Song of the Day #595: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan

I deliberately avoided mentioning ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in my write-up of Highway 61 Revisited yesterday because I didn’t want to steal the thunder from today’s post. That’s a bit like writing about Michaelangelo works displayed in Florence without mentioning the David.

For all of the many genres and musical styles Dylan has explored, all of the topics he’s covered, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ remains in many ways the quintessential Dylan song. It was voted as the #1 song of all-time in a Rolling Stone survey of musicians and critics published in 2004. And whether or not you share that opinion, it’s impossible to deny that it’s one of the few songs that unquestionably deserves to be in the running.

Just as ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ launched Bringing It All Back Home with a vengeance, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ opens Highway 61 Revisited like a bucket of water in the face of a sleeping man. Dylan had already gone electric by this point, but he hadn’t gone electric quite like this.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was big and bold and brassy. It was a muscular Bruce Springsteen anthem before there was a Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Springsteen, who was 16 when this song came out, later said of ‘Like a Rolling Stone': “That snare shot that [kicked it off] sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.”

I imagine this song kicked open the doors to a lot of musician’s minds… to a lot of people’s minds in general.

Lyrically, it’s pretty straight-forward, at least on it face. It’s a scathing put-down of a woman who has fallen from her pedestal. This is a song, like Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain,’ that you’d love to say is about you for musical and historic reasons but you’d hate to say is about you because it so effectively cuts its target down to size. Dylan has never revealed the inspiration for this song, whether it was a single person or something more abstract.

But as vilifying as this song is to its intended, it’s also strangely liberating. Being on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone… it’s a frightening prospect but an invigorating one. And the freedom promised by the classic line “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” is certainly tempting. I get the impression that this woman, humbled by her circumstances, will emerge a better person.

I’ll shut up now and leave the rest to Dylan…

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
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.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

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2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #595: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    While I still hold “tangled Up In Blue” as my personal favorite Dylan song, this song is up there in my personal top 5. The song is, as Neil Patrick Harris would say, Legen….(wait for it)….dary. It doesn’t get old or stale with the passing of time or repeat listening. It’s just great, plain and simple.

  2. Amy says:

    While trying to find something to back up my instinct that “chrome horse” was a reference to drugs as much as to a car or a motorcycle, I found a few passionate fans insisting that this is a song about Edie Sedgwick, who left Dylan for Andy Warhol. No idea if that’s true, but I thought I’d share.

    Regardless, the song is a stunner.

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