it didn’t mean the same as The Beatles. Because of the music nerd tendencies that I had already started cultivating, I had read a number of books on The Beatles, anything to get that fix. Bob Dylan was a name that kept coming up in all of those books, how his records — especially the mid-60s just-gone-electric records — had forced the members of The Beatles to move from “Do you want to know a secret?” to “She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’
My introduction to Dylan happened in fall 1990. He was at an absolute nadir in terms of popularity and relevance. No one I knew listened to Bob Dylan. With his twisted nasally voice, there was nothing a high schooler at that time would want from listening to his music. What was I to do? There was no one I could ask about him, except the local record store owner. This sounds like a scene out of a bad music video, but it’s true. I walked home from school and ventured into a music store that sold mostly vinyl records. Today, this record store would be held in high reverence by music collectors and that crowd would travel from far-flung locations to visit it. But in 1990, this type of music purveyor was becoming increasingly rare. The store would move locations a few times after this and would then disappear within a few years of my visit. I can’t even remember the name of the place.
There were no other customers, so I determined I could embarrass myself and went up to the counter and told/asked the owner: “I keep reading that The Beatles were influenced by Bob Dylan, especially” — I can’t remember if I checked a note that I wrote for myself but very well could have — “Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Do you have any of those records?”
No verbal response, but he led me over to the “Bob Dylan” section and started flipping through records that were, at that point, unfamiliar to me. Finally he pulled out a record whose cover featured a hazy, psychedelic image of someone’s head in which the defining feature was uncontrollable hair. It was Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. The owner said, “You’ll find everything you need to start here.”
I took it home and it felt as though I was smuggling drugs into my room as I didn’t want anybody to stop me and ask what I had under my jacket. I couldn’t describe why I wanted to keep Bob Dylan to myself at that point, but he was just going to be for me. In the coming weeks, I wore the record out, playing it over and over and over again. Subsequently, Bob Dylan was no longer a secret for me because everyone in the house knew what I was listening to. At the same time as this first Dylan submersion, I was also reading Burr by Gore Vidal. This historical novel featured a fictional memoir by Aaron Burr: America’s third Vice President, almost America’s third President, Alexander Hamilton’s murderer, and would-be Emperor of Mexico. In the novel, Vidal gleefully presents alternative views on the Founding Fathers, offers different theories as to their motives, and undercuts the presumed nobility of these men with sometimes salacious attributes. Reading the novel felt like sacrilege, undermining everything I had been taught about the founding of our country.
Reading Burr and my first listening to Dylan was an ideal pairing. I felt as though I had entered into the adult world, contemplating new ideas and perspectives, none more so than the last song on the first side of the record, “Like a Rolling Stone.” So many mysterious characters and expressions in that song. Who was Miss Lonely? How does one get “juiced in it”? What is a chrome horse? Did he mean a train? Or a car? Or is it a metaphor for drugs? What language did Napoleon in Rags use? Was it a phrase such as: “He really wasn’t where it’s at”? And how could that line convey so much when I didn’t really know what it actually meant but it felt significant?
Bruce Springsteen also heard “Like a Rolling Stone” at about the same age I did, and he was able to put into words what hearing that song for the first time meant in his speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988:
“The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind … The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world.”
Speaking of the adult world, in the spring of 1994, I traveled with a group of Wake Forest students to London to study for a semester while being housed in Wake Forest’s house in London. The city was full of cultural events and opportunities that had not been available to me to that point, including attending theater night after night, checking out heretofore unknown bands, and marveling at film actors who recited poetry at small bookstores. One night, one of us spotted an advertisement for a poetry reading that was billed as a celebration of the music of Bob Dylan, and so a group of us decided to attend. Held at a large bookstore, there were about 100 people mixing with one another and buying books. Before the reading started, I overheard someone ask, “Is Bob Dylan coming tonight?” The answer came back, “I heard he might!”
In every book in the series, the Hardy Boys would inevitably be punched in the solar plexus. Momentarily, I knew how that felt before settling myself down. Dylan wasn’t playing in London, let alone Europe. I realized the impossibility of someone like Bob Dylan coming to a celebration of his music by a group of generous-to-call-them-minor poets.
The reading started and we endured a non-stop recitation of mediocre poetry before we came to the show stopper. A man of about 55 with glasses, grey stubble on his chin, and a hat signifying his alliance with the workers as if he was in a 1968 documentary portraying students allying themselves with workers. This was 1994. He spoke with a Northern England accent; my English accent identifier then and now unable to determine whether he was from Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, or a small village populated mostly by sheep.
The first poem he read was a recognition of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, the first collection of previously unreleased jewels from Dylan’s treasure trove. This character’s poem was a long work that repeated the phrase “The Bootleg Series” every two or three lines. Except that with his accent, we heard “da BOOtleg series” with an extra emphasis on “BOO.” Sometimes he would use it as a question: “Da Bootleg Series?” The only acceptable answer he’d give to that question: “Da Bootleg Series!”
The next poem had a similar structure, a long poem with a repeated phrase: “E’vry home” — pause — “should have one.” Seeming to be a comment on commercialism and the need to buy the newest appliances, I couldn’t see any obvious connection to Bob Dylan. Needless to say, our group repeated these phrases in our best imitation of this unplaceable accent for the rest of the semester.
