Monday, August 15, 2005

No 1. Like a Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan

Yes, how predictable. Pretty much all serious lists of Top Ten Songs put together by music critics name "Like a Rolling Stone" as The Greatest Song of All Time (in the popular votes "Hey Jude" tends to fight it out with a couple of Elvis songs). In a recent poll of rock and movie stars run by Uncut magazine it was voted number one out of the music, movies, TV shows and books that "changed the world". More than one entire book has been written on the song, most recently a 260-page opus by Greil Marcus called Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.

But I'm grown up enough now not to avoid the obvious choice out of sheer contrariness and elitism. If everybody else thinks it's the Greatest Song of All Time, and I can't reasonably disagree, I'll take it on the chin.

And I have to confess that I've never found any song--not "Mr Tambourine Man", "Thunder Road", nor any other-- close to as powerful and exhilarating as "Like a Rolling Stone".

For a start, there's the urgent, crowded spontaneity of the music. One ringing beat on the snare drum and the band bursts in, playing their instruments, as somebody said, "as if they'd invented them". The piano rinky-dinks its way through the verse, the guitar elbows everything else out of the way on the hook into the chorus, and once we get there the organ takes its chance to burst to the fore.

This was the moment in 1965 when Dylan "went electric", alienating a fair portion of his right-on folk fans. Maybe the band was afraid that he'd change his mind and go back, because they play the song like they're never going to get the chance again. Only in the already-mentioned early Springsteen, maybe some Van Morrison, and some of Jimi Hendrix's stuff do you hear musicians sound like they're having such a good time, making it up as they go along and getting it exactly right.

Perhaps it's because I've subconsciously avoided having a copy around for long enough to thrash it into the ground, but "Like a Rolling Stone" always sounds like it was written and recorded about five seconds before I press "Play" on the CD player.

Then there's Dylan's performance, back when he still had a rich, sneeringly nasal voice. These days he'd struggle to nail a recording contract, let alone get on the radio, sounding like that. But in 1965 he was completely in charge, rhyming and alliterating his way through the verses, not even waiting for the band to catch up. And the lyrics are my favourite kind--dense with images, full of offhand references to colourful figures like the diplomat with his chrome horse, the mystery tramp, Napoleon in rags.

But something is incongruous here. I expect it hasn't escaped people's attention that most of the songs on this top 10 list have been sweet, romantic, dreamy or nostalgic--in short, nice. Guilty as charged; I guess I'm a sensitive guy who doesn't really respond at a gut level to the nastier stuff. I dont really enjoy hip-hop, apart from Nesian Mystik; I've never liked heavy metal (apart from maybe Metallica at their riffiest); and I couldn't quite get into the noise / industrial stuff that my friends raved about during university. My favourite Guns n' Roses song is "November Rain".

Yet, "Like A Rolling Stone" is, at face value, an angry, splenetic song. It scornfully tells of an unnamed female antagonist whose life of glamour and privilege has taken a disastrous wrong turn; she's been badly double-dealt, and is now on her way down to the gutter.

It's true that part of the response inspired by the song is a triumphant, seething schadenfreude laced with bitterness at all the kids who thought they were too cool for you at school, and the girls who dissed you at university. I could see this emotion welling up in Jeremy Rathburn when he used to spit out the entire lyric for no good reason after his seventh pint of Guiness down at the Loft bar in Christchurch on a Friday night.

Who does not feel some self-righteousness hearing about how the chrome horse-riding diplomat pulled a fast one on the girl in the song who thought she was so smart:

ain't it hard when you discover that / he wasn't really where it's at
after he took from you everything he could steeeeal...

But is "Like a Rolling Stone" just a long, rousing "f*ck you" to the world? Why is it that singing along to it feels not just like carthasis, but liberation?

A quick flick through the blogs and the reviews tells me I'm far from the first one to think of this, but this is actually a song less of bitterness than of celebration. The singer might be doing some gloating, but by the time he gets to the chorus he's offering welcome and recognition. Since, to be on your own / with no direction home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone... is in fact the human existential state .

There's a point where manipulation and privilege ends, when everything is stripped away and you have to face reality. With "nothing to lose", condemned to be free, the only thing that matters is what you decide to do. Even back in '65, the long-secretive Dylan had the good advice for our celebrity-obsessed generation that losing it all might actually be a good thing:

you're invisible now / you've got no secrets to conceal...

In other words, you can actually live your life, unhindered by the demands and scrutiny of the other "pretty people" or siamese cat-carrying diplomats.

Of course, its not as romantic as it sounds; it gets cold and tiring being out on your own with no direction home like a complete unknown. But the way Dylan howls out the chorus, you feel like you can cope.

How does it feel? Actually, it feels alright

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Cecilia said...

I knew it!! I was making bets (albeit only with myself) on No. 1 and eventually it was the only obvious choice.

Susan said...

Yes I should have guessed too but it was so obvious I missed it and so did Sophia. We were so fixated on Mr Tambourine Man being No 1 that we overlooked this one. A slight bit of cheating as BD has in fact featured twice in your list but I already know that you will claim that No. 2 was the Byrds not BD. Still, as the most influential songwriter of the last 50 years I guess it's allowed. I'm going to miss the suspense of logging on to see what the next song is. Have enjoyed this series so much... thanks

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks for your comments. Yes, I anticipated that people might think I was cheating, but as you've guessed, my defense is that the two songs are performed by different artists, even if they're written by the same person. MTM is qualitatively transformed in the Byrds version, rather than just being an "interpretation". There was no way I wasn't going to have both songs on the list.

Still waiting for your lists...

Kevin H. said...

Simon! I'm reading your blog at home today. Because you used a rude word beginning with f, my employer-who-knows-best would not let me access your site at work. I was presented with an error screen that rather ironically stated the offending word and the number of times it had been used and, worst of all, indicated that my attempt to access your site HAS BEEN RECORDED. My public service career sinks further into the mire (if that were possible).
Anyway, reading your list has been excellent thank you, I thoroughly enjoy your writing.

sophia said...

Yes, I've never been quite sure why this song is so often number one. I agree it is a GREAT song (and of course no one needs justify their choice to me) but I always felt the real strength was in the lyrics - the song as such doesn't do quite as much for me as it seems to for so many people. In fact I feel like I am missing out on something - am I lacking in soul?
Anyway, I have been inspired to dig out some Big Country again after seeing Close Action (A.K.A. the one I can never remember the title of) on your list. It was very good to hear "The Sailor" again