CSFTD #31: Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone

Many people will know by now that 17th May 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the famous shouted accusation of his being ‘Judas’ at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, aimed by a member of the audience at Bob Dylan, against whom many had turned because the folk singer had the temerity to foray into electric rock music.

Actually it was something Dylan had been doing since he released his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home the previous year, the first of a trilogy of albums with a heavy electric influence and on which there was one folk side and one electric one. He had already been roundly booed at both the Newport Folk Festival and at a concert in New York in 1965 for playing half a set of folk music followed by the other half fully amplified. There’s nothing like a folk man (or woman) scorned.

Several people have claimed to be the heckler, the most credible probably being Keith Butler, a student who later emigrated to Canada, probably a good move. He said in a 1999 interview that he had immediately left the building following Dylan’s retort (“You’re a liar!” followed by “Play it f***ing loud” to the band) out of disgust, commenting “Any bloody pop group can do this rubbish.” He kept his mouth shut thereafter before reading about the incident in the Toronto Sun decades later and deciding to come clean.

Whether it was Butler or another claimant, John Cordwell, I suspect that exiting the building and getting out of the way of Dylan on the night might have been a pretty important secondary consideration. Dylan had already been involved in several dust ups over his change of direction and was clearly a guy not to mess with, and one with a long memory. In 2012, 46 years after the heckler struck, Dylan referred to the incident:

…these are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable [sic] to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil mother****ers can rot in hell.”

Anyway, the song that followed the outburst, the one that was ‘played f***ing loud’ was Like a Rolling Stone, thereby establishing its credentials as a Classic Song for the Day. The song was released as a single from Dylan’s sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965), and was recorded immediately following his return to the US from a tough tour of England. In those days bands recorded and toured like no-one’s business.

Lyrically it’s long-winded effort from the master wordsmith (400 of them) and it’s lengthy, with versions ranging from six to nearly seven minutes. It’s a confrontational piece and one that defied conventional wisdom by expressing resentment and anger rather than love. Dylan verbally attacks a woman (‘Miss Lonely’), presumably a representative of the society he abhorred, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and who has fallen from grace and has to fend for herself in a hostile, unfamiliar world.

“How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”

There is an alternative view (isn’t there always?) that Dylan is actually showing pity for her, but not many takers for it.

Various personalities, both female and male, have been proposed as possible real life versions of Miss Lonely, including Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull.

Musically it didn’t work in its original 3/4 time signature so it was rewritten in 4/4; another shift in the direction of rock music for which that time signature is popular of course. The organ riff was added at the same time.

Columbia Records wasn’t happy about the length of the track, nor with the electric sound for that matter, and was initially hesitant to release it. And radio stations were reluctant to play it because of the length until forced to by public demand. But it reached number two in the US Billboard charts (number one in Cashbox), remaining there for 12 weeks,  and became a worldwide hit, getting into the Top 10 in the UK.

Like a Rolling Stone transformed Dylan’s image from folk singer to rock star, and is considered one of the most influential compositions in post-war popular music. Rolling Stone magazine (what else?) listed the song at number one in their ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’ It has been covered by numerous artists, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Rolling Stones (who else?) to The Wailers and Green Day.

At an auction in 2014, Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to the song fetched $2 million, a world record for a popular music manuscript.

© D J Bentley, 2016

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