Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads
Eight years ago, I attended a wake for a colleague who had died a particularly lonesome death. The gathering closed with a collage of video memories scored with the deceased’s favorite song. Cue the cannon shot drum intro to Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”.
My eyes rolled. Honeyed Aquarian nostalgia and classic rock playlisting had bled the song of any meaning for me, notwithstanding my admiration for Dylan. Why not just ask everyone to join hands and sing “Kumbayah”? As the song swung into the second chorus, the mourners joined in, but this was not some sentimental sing-along. It was a sobbing choir, with each singer seemingly lost in a different one of the song’s tributaries. Dylan’s bray cut through the cynicism of the assembly and the protocol of the occasion. How does it feel? It’s a disarmingly simple question, but in that context a lacerating one. In spite of myself, I was blinking back tears. The song I thought I never needed to hear again was suddenly so powerful and alive, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to listen to it again.
“Like A Rolling Stone” defies the ravages of time and familiarity because it is, like its author, an enigma. If ever a record merited nearly 300 pages of critic Greil Marcus’ dense assessment, this is it. Mercifully, the unrelenting severity and rambling prose that blemished his 1997 Basement Tapes mash note The Old Weird America is held in check. Like A Rolling Stone contains some of Marcus’ best writing since 1975’s epochal Mystery Train.
“Like A Rolling Stone” was “an incident that took place in a recording studio and was sent out into the world with the intention of leaving the world not quite the same. This is not the same as changing the world,” Marcus astutely writes. Of the song’s enduring power, he offers: “While society speaks only in shibboleths and cliches, the artist invents a new language. When society’s language has been forgotten, people will still be trying to learn the artist’s language, to speak as strangely, with such indecipherable power.”
The book also finds Marcus exploring a very welcome lightness of touch. He rhapsodizes that drummer Bobby Gregg’s indelible intro is unique in all music history, and then provides, via footnotes, contrary evidence from Al Kooper, Jon Langford and Dave Marsh. Confronted with the facts, Marcus insists: “I am sticking to my guns. There is nothing like it.” Lo and behold, Marcus pokes fun at his own pretenses (and hell must be experiencing a cold front).
The author’s penchant for theoretical broad-jumping endures. He attempts to enumerate songs of the era that come close to echoing the ambition and achievement of “Like A Rolling Stone”: The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” (why not?), Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” (for the sake of argument, sure), the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (agreed), Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (certainly), and the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s “Go West” (what the hell?). Give Marcus credit, he does his best to make a case for PSB’s pneumatic techno anthem, but some pop is beyond even this caliber of egg-headed counterintuitive reasoning.
The unspoken lesson of all those “Classic Albums” and “Behind The Music” specials is that we can come to grips with great art by putting it under the microscope. By knowing the who, what, when, where, why and how of a song’s creation, we can pin it down like a butterfly. That may be true for most records, but there is no accounting for magic. It is to Marcus’ credit that he does not simply aspire to catalogue the qualities of “Like A Rolling Stone”. He surrenders to its unfathomable wonder.