The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #2, “Like A Rolling Stone”

Written by May 8th, 2009 at 4:00 pm

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A lot has been said about “Like A Rolling Stone” already. In fact, entire books have been written about it. It’s a rock and roll institution, a declaration of independence, and a cosmic romp through interior streets. And once it hit airwaves in the summer of ’65, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin in the image of Bob Dylan, acoustic guitar-wielding protest singer. Old conventions were laid to rest. The future was now. How did it feel?

The All Music Guide calls it “one of the most self-righteous and eloquent indictments ever committed to wax.”

Author David Hadju decreed it “his venomous rock and roll masterpiece.”

Dylan himself described it as a “long piece of vomit,” but he meant that in the nicest of ways.

“This long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single,” he said. “And I never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was… that was what I should do. After writing that, I wasn’t interested in writing a novel or a play or anything, like I knew like I had too much, I wanted to write songs.”

The idea for the song is said to derive from a 20 page short story about a disgraced society girl Dylan penned during his acoustic tour of the UK in May ’65, while he was still performing his folk material to swooning fans. He then whittled it down to 4 verses and a chorus upon returning to Woodstock, New York.

“The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ and ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1988. “And later on, when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much.”

“Like A Rolling Stone” tells the story of Miss Lonely, who went to the finest schools, but learns too late that she knows very little. Now, after an undisclosed amount of time on “the street,” her ideals have been compromised, her friends are gone, and chrome horse rides with diplomats are no longer feasible. Even Napoleon in rags has lost his charms, now that she’s homeless.

Of course, those are just details, all of which get blurred when we apply the song to our own situations. Part of LARS’s enduring power comes from its open-ended chorus. “How does it feel?” it asks. It doesn’t tell you what to feel. You supply that part yourself. In that way, it’s like a personality test. Does losing everything you once knew (be it childhood, your innocence, your preconceived notions or your first apartment) depress and scare you, or exhilarate you?

Apparently, Dylan didn’t find the song’s acerbic lyrics as mean-spirited as everyone else did. In Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home,” he complained:

“Why does everybody say of something like ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ “That Dylan…is that all he can do, put down people?’ I’ve never put down anybody in a song, man. It’s their idea. ‘Like a Rolling Stone was very vomitific in its structure….It seemed like twenty pages , but it was really six. I wrote it in six pages. You know how you get sometimes. And I did it on a piano. And when I made the record, I called the people who made the record with me, and I told them how to play on it and if they didn’t want to play it like that, well, they couldn’t play with me….When I wrote “all you got to do is find a school and learn to get juiced in it,’ I wasn’t making this song about school. That’s their idea. Their definition of school is much different than mine. My language is different than there’s. I mean REALLY TOTALLY DIFFERENT! The finest school might be out in the swamps.”

The song’s origins are steeped in legend (nearly as large as the one behind Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” in which Satan gets a co-writing credit). There’s the story of how Al Kooper finagled his way into playing the celebrated organ part that made it onto the final recording, even though he’d never played the organ before. Despite his inexperience, the take used for the commercial release of “Like A Rolling Stone” is pure rock and roll alchemy. Fittingly, the chorus contains the essence of rock and roll itself, employing the same chord progression as “La Bamba,” “Wild Thing,” “Louie Louie,” and “Twist and Shout.”

It was released as a single in July of 1965, reaching no. 2 on the charts (the Beatles’ “Help!” kept it from reaching No. 1) At six minutes long, DJs had to abandon their pre-concieved notions of how long a radio single could be, paving the way for freeform radio and the eventual deification of “Stairway to Heaven.” Out in the swamps of Jersey, a young Bruce Springsteen had a religious experience of sorts with LARS.

“The first time I heard Bob Dylan,” Springsteen said in 1988, “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind: “Like A Rolling Stone.” My Mother — she was no stiff with rock and roll, she liked the music–sat there for a minute, and then looked at me and said, ‘that guy can’t sing.’ But I knew she was wrong. I sat there and I didn’t say nothing but I knew I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean and it sounded simultaneously young and adult.”

