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Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Like a Rolling Stone"

Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone (1965)

The six minute single.




Just five days before his notorious "electric set" at the Newport Folk Festival during the summer of 1965 Bob Dylan released this six minute long rock song to the American airwaves. No one had released anything so long to the pop charts. Between the rock sound contrast to his earlier folk ways and the length no one expected it to be a hit. It hit number 2 on the charts, and has become one of his most known and covered songs.

Lyrically, the song came from a long poem that Dylan composed while on tour. Cut down and set to music it is an angry take that against a young woman who came from wealth and privilege and has fallen down to earth. People have interpreted as about a specific woman, or Dylan himself; I think it's about American culture in general and its youth specifically. Forced to face a future that included a ground war in Vietnam, an assassination of a President, and an ending of the "feel good" era of the 50s; the American people, and in particularly its youth were not seeing everything come up roses anymore. Pop songs were usually about love, possibly lost love, but small scale things. Folk music was about the political side of things, but it wasn't as popular. Dylan was big enough to bridge the gap and with this song he made America look at itself and asked "/How does it feel/to be on your own/with no direction home/".

The recording included a number of great performers. On guitar, Mike Bloomfield of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. On drums, Bobby Gregg, who would play with Dylan on many of his mid sixties recordings. On tambourine, Bruce Langhorne, whom Dylan wrote Mr. Tambourine Man about. On piano, Paul Griffin, who played session piano on dozens of well known tracks, including several of Bob Dylan's, The Isley Brother's Twist and Shout, and Don McLean's American Pie. The most interesting story about the recording session is about the young organist Al Kooper. Kooper showed up as a guest of producer Tom Wilson (who effectively gave the world Simon and Garfunkel but we'll tell that story another time) but really wanted to play on a Dylan recording. He brought his guitar, but upon hearing Bloomfield warm up he hung back in the recording booth. Later in the day, after a few takes, Griffin, who had been playing organ, moved to piano for a change. Kooper jumped at the chance, and against Wilson's judgment sat in on organ. He was not really a great keyboard player, but no one stopped him so he played. On hearing the playback, Dylan's only comment was "turn the organ up" so Kooper got to stay on.

The organ is simple, but recognizable in the song. Mostly chords that come in just behind the beat, the story is that Kooper was trying to make sure he hit the right notes. The piano part is kind of a honky tonk/tack piano sound. Griffin just rolls all over on the song never really letting his hands sit in one place very long. The tambourine is fairly loud in the mix, and because it covers that sound, the drums focus on bass drum and toms, and mostly avoid loud cymbal crashes. The song does start on a snare hit, but the drums are so quiet in the mix, that the guitar, piano and keyboard coming in a beat later blow it away. Dylan's own harmonica make a few appearances, but mostly he focuses on the slightly sneering vocal performance. The guitar is the hardest part for me to pick out, but he does get some great segues into the choruses. It still surprises me that a six minute long song fades out instead of having a proper ending, but who am I to question?

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