“How does it feel, how does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, A complete unknown, like a rolling stone”
Bob Dylan-‘Like A Rolling Stone’
by James Fleming
To paraphrase: how would it feel? If Mr. Dylan hadn’t gone down a rock n’ roll route for this song? If he had stuck with the 3/4 time folk ditty he originally had in mind?
How would it feel? Without that iconic sneer, the shimmering guitar chords, that organ? Would these words have carried the same weight without the frankly stellar accompaniment that was first laid down in 1965?
‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ has since been rightly hailed as one of the most important postwar popular songs ever recorded. Rolling Stone magazine listed it as number one on their ‘500 Greatest Songs Ever Written,’ list, it’s been covered by everyone under the sun, and, over 50 years later, it still hits home.
Thousands of people are wrong, literally, thousands.
Yes, the lyrics are awesome. You’ve got to respect any songwriter who flies in the face of fashion, and Dylan did just that. In 1965, you wouldn’t and couldn’t hear such resentment on the radio. Certainly not 6 minutes and 13 seconds of it.
But, it’s not just the lyrics that carried ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ down through the decades. In an age where bitterness is almost celebrated in pop song lyrics, the revolution isn’t to be found there anymore. Nicki Minaj’s ‘Stupid Ho,’ is but one example of how bitter has gone multi-platinum.
Yet, neither would you need a time machine to really grasp how important this song is. Or indeed just how important songs like ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ are to this day.
It’s all there. In all of it.
If any one element of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ were removed, the song would not be the same. It’s not just the lyric that carries the song, it’s how the disparate elements come together to create something truly better than the sum of the parts: the chords, the melody, the attitude, the production. They all have to gel together and mesh perfectly. That’s what makes a song iconic.
If ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ had been sung by a technically “better,” singer, would it have gone top ten across the U.S. and Europe? It’s Dylan’s snarl that gives it that bitter edge. If you were to read it out as a poem, would it still carry all that revolution it carried as a rock n’ roll song?
People say all the time: “I only listen to the song for the lyrics.” Bullshit. If there was no beat behind your favourite song, if you saw it typed out in your school poetry book, it wouldn’t even be your favourite poem.
The reason pop music has maintained such a phenomenally huge following, is the fact that the words are sung. There’s an extra bit of soul attached when you hear the voice out loud and not just in your head.
And it’s the way they’re sung that affects us so deeply. Dylan’s snarl, Cobain’s howl, even Adele’s pained contralto carry as much of a message as their lyrics. Without a voice, there’s no person behind the words. The humanity is lost somewhat.
And the juxtaposition of that voice with the accompaniment carries a message too. Distorted electric guitar vs gentle piano. They both have their use in conveying an overall feeling to you, the audience. Without the proper accompaniment, the lyric will fall flat. To bring you back to ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ there’s a reason why Dylan chose to rock it up.
The words are important. Without them we wouldn’t have anything to relate to, nothing to grasp a hold of. But without the music, there’s no song. It’s how everything comes together that makes it, that makes history.