Dylan debuted it live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, prompting Pete Seeger to run for his axe. He went on to perform it with members of the Band on their historic, booed-out world tour. Responding to nicely allegorical cat-call (“Judas!”) during a heated gig in Manchester, Dylan hit back with “I don’t believe you….you’re a liaaaarrrr,” and a wall-melting rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

An awed Jimi Hendrix performed the song during his coming-out party at the Montery Pop Festival, stumbling over the lyrics — he was on a lot of acid at the time. “It made me feel that I wasn’t the only one who’d ever felt so low…” Hendrix said of the song. Later the guitar god would record and immortalize Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” prompting Dylan to remark that all of his songs were Jimi’s as well.

“I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight,” Dylan has said of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Indeed, his aim was true. Rolling Stone magazine, who’s name in part was chosen in homage to this song, went so far as to name “Like A Rolling Stone” the number 1 rock song of all time. Even though “Hey Jude,” “Imagine” and “Satisfaction” were right there. The esteemed mag placed LARS ahead of 12 other Dylan tunes, stating “no other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time.”

But Dylan doesn’t put too much stock in lists that rank songs.

From the 2004 60 Minutes transcript:

“That must be good to have as part of your legacy,” says [Ed] Bradley.

“Oh, maybe this week. But you know, the list, they change names, and you know, quite frequently, really. I don’t really pay much attention to that,” says Dylan.

“But it’s a pat on the back,” says Bradley.

“This week it is,” Dylan replies. “But who’s to say how long that’s gonna last?”


  • Mike

    So now we know for certain: Number One will of course be “Okie from Muskogee”, which has always been my favorite Dylan song anyway….

    Seriously, I just wanted to jump in here to say that I have greatly enjoyed following this blog as the exciting countdown continues. I haven’t commented and don’t have anything of great importance to contribute.

    I just want to share my appreciation for a job well done. Of course a list like this is a subjective, personal one, but your choices are all reasonable, and your exposition has been entertaining and educational.

    Great work!

  • Not There

    ….Come on. Really? Trying to be cute are we? Trying to be all like, Hey, look at us, we’re not going to say LARS is Dylan’s best…yeah.

    Just come on. This is the alpha and omega of Rock, of Folk, of Dylan, of Music. The music is an orgy of guitars and drums and a whining, beautiful organ. The lyrics are a sermon of epic feelings which man hasn’t discovered yet. The mix is acid sex while God tells you the secrets of nothing.

    I Can’t Get No Satisfaction quivers in this song’s wake….Imagine looks at this song and asks what more can I do?….Stairway to Heaven? Stairway to Heaven’s not even in the same hotel as this song, and can only pass along unvalidated gossip when talking about this song, because they’re not friends.

    Look, great list, I’m not really arguing because it ain’t my list and we all feel different things at different moments….but when you sit down and make a list, there’s just no ifs, ands, or buts in regards to the Number One Dylan song.

  • Not There

    Blowin’ in the Wind is a fine choice.

  • kevin

    I’m graduating from college tomorrow and I am gonna play this all the way out of town.

  • Brad

    My feelings on the pick depend upon the song you choose as number one.

    This is another one of those songs, though, that’s as good as Dylan gets.

  • Srivatsan

    It is hard to disagree with this one .. it was the game changer after all.

  • http://www.tedquinn.com/dogyears ted quinn

    the answer, my friend, is now written in stone.

    the fact that bob dylan has far more than thirty songs worthy of a top thirty list is a testimony to his greatness.

    thanks for an enjoyable way to pass the days leading up to ‘together through life’.

    together through life, indeed.

  • Brad

    That is to say that ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ would be a pretty bad pick – imo.

  • Ben

    Well now we now that #1 will inevitably be Wigwam

    Love the list. Sure it’s suggestive and sure Bob’s thirty greatest songs can’t truly be decided–perhaps a more accurate title for this ongoing article would have been “Thirty Bob Dylan Songs That Evan Schlansky Can’t Seem to Shut the Hell Up About”

    But not shutting the hell up about his songs is what’s great about being a Dylan fan. His songs are provocative; they inspire journalists to not shut the hell up about them.