As the reading was concluding, I thought again about the hope and expectancy on the part of that audience member that Dylan would have attended this event. Dylan is notoriously uncomfortable around hearing praise of himself and his work. Putting aside being on stage performing music, he rarely shows up at events like these especially if they are feting him. I especially thought of mid-60s Dylan, the Dont Look Back Dylan, filled with contempt and withering comments for anyone deemed “not where it’s at.” And with that line, I realized that the audience of this crowd — including myself — could have been the target for Dylan’s emotions in “Like a Rolling Stone.” The scorn, the weariness, the amusement – all directed at those of us not truly getting it.
The next summer, I was able to return to London to work in the same Wake Forest house that I had lived and studied in the previous year. With a bit more money to spend this time, I splurged to see The Rolling Stones perform in Wembley Stadium with The Black Crowes as an opener. It was a warm summer day, with good performances by both bands. The Stones were complete professionals, playing the hits and providing the required spectacle for the pricey ticket. Towards the middle of the show after the note-for-note renditions of “Satisfaction,” “Beast of Burden,” and “Angie,” Mick Jagger introduced the next song as “One that Bob Dylan wrote for us.” Charlie Watts hit the infamous opening snare shot and the band kicked into “Like a Rolling Stone.” The Stones later released a live performance of the song just a week or two before I saw it performed at Wembley:
Their version is weirdly inessential. It’s performed well; all the parts are played; Mick’s voice is in good form. But there’s no bite or wit at all in the song. It simply sounds like a sing-along. The only that’s at all interesting is during the chorus, we can hear Keith’s ragged, scratchy vocals straining to find the right notes. Maybe we need a solo Keith Richards’ cut of the song.
I once read a magazine interview with Neil Young in which he was asked a standard series of questions. One question was: “When you are writing a song, what is a line that always comes to mind that you regularly need to edit out of the song?” Neil’s response: “How does it feel?” That’s a man who has listened to “Like a Rolling Stone” many times.
Dylan told Cameron Crowe for the Biograph box set liner notes that setting the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” to music “started with that ‘La Bamba’ riff.” I know that the chord progression of the song is C – F – G as in “La Bamba,” but I never heard it in “Like a Rolling Stone” until I heard a cover by The Soup Greens recorded in September 1965:
This performance centers the garage rockiness of “La Bamba” in “Like a Rolling Stone” and stripped the rest of the song down for parts. The verses are ignored with a sole focus on the chorus, transforming “Like a Rolling Stone” into “Louie, Louie” or “Good Lovin’.”
I was walking down the sidewalk in Monterey, CA, and a muscle car drove past me very fast. Whoever was in the car was blasting music out of the open windows. I could only hear a glimpse of the song playing, and it was “Like a Rolling Stone.” I don’t know what song I was expecting to hear out of that muscle car, but it wasn’t “Like a Rolling Stone.” And yet it was the perfect song to be played at that time and place. Or maybe this was the 90s version of the chrome horse from the song.
David Letterman celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Late Night show at Radio City Music Hall on January 18, 1992. Dylan was set to headline the show. Late Night bandleader Paul Shaffer put together an assembly of all-star musicians to accompany his World’s Most Dangerous Band for the big performance with Dylan, including Chrissie Hynde and Steve Vai on guitars, Carole King playing the piano part, Edgar Winter on saxophone and white hair, and Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen playing trumpet. Members of James Brown’s band played horns, including Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis. Shaffer had secured an all-female section for back-up vocals made up of Rosanne Cash, Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Shocked, and Mavis Staples. What song did this strange brew of musicians play? “Like a Rolling Stone,” of course.
So much talent. A great song. No better venue in which to perform. And what a terrible display! It’s obvious Dylan doesn’t want to be there and is not putting any effort into his vocal delivery. The most hacky Bob Dylan impersonator wouldn’t go this far. Placing Dylan’s barely-there performance aside, is there anything this band would have produced that would have sounded good? How are heavy metal guitar wizard Steve Vai and Tapestry-writing Carole King going to find common ground with music showbiz pro Doc Severinsen?
How does it feel for Bob Dylan to play “Like a Rolling Stone”? According to bobdylan.com, he has performed the song 2,075 times in concert as of his last live performances before the pandemic. Does he think, “This damn song again? That seems to be the attitude with which he performed it during the Letterman 10th anniversary special. Now perhaps there’s a distance for Dylan when singing the song, as if he is performing an old standard or covering an Elvis number. In some live recordings of the song, Dylan brings passion, gusto, and everything necessary. Maybe he thinks about the young person attending one of his concerts seeking connection and confidence, similar to how Dylan went to a Buddy Holly concert at a young age. Dylan wrote about watching Buddy Holly perform in concert for his lecture accepting the Nobel Prize in 2016:
“I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed. He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”
Fifty-seven years later and the connection Dylan felt with Buddy Holly never went away. Perhaps Dylan himself has found a similar attachment to a fan in an audience while performing “Like a Rolling Stone.”
In 2004, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times interviewed Dylan about the craft of songwriting. Dylan is generous throughout the interview, sharing heretofore unknown aspects of Dylan’s process. Eventually, Hilburn asks Dylan about composing his most famous song. At first, Dylan tries to deflect the import of that moment in his songwriting evolution by saying:
“I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?'”
Perhaps sensing his own #humblebrag and knowing that this answer is not quite sufficient, he instead shifts to a more mystical tone, similar to how he talked about his connection with Buddy Holly at the concert a few days before his tragic death. Dylan shares about the composition of “Like a Rolling Stone”:
“It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that, it gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except that the ghost picked me to write the song.”
Image: hugovk @ flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/hugovk/, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons