Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Masterpiece, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’
Back from his European tour of Bringing It All Back Home in the spring of 1965, Bob Dylan found himself in greater demand than ever — and at one of his lowest creative ebbs. "I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained," Dylan told Playboy in 1966. "I was playing a lot of songs I didn't want to play. I was singing words I didn't really want to sing. I don't mean words like 'God' and 'mother' and 'President' and 'suicide' and 'meat cleaver.' I mean simple little words like 'if' and 'hope' and 'you.'"
He didn't quit singing; in fact, with his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, he delivered a triumphant, freshly reinvigorated set that sent his career — and arguably rock music in general — in an exciting new direction.
And while the nine-song set contains no shortage of future Dylan classics, it was the opening cut, "Like a Rolling Stone," that Dylan told Playboy "changed it all." As he explained, "I didn't care anymore after that about writing books or poems or whatever."
But before "Like a Rolling Stone" could end Dylan's creative funk, it had to become a song, and its journey required a handful of fortuitous twists. For one thing, Dylan initially regarded it as a sort of writing exercise that helped him purge his growing ambivalence about his increasingly surreal environment — and while the final track ended up weighing in at more than six minutes, even getting it down to that relatively unwieldy length required editing an immense stack of lyrics.
"It was 10 pages long. It wasn't called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest," Dylan told the Saturday Evening Post's Jules Siegel in 1966. "In the end it wasn't hatred, it was telling someone something they didn't know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that's a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, "How does it feel?" in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion."
In the movies, sitting at the piano and singing the song's refrain would be all it'd take to turn "Like a Rolling Stone" from a "rhythm thing on paper" into an anthem for a generation. In reality, however, the arrangement proved stubbornly elusive, coming together during a series of attempts conducted under the supervision of producer Tom Wilson on June 15 and 16, 1965. Initially attempting to play it as a waltz, with Dylan leading at the piano, the band ended the first day after a handful of fruitless takes.
Wilson had rounded up most of the personnel on hand, but one musician — guitarist Mike Bloomfield — was there at Dylan's behest. As Bloomfieled later recalled, not only did he not know Dylan very well, "Like a Rolling Stone" was the first song he heard at the sessions. "I met Dylan at this funny little club called the Bear in Chicago just after his first album came out. The liner notes described him as a real hot shot, you know, a real great guitar player. And I heard the album and it sounded just s---ty," Bloomfield told Rolling Stone.
"He came to Chicago and I welcomed the opportunity to go down there and cut him. So I went to see him in the afternoon to talk to him and he was really nice. He was just so nice. I saw him at a few parties and then out of the clear blue sky, he called me on the phone to cut a record which was 'Like a Rolling Stone.' So I bought a Fender, a really good guitar for the first time in my life, without a case, a Telecaster, and that's how. He called me up."
As Al Kooper later told Britannica, Bloomfield's arrival ruined his own plan to sneak into the session and play guitar. Invited by producer Wilson to watch from the control room, Kooper showed up early and started tuning up — no big deal to the other session players, who'd worked with him at previous dates. But once Bloomfield walked in and started to play, he ruefully packed up and slunk off to the control room.
Kooper still had his own date with "Like a Rolling Stone" destiny, however. "About halfway through the session, Paul Griffin, who was playing organ, was moved over to piano, and I said to Tom Wilson, 'Hey why don't you let me play the organ? I've got a good part for this.' He said, 'Aw, man, you're not an organ player — you're a guitar player,'" Kooper continued during his Britannia interview. When Wilson was called out of the room for a phone call, Kooper seized his opportunity and sat down at the organ for the next take. "There I was, just B.S.'ing my way through playing the organ. When they played it back, Dylan asked that the organ be turned up," he chuckled. "That was the keeper take of 'Like a Rolling Stone.'"
Millions of fans soon agreed, sending the song to No. 2 on the pop chart — but first it had to get through the marketing department at Columbia Records, where execs demanded Dylan halve its six-minute length for single release. Dylan predictably declined, at which point Shaun Considine, then a Columbia release coordinator, recalled that the label designated it an "unassigned release" — and admitted stealing an acetate of the song that he smuggled into a local club and slipped to a DJ.
"The effect was seismic," Considine wrote years later in an op-ed for the New York Times. "People jumped to their feet and took to the floor, dancing the entire six minutes. Those who were seated stopped talking and began to listen. 'Who is it?' the DJ yelled at one point, running toward me. 'Bob Dylan!' I shouted back. The name spread through the room, which only encouraged the skeptics to insist that it be played again, straight through. Sometime past midnight, as the grooves on the temporary dub wore out, the needle began to skip."
Pressured for commercial copies of the song, Columbia quickly complied, and although Considine pointed out that the marketing department attempted to regain the final say by splitting the song into two three-minute "parts," many disc jockeys got around it by stitching together their own complete edit, and when "Like a Rolling Stone," -- after its release on July 20, rose the charts over 12 weeks in the summer of 1965, it did so at its complete length.
Years later, "Stone" remains one of Dylan's most enduring achievements, a song whose impact is so lasting and widespread that it inspired its own Greil Marcus book and its original handwritten lyrics fetched millions at auction. But for Dylan at the time, it was more than anything a reminder that no matter how many fans or critical accolades he acquired, it didn't mean much unless he could really stand behind his own music.
"I mean, it was something that I myself could dig," Dylan mused during his 1966 Playboy interview. "It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don't dig you."