    And you know they’re effective when they in turn inspire their readers to not shut the hell up about their agreements or disagreements or their own interpretations. It’s a great thing, really.

    Pardon my French.

  • Proman

    I totally saw this coming too, by the way.

    Great list. Cannot wait to read the description of “Blowing in the Wind”.

  • mike

    the whole song and what ever you want to add as the best organ-drums it really doesn’t matter whatbut on this one single song what ever you turn your mind to is the best of anyting you ever heard or will. even if he didn’t record another song it would still be #1 on any list

  • Brad

    I’m still holding out hope for “All Along The Watchtower.”

  • John Wesley Harding

    Number 1 is Visions of Johanna but that’s gone down at 11 – unbelievable.
    LARS is a good number 2.

    That leaves only Lay Lady Lay

  • Srivatsan

    Excellent pick Brad .. I thought may be Sad Eyed Lady, but hell, I won’t complain about AATW either!

  • Bill Sykes

    Kooper was not an incompetent organist at all as can be heard by his piano a few years later on If Dogs Run Free. It was a myth that he sneaked onto the recording. He could play all right- he is a and was then a very fine musician. Gee some people are gullible! It was a cute story. Couldn’t play the organ?.. indeed!!!

  • Proman

    “Brad said:

    I’m still holding out hope for “All Along The Watchtower.””

    “Srivatsan said:
    Excellent pick Brad .. I thought may be Sad Eyed Lady, but hell, I won’t complain about AATW either!”

    Are the two of you serious? You actually think this is the best song Dylan ever written? I like the song myself (and prefer it to Hendrix’s version) but I cannot think of a worse pick for #1.

    By all indications, Evan’s #1 pick will be “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

  • Brad

    “Are the two of you serious? You actually think this is the best song Dylan ever written? I like the song myself (and prefer it to Hendrix’s version) but I cannot think of a worse pick for #1.

    By all indications, Evan’s #1 pick will be “Blowin’ in the Wind”.”

    I agree that the pick will be ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’ That said, if you look at the songs, “All Along The Watchtower” is a great song lyrically, musically, and Dylan gives one of his best performances on the song. The song works as poetry. “Blowin’ In The Wind” has none of this. The writing is childish and sloppy, the performance is bland, and the tune is just a stock folk tune.

    I think Dylan’s recorded songs as good as “All Along The Watchtower” but never one better. It’s in that group of 10 or 15 that could be justified as his best. I could never justify “Blowin’ In The Wind” as his best.

  • Brad

    You could also quite easily justify “Stuck Inside Of Mobile” as Dylan’s greatest song. I think it shows him at his zenith during his ’65-’66 period. I would have it in my top ten, anyway.

  • Proman

    Brad, I disagree with you on all counts (except our mutual prediciton of Evan’s #1 – now watch us both get it wrong). I don’t consider “Blowin’ in the Wind” Dylan’s best work but I respect its place and understand i’s appeal. To dismiss it a childish and sloppy (IMO) is just wrong. More importantly by saying that “tune is just a stock folk tune” you demonstate that you miss the point completely. Dylan emerged and build from the folk tradition and to hold the use this tune at that point in his career would be wrong. No matter how “childish”, it obviously struck a chord and I think that it’s a testiment to the songs greatness that he was able to achieve it with something so direct.

    I understand where you are coming from in your criticism but I also think that to truly understand why this song is written in the way that it was written you gotta understand the time and also consider the song’s intended audience. I don’t think that Dylan was being primitive when he wrote it. I think he knew exactly what he was doing.

    I also think Dylan written better songs than “All Along The Watchtower”. I love the song but I think he’s done much, much better. Part of my problem has to do with the fact that I could ever accept it as something pefect, and it’s not because of its length. I don’t know.

    This demonstrates of course, that much like this list itself every opinion of what constitues the best is very subjective.

  • Proman

    By the way, I’m just curious, whose version do you prefer Dylan’s or Hendrix’s?

  • Not There

    You know what could easily be number one? I’m Not There.

