Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
This was the only song on the album produced by Tom Wilson, who produced Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Wilson had been a jazz producer and was brought in to replace John Hammond. Wilson invited keyboard player Al Kooper to the session, and Al produced the famous organ riff that drove the song. This was the last song Wilson worked on with Dylan, as Bob Johnston took over production duties.
The title is not a reference to The Rolling Stones. It is taken from the proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Dylan got the idea from the 1949 Hank Williams song “Lost Highway,” which contains the line, “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost.”
Thanks to The Rolling Stones, many associate the phrase with a life of glamor, always on the move, but Williams’ song is about a hobo paying the price for his life of sin. Dylan also used the phrase to indicate loneliness and despair: his rolling stone is “without a home, like a complete unknown.”
Dylan based the lyrics on a short story he had written about a debutante who becomes a loner when she falls out of high society. The lyrics that made it into the song are only a small part of what was in the story.
“Like a Rolling Stone” runs 6:13. It was a big breakthrough when the song got radio play and became a hit, as many stations refused to play songs much longer than 3 minutes. It was also rare for a song with so many lyrics to do well commercially.
Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who revolutionized the music manager profession and was known as a shrewd defender of his artists, was the one who told Columbia Records that they couldn’t shorten “Like a Rolling Stone” in order to make it more radio friendly.
Dylan recorded another version in 1970 for his Self Portrait album. This time, he used experienced session players in Nashville, Tennessee. Ron Cornelius played guitar on the album and told us about the session: “You’re not reading manuscripts. In Nashville the players are booked because of what they can create right now, not what’s written on a piece of paper. Everybody’s creating their part as the tape is rolling. Out of everybody I’ve worked with, I don’t know of anyone who’s been any nicer than Bob Dylan. He treated me wonderfully, but at the same time you knew being around him day after day that this man wakes up in a different world every morning. On a creative level that’s a really good thing and to try to second guess him or to ask him what he actually meant by these lyrics, you’re shooting in the dark because he’s not going to tell you anyway. And he might be telling you the truth when he says “I don’t know, what does it mean to you.'”
It is rumored that this was written about one-time debutante Edie Sedgwick, who was part of artist Andy Warhol’s crowd. She was the subject of an emotional tug-of-war between the Dylan camp and the Warhol camp.
According to this theory, the song includes some fanged, accusatory lines about Warhol and the way he mistreated Edie.
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
“Poor Little Rich Girl” Sedgwick is viewed by many as the tragic victim of a long succession of abusive figures. After escaping home and heading to New York, she ran into Warhol, who soon began to use her as his starlet. When her 15 minutes had come to an end, Warhol moved on.
Sedgwick and Dylan had a brief affair shortly before the musician married Sarah Lownds, and many say that this Dylan song was written about her. It should be noted that there is absolutely nothing beyond circumstantial evidence to support this idea, but the myth is so widely known that it’s taken on a life of its own and is therefore recognizable on its own terms.
This made Bob Dylan an unlikely inspiration for Jimi Hendrix, who before hearing this considered himself only a guitarist and not a singer. After hearing this, he saw that it didn’t take a conventional voice to sing rock and roll.
Hendrix often played “Like A Rolling Stone,” including a performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix and Dylan met only once, but Jimi had a knack for bringing out the emotions in Dylan’s songs: he also did a very successful cover of “All Along The Watchtower.”
The Rolling Stones didn’t take their name from this song, but rather the 1950 Muddy Waters track “Rollin’ Stone.” The magazine Rolling Stone was named after this song, with a degree of separation: Ralph Gleason wrote a piece for The American Scholar about the influence of music on young people called “Like a Rolling Stone,” which he titled after the song. When he founded the magazine with Jann Wenner in 1967, they decided to name it after his story. Wenner muddied the waters a bit when he wrote in the debut issue: “Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote. The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy’s song. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the title of Bob Dylan’s first rock and roll record.”
In the November 2004 issue, Rolling Stone Magazine named this #1 on their list of the greatest songs of all time.
