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The greatest song of all time

Greil Marcus on Bob Dylan and 'Like a Rolling Stone'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Greil Marcus
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(CNN) -- The song broke in the summer of 1965, a fired gun of a drum shot followed by words out of a fairy tale: "Once upon a time, you dressed so fine ..."

Even Bob Dylan must have known he was on to something when he wrote and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone."

Forty years later, the song remains Dylan's most representative and identifiable, from the stabs of organ (courtesy of Al Kooper, who snuck into the recording session and had never played organ), to the crashing rhythm section, to the twirling exclamation points of Mike Bloomfield's lead guitar, to the bursts of harmonica, to -- finally -- the sing-along chorus, belted in a triumphant voice somewhere between a sneer and a whine: "How does it feel? How does it feel?"

"It draws a line in the sand. Once you cross it, you can't go back," says rock critic Greil Marcus, author of the new book "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads" (PublicAffairs).

Indeed, "Like a Rolling Stone" is like a gauntlet thrown down, Marcus observes in a phone interview.

It's a dividing line between Dylan the tentative folk singer, famous for writing others' hits (Peter, Paul & Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man") and Dylan the rock star, celebrated for his own ("Superstar Bob," as Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert present him in their book "Rock Dreams"); a gateway from Top 40 pop to album rock (the song, six minutes and six seconds, was the longest non-dance record routinely played on AM radio up to that time); a roar of youthful defiance as the '60s started getting meaner.

And yet, it also seems