Raising 6 minutes to a folk-rock epic
A generation dates its music from before and after 'Like a Rolling Stone.'
Over the decades, a handful of songs on the car radio have compelled me to pull over to the side of the road and shut off the engine so I could take in some exciting new sound, distraction-free. In the transcendent pop music year of 1965, veering off the road in my dad's red Corvair became commonplace, starting in early spring when the Beatles' supercharged "Eight Days a Week" hit the airwaves. A few months later, it was the Byrds' groundbreaking "Mr. Tambourine Man," and June found me swerving wildly to the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction."
I had barely recovered from that record when July planted an incendiary device in car radios across the land - Bob Dylan's six-minute folk-rock opus, "Like a Rolling Stone." And music, as we knew it, would never be the same.
In this sometimes hyperbolic but sincere paean to Dylan's masterpiece, music writer/historian Greil Marcus chronicles what it was like to be alive that summer and how it felt to hear that song for the very first time. Apparently a good chunk of America's teens were stopped on the side of the road that July and August, enraptured by the sound and glory of a record perfectly tailored to that very moment in time. The book is peppered with "the first time I heard it" accounts from writers, musicians, and others, offering a vivid snapshot of that summer, that song, that season in American music, life, and politics.
Bruce Springsteen recalls: "I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." It never quite rose to No. 1 that year, but no record has ever made a more lasting impression. The mere fact that an entire book is dedicated to explaining and celebrating a single 45-rpm record attests to that. Chafing under the protest-singer mantle of "voice of a generation," Dylan had just recently cast off his acoustic guitar and picked up an electric in 1965, when he assembled an eclectic mix of musicians on June 16 at Columbia's Studio A in Manhattan.
With the Beatles and Motown dominating the pop charts in 1965, he was determined to break into mainstream radio - on his own terms.
Marcus asks: "What was the top? Fame and fortune, glamour and style, or something else? A sound you could leave behind, to mark your presence on the earth ... the chance to make the times speak in your own voice?"
The author lets us sit in on the legendary recording session via a detailed studio diary of miscues, false starts, and Dylan's maddeningly cryptic instructions to the musicians. Only one finished take of the song was managed in 15 tries - and if you listen even casually to the backing track, it is rife with muffed notes and misplaced chords. But magic was made that day, and on July 20 it was unleashed on unsuspecting radio stations across America.
The public's reaction was shock and awe. No one had ever written lyrics like that before. No one had ever sung like that before, if it could even be called singing. Snarling, accusing, and half yelling, Dylan dared us, taunted us, stretching out the words - "How does it feeeel? To be on your ooowwn, with no direction hoooome? Like a complete unknooowwn?" Along the way, we met the mystery tramp, rode a chrome horse, and encountered a muttering Napoleon in rags. We were not in Kansas anymore, that's for sure.
Yet more than any song in pop history, it was about us - not some rich socialite getting her comeuppance, not a diplomat with a Siamese cat - but us. It sounded more like a clarion call to shake up our own lives, to look at things differently and be empowered to make big changes.
"How does it feeeeel?" America's resounding answer was that it felt good to be young and ready to take on the world. Dylan was our piper and this became our anthem.
Marcus concludes, "The pop moment, in that season, really was that delirious ... when people heard it ... they realized that the song didn't explain itself at all, and that they didn't care. In the wash of words and instruments, people understood that the song was a rewrite of the world itself."
If any pop song deserves thorough examination, it's this one. But even Dylan's epic feels somewhat overanalyzed, pumped up, and padded out here - perhaps better suited to a 20-page New Yorker story than a 225-page book. Still, for those of us who experienced the record as it happened 40 years ago, it's a fascinating, transporting read.
• John Kehe is the Monitor's art director and an admitted child of the '60s.