Greil Marcus wrote a book of almost 300 pages about this song. The book was released in 2005 and is titled Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.
Al Kooper, who was primarily a guitarist and went on to be a very successful music producer, played this organ on this song. If you listen very closely at the beginning of this song, you will notice that the organ is an 1/8th note behind everyone else. Kooper wasn’t an expert on the organ, but Dylan loved what he played and made sure it was turned up in the mix.
When we asked Kooper what stands out as his finest musical accomplishment, he told us: “By the amount of emails I receive and the press that I get it is undoubtedly the organ part on ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ I kinda like the way Martin Scorcese edited my telling of that story in the documentary No Direction Home. For me, no one moment or event sticks out. I think reading my resumé every ten years or so, is my finest moment – certainly my most incredulous. I cannot believe I did all the stuff I did in one lifetime. One is forced to believe in luck and God.” (Check out our interview with Al Kooper.)
A line from this song provided the title of the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan called No Direction Home.
Jimi Hendrix’s performance of this song at Monterey is a classic. Hendrix had made a name for himself in Europe, but didn’t manage to make a dent in the US market until the fabled Summer of Love. It happened at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. All of a sudden, an artist who had struggled unsuccessfully for recognition in his own country became one of its future music legends.
Rolling Stone asked a panel of musicians, writers and academics to vote for Dylan’s greatest song in a poll to mark Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, 2011. This song came out on top, beating “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Tangled Up In Blue” into second and third places respectively.
A music video for the song was created by digital agency Interlude and debuted on November 19, 2013. The clip is interactive, allowing viewers to flip through a mock TV network with 16 channels mimicking various formats such as games shows, shopping networks and reality series. Director Vania Heymann stated, “I’m using the medium of television to look back right at us — you’re flipping yourself to death with switching channels [in real life].”
Amongst the celebrities that appear lip-synching along with the lyrics are comedian Marc Maron, rapper Danny Brown, The Price is Right host Drew Carey, SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy and Jonathan and Drew Scott of the reality show Property Brothers.
The Consequence of Sound site named the clip as their Best Video of 2013 calling it a “fascinating nod to social dissonance,” adding, “watching a contestant from The Price Is Right grip his head in disbelief while mouthing ‘Like a complete unknown,’ then flipping through to see Danny Brown waving a corn dog while singing out ‘with no direction at all’ demonstrates that the chasm between generations isn’t as deep as we think. On the contrary, the format couldn’t have served as a more obvious channel bridging decades of time.”
Dylan’s original draft of the song’s lyrics were written on four sheets of headed note paper from the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington, DC. The quartet of handwritten pages fetched over $2 million at Sothebys New York in June 2014, setting a new price record for a popular music manuscript. The previous record was John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for the 1967 Beatles track “A Day In The Life,” which cost $1.2 million.
The Rolling Stones recorded this for their 1995 album Stripped. Stones guitarist Keith Richards explained: “We got over the built-in reticence. If he [Bob Dylan] had written ‘Like a Beatles,’ we probably would have done it straight away. We’ve been playing that song ever since Bob brought it out; it was like a dressing room favorite, a tuning room favorite. We know it really well. It was just a matter of screwing up the courage, really, to get over the feeling like we were riding on its back. We also realized that, hey, we took our name from a Muddy Waters album, a Muddy Waters song. Suddenly it didn’t feel awkward to play it.”
An early manuscript of this song in the Dylan archives at the Center for American Research in Tulsa reveals some lyrics that were later changed or removed. Instead of “You used to laugh about,” it was “You used to make fun about.” Some lines that were excised:
You’ve studied all these great theories on life
And now you find out they don’t mean a thing
You’ve been blessed by counts these old friends claimed to love
Now they’re all ashamed of you
John Mellencamp performed this with Al Kooper at a Bob Dylan tribute concert held in Madison Square Garden on October 16, 1992.
Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone. Album: Highway 61 Revised. released on July 20, 1965.