Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads by Greil Marcus. Illustrated. 286 pp. Public Affairs. $14.00 (paperback)
Is one song a viable focus for a book almost 300 pages long? Yes, if the study is written by music and cultural historian Greil Marcus and if the song is Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," listed by Rolling Stone Magazine as number 1 on their "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
Marcus recounts how the song was part of Dylan's penchant for defying expectations. "Like A Rolling Stone" was composed during the period when he threw off the folk purists by pioneering the folk rock sound, for which he was booed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, in 1966.
It wasn't just the folkies who were upended by Dylan's compositions; it was also the pop music teams of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Said Goffin, "I wish we had tried more to write some songs that–really meant something... Dylan managed to do something that not one of us was able to do: put poetry in rock 'n' roll, and just stand up there like a mensch and sing it." Elvis Costello registered the song's impact: "What a shocking thing to live in a world where there was Manfred Mann and the Supremes and Engelbert Humperdinck and here comes 'Like A Rolling Stone.' "
The shock of the song brought with it various interpretations of this portrait of a spoiled young woman who found herself on the streets, among the very people she once looked upon with condescension. Some saw the song as self-righteous put-down, "refusing women any middle ground between the pedestal and the gutter" or "sneeringly and contemptuously sung to a spoiled rich girl" with "the reactionary stagnation of the social order...personified as female."
The song that promises "no direction home" can also be viewed, however, as an anthem of freedom, especially in the context of the 1960s. Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner offered this perspective: "So now you're without a home, you're on your own, complete unknown, like a rolling stone. That's a liberating thing. This is a song about liberation. About being liberated from your own hangups, your old knowledge, and the fear, the frightening part of facing that." On a broader level, Wenner applied the song to "a comfortable society suddenly discovering what's going on in Vietnam–the society we're taught about, and you realize, as you become aware, drug aware, socially aware, the disaster of the commercial society." Marcus agrees with this perspective: "Confused–and justified, exultant, free from history with a world to win–is exactly where the song means to leave you."
Marcus's depictions of the musical traditions and landscapes of America can rise to pure poetry. "Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan's first folk music hero" is described as a "troubadour of the dispossessed, poet of the Great Depression, ghost of the American highway, a man blown by the wind and made out of dust." Highway 61, which took Dylan to cities where he discovered folk music, "...would have seemed to go to the ends of the earth, carrying the oldest strains of American music along with businessmen and escaped cons, vacationers and joy-riders blasting the radio–carrying runaway slaves north before the long highway had a single name, and, not so much more than a century later, carrying Freedom Riders south."
The descriptions of the studio sessions leave an impression of the contingent nature of recordings. The musicians were fumbling around with the song until they came upon the single take that did it justice. Al Kooper was originally not even supposed to be part of the ensemble, but he happened to be in the studio and sat down at the organ. One also hears fresh elements of the song after reading the book: blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield's leads that form a bridge between stanzas, or the sound of the tambourine throughout. Forty-four years later, "Like A Rolling Stone" can be discovered anew, as is always the case with great art.
Suggestions for further reading:
• "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music" by Greil Marcus
• "Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan" by Howard Sounes
• "Positively Fourth Street" by David Hadju
• "Chronicles: Volume One" by Bob Dylan