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“like a rolling stone” turns 50

July 20, 2015

Dylan at the

Bob Dylan and Mike Bloomfield at the “Like a Rolling Stone” recording session, June 1965. I had this image as a huge poster in my room through many cross-country moves…

“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan’s pioneering anthem that would change popular music forever, was released on this day in 1965. It’s hard to imagine exactly what it must have felt like to hear it for the first time – to be driving along wholly unprepared to have that sound come out of your speakers. As Bruce Springsteen famously said in his 1989 speech at Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “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.” This six-minute, vitriol laden, sneering question that demanded an answer came right on the cusp of the counterculture explosion of the Sixties, and people responded. By the week of September 4th it had reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, coming in just behind The Beatles with “Help!”

In 2005 music critic and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus released an entire book about the song. 225 pages about six minutes and six seconds of music. I was in college when Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads came out, which meant two things – I was broke and I was also a well-oiled fast-reading machine. So, one afternoon while walking home from class I popped into our university bookstore just to see if it was there. With no real intention other than to flip through the book and be sure I had the title right to add to my Christmas Wishlist I ended up standing in the aisle for three solid hours and reading the whole thing in one pass. It’s a weird feeling to finish a book and then put it right back on the shelf but that’s exactly what happened. A few months later I went to a book signing of Marcus’ and told him that I’d read his entire book standing up in a bookstore – how’s that for an introduction? It was a good enough story that he gave me his business card and we struck up a sporadic email correspondence. Pretty exciting for a Dylanaholic like myself… Anyhow, if you want to get into the deep down minutiae of the song – how it came to be, what it means (or rather, as is always the case with Dylan – what people think it means) then definitely check the book out.

Only five days after its release, Dylan first played “Like a Rolling Stone” publicly at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, that infamous performance where the presence of his electric guitar nearly registered on the Richter scale. As the furor subsided it became a staple of his live performances and, in recent years, a common encore number on the Never Ending Tour. Though, according to his website, he hasn’t played it live since November of 2013. Maybe he felt the anniversary creeping up and opted to make it dormant, knowing a multitude of commemorations like this were coming… Maybe he’s just sick of it. Since that first disastrous performance 50 years ago there are 2,011 known instances of it appearing on one of his live set lists. (BobDylan.com is really more of a library than a website…) I can’t imagine doing anything 2,011 times, aside from maybe brushing my teeth or buckling my seat belt. For the trivia nerds amongst us – that isn’t even his most-played live song, it’s second to “All Along the Watchtower” with a whopping 2,252 performances.

And while he may very well be sick of playing the song that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the #1 Greatest Song of All Time (if such a title can reasonably be conferred onto anything…) I’m glad for the times I’ve been able to experience it live. My very first Dylan concert was at Key Arena in Seattle in 2001. I was a few days shy of my 17th birthday and thrilled beyond measure to be seeing Bob Dylan in person, albeit from the nosebleeds of a giant venue. The whole night was pretty magical but I’ll never forget the encore. Bob and the band launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and the audience went absolutely crazy. He sang it fairly true-to-melody, allowing the closest thing to a singalong that you could expect at a contemporary Dylan show. During the choruses the lights swung out on the crowd and illuminated a sea of faces shouting “How does it feel?” at the top of their lungs. It was one of those times when I’m sure I couldn’t have wiped the ear-to-ear grin off my face even if someone had offered me a million dollars to get rid of it. There was electricity in the air. Thousands of people, each with their own deeply personal connections to The Greatest Song of All Time getting to mouth the words along with its creator. It’s a feeling I will always remember.

So cheers to a song that pushed boundaries, created fresh frontiers, transcended generations, and still kicks open doors for new listeners 50 years after its inception. Raise a glass, fire up your turntable, and howl at the moon – “How does it feel?/To be on your own/With no direction home/A complete unknown/Like a rolling stone…”

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