An' I sung my song like a demon child/With a kick an' a curse/From inside my mother's womb
–Bob Dylan, 1963
An' it's clear, ain't it, what with hindsight's wisdom that Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone was gonna be a big hit 50 years ago this summer. Course nobody coulda predicted it would peak at No. 2 by late August, 1965, held off the highest rung by the Beatles' Help! Or that almost 40 years after that the editors of Rolling Stone magazine would vote it the greatest song of all time. What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Cole Porter has left and gone away?
Still, there were signs somethin' was happenin' back in the day – somethin' noticeable even in Regina, Sask., population 110,000, where I'd just graduated Grade 9. 'Course Dylan himself, just in his 24th year, hadn't had a Top 10 hit. Not as yet. But it was only a matter of time an' timin' an' air waves – and, of course, the right song.
Because his sound, his sensibility felt ubiquitous, at least on radio and TV shows such as Shindig! and in what Time magazine liked to call the cultural climate. The Byrds had gone to the top of the pops a couple of months earlier with a chimey, truncated version of Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, vinyl my friends and I played repeatedly on portable turntables in our parents' basements. Then they'd quickly followed that with another Bob song, All I Really Wanna Do, right around the same time a woman named Cher was releasing her cover of the same, thereby causing mixed-up confusion for radio and jukebox programmers. And let's not forget that Peter, Paul and Mary had had two Top 10 hits in 1963 covering Bob's Blowin' in the Wind and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.
The land had been prepared, in other words, the seeds sown.
Then there was Eve of Destruction. I know Dylan didn't write it – P.F. Sloan did and Barry McGuire growled his way to No. 1 with it. But such were the a-changin' times – "a world of racism, war, greed, starvation and lies" and imminent nuclear apocalypse, as one critic would later write – that even ersatz Bob could get a hearing. Indeed, my friends and I took a perverse pride that our hometown, the Queen City of the Plains, was cited in Eve of Destruction! Yes, there it was, plain as our adolescent ears could make out, Barry McGuire, at the two-minute and 33-second mark, exhorting us to "Think about all the hate there is in Regina/Take a look around at Selma, Alabama."
Of course, this was the pre-Google era. People misheard lyrics all the time, and we were set straight soon enough: Barry McGuire was not simultaneously excoriating and immortalizing us for our mistreatment of Regina's aboriginal population (or, as we would have called them then, Indians) but rather pointing out the hate in, er, Red China. Still, we thought, it could have been us. Collective guilt, paranoia and anxiety floated as free as radioactive dust at that time, and wasn't McGuire's wife Canadian? To this day, whenever I hear Eve of Destruction, Red China is Regina to me.
Eve of Destruction's pessimistic pleasures were quickly subsumed, though, by the release of Like a Rolling Stone. Here at last was the real-meal Dylan, the right song at the right time.
History records that Like a Rolling Stone was officially issued by Columbia Records on Tuesday, July 20, 1965, but we didn't know that then or care. The song – introduced by the loud crack of the downstroke on a snare drum, followed by this fat wailing wall of organ, tambourine, piano, electric guitars, bass and (later) harmonica, then the jeer of its first, fairytale-like line ("Once upon a time …") – seemed simply to appear all at once, an event in and of itself, a rip in time's fabric.
Of course, my friends and I noticed it was longer than anything else we'd heard on commercial pop radio (6 minutes 14 seconds, according to one measurement; 6:06 by another; and six minutes by Columbia's reckoning). But not oppressively so. After all, the other song that had enjoyed, until Rolling Stone, the most spins on our turntables that spring/summer had been I Can't Get No Satisfaction, 3:45 of thwarted desire (and a song that Rolling Stone, the magazine, would go on to rank as the second-greatest ever). Here, in fact, the minutes seemed to fly, the song this relentless, churning gyre toward and out of its anthemic chorus ("Hoooow does it feeeel?"), then back to the verses that are both condemnation and a kind of celebration of illusions lost.
And my, the language that he used!
Tough words, words you didn't hear in pop songs – "bums," "scrounging," "juiced in it," "tramp," "vacuum." Obscure expressions, fanciful ones, too – "mystery tramp," "chrome horse," "Napoleon in rags." And what about that diplomat with the Siamese cat? Also peculiar: the use of "you." At once singular and plural, outward-referring and reflexive, it seemed to implicate or potentially implicate everyone, even Dylan, not just the "doll," the "Miss Lonely," the "babe" who seems the singer's primary target. You get the feeling that had Dylan had the "vomitric" (his term) inclination, imagination and energy, he could have woven dozens of other verses into Like a Rolling Stone, making of its tapestry a sort of cosmic J'accuse.