  • Kevin

    Shelter From the Storm

  • Stuart

    Great review and many thanks for the series, I’ve enjoyed more than the Clinton Heylin book!

    I agree with Blowing in the Wind pipping LARS, not only is it one of Dylan’s definitive song, it is one of the few, perhaps the only, Dylan song likely to survive in the future. Great as it undoubtedly is, LARS is definitively Dylan’s, no one else has bettered his H61 recording, not even Dylan himself. Blowing in the Wind on the otherhand flew out of Dylan’s hands long ago, it has been recorded countless times, its part of our cultural language, there are people who know the song who don’t even know who Dylan is, and I’d bet that of all his songs, it is the one that will endure long after Dylan himself and the generation he unwittingly represented have been forgotten about.

  • auramac

    “LIke a Rolling Stone” is not only Dylan’s greatest song, it’s the the greatest song in the history of rock ‘n roll, in my opinion.

    Blowin’ in the Wind and Tambourine Man were killers- and It’s all right, Ma is line for line a series of knockout punches. Then there’s Blind Willie McTell…

  • Brad

    I definitely prefer Dylan’s version. It sounds like it’s oozing from some ether. Hendrix treats the song like Zeppelin treats some of Willie Johnson’s material. That is to say, he replaces all its brilliant subtlety with exaggerated guitar and rocking out. I find the Hendrix version to be more impressive than good.

    I don’t tend to rate a song highly simply because a lot of people find it inspiring. I think of “Imagine” in a similar – though worse – light. If you attempted to dissect “Blowin’ In The Wind” as a poem, there wouldn’t be much to cover. “All Along The Watchtower,” though, has many facets. And, it’s funny. It shows Dylan at a time of spiritual crisis understanding his crisis but taking a poke at himself. I would say it’s probably his most terse piece of writing.

    He says more in three short verses than he does on 11 1/2 minutes of “Desolation Row” – which I actually love.

    Of course, Dylan’s writing is one of the primary talents that sets him apart, so to say that a song that is a lesser piece of writing is greater than a song that is a better piece of writing, there have to be some real factors that set it apart.

    I think AATWT is one of only a handful of times Dylan ever truly reached the sublime (something at which Lou Reed is much better). The music, the lyrics, everything comes together in an otherworldly way.

    . . .

    I very honestly do not understand how someone can prefer “Blowin’ In The Wind” to “AATWT” – unless that person is averse to poetry, and if that is the case, why are you listening to Bob Dylan?

  • the deputy

    lets see the number one already!

  • Srivatsan

    I agree BITW is the best-known Dylan song around the world — I was taught the song in school when in 4th or 5th grade (I had no idea who Dylan was back then). It is a beautiful song, with sharp lines set to a simple tune. One of the most important songs Dylan wrote, yes; but musically and lyrically, Dylan has done better, AATW is a shining example.

    AATW is a song with a character like no other in the Dylan catalogue. The imagery is as much in the words, as it is in the music. Those eerie harmonica haunts conjure images from some wild antideluvian times, while Outside in the distance, a wild cat did growl; two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl .. and the harmonica lines fade away into the dark night.

    Dylan probably achieved such combined melodic and lyrical wizardy again — Sad Eyed Lady and a few other Blonde on Blonde tracks come to mind. But AATW is just as good as any. For sheer atmosphere, my number one Bob Dylan song.

  • Douglas

    It’s a testament, we guess, to Dylan’s talent and productivity that all of you have written all these words and named all these songs — and you’ve left out the greatest Dylan song of all — My Back Pages.

  • david desmond

    there are not 30 greatest Dylan songs. he wrote too many. Maybe his greatest song ever is I’ll remember you from Empire. or Dark Eyes from that same record. But people cant see much. Self Portrait is a great record but no one can see that. I’ve heard Dylan yodel. but no one has much. if he fits into your frame of mind he’s great but if he does what he does you often don’t like him. Myabe his greatest song is Love is Just a Four letter Word. Most people don’t even know it but they talk about him like they iknow him. Waht sheit.

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