(Bob, in fact, realized something of Rolling Stone's universalism in late 2013, when he released the anthem as an interactive video that permits the viewer to flip back and forth among 16 TV channels, each one featuring a different personality – Drew Carey of The Price Is Right, Jon and Drew Scott, "the Property Brothers," a news presenter, etc. – lip-syncing the lyrics.)
Later one of my fellow avid listeners of Rolling Stone – the guy, in fact, who bought it first – developed a fondness for the tight-fitting, Cuban-heeled boots favoured by Dylan and the Beatles and, in an action called, I believe, "flashing," took to flicking his sharp-pointed toes at the groins of selected pals, myself included.
How did it feel? It felt bad, and eventually we parted on snarling terms. Maybe it was just his way of saying, "It's all over now, baby blue."
A few months later, maybe spring, 1966, a classmate hitchhiked (or I like to believe he hitchhiked) to Hibbing, Minn., 1,000 kilometres east and south of Regina, the small mining city where Dylan lived from the age of six to his late teens and where the singer-songwriter's dad, Abe Zimmerman, reportedly owned a hardware and appliance store on the main street. He was obviously a hard-core Bobhead, and when his boot heels got back from wandering Hibbing, I asked him what the place was like. "It's like Moose Jaw," he replied. Moose Jaw is 75 kilometres west of Regina.
As thrilling and successful as Like a Rolling Stone was, it proved divisive as well. People took their Dylan really seriously then, and for many fans the song represented nothing less than apostasy, "a retreat into privatism," an unfortunate renunciation of all that had made His Bobness great, and they would not, could not, cross over. Their alienation reached an aphelion of sorts on May 17, 1966, at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, where Dylan and his quintet were playing a live concert. Just as the band set to launch into Like a Rolling Stone, a chastening male voice rang out from the sold-out house. "Judas!" it cried, to which an infuriated Dylan responded: "I don't believe you. You're a liar!"
Today, of course, "Judas!" ranks as the grandest, most famous heckle in popular music. But it took more than 30 years for anyone to fess up to the epithet, and when it happened there were two claimants, each with equally valid stories. When I heard that one of them, Keith Butler, was a 53-year-old Canadian, a Torontonian no less, well, I just had to track him down. We connected by phone in early February, 1999, just a couple of weeks, in fact, after his return from a Dylan symposium in England on the Manchester gig. Butler was the father of two sons and, 24 years after moving to Canada from Britain, somewhat chastened. He wouldn't say where he worked or what he did. He didn't want his picture taken. He wanted to be invisible now, lest Dylan fanatics would ask him, "How does it feel to be/On the wrong side of history?"
"There was nothing premeditated or religious about what I said [back then]," he told me. "It was straight from the heart, a spontaneous reaction. It probably wasn't the best choice of words, but that's just what came out." There have been rumours over the years that Dylan's manager paid for the heckle but, Butler told me, "There's no 30 pieces of silver in it for me." Three-and-a-half years later, he was dead of cancer.
Today Like a Rolling Stone isn't the incendiary device it once was. Yet it still thrills. Many people haven't forgotten when and where they first heard it. A half-century on, it has gathered no moss, remains, like Summer Wind by Sinatra, I Feel Fine by the Beatles, the Stones' Gimme Shelter, one of those rare songs that creates its own moment and space the instant it's played, whatever the circumstance.
The other day while shopping in the supermarket I noticed that, one after the other, the songs playing on the store P.A. system were vintage 1965, 1966 – Friday on my Mind by the Easybeats, I Fought the Law (and the Law Won) by the Bobby Fuller 4, the Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man. "I betcha Like a Rolling Stone is next," I told my wife. And of course in a perfect world it would have been, but it wasn't. Instead it was Little Darlin' by the Diamonds, doo-woppy fluff from 1959 that Like a Rolling Stone was supposed to have consigned to history's dustbin. Had Like a Rolling Stone played, shoppers would have stopped shoppin', wouldn't they, started wonderin' if they got it made and ya can't have that, now can ya? The wife an' me, we rolled our cart down the aisle. It was time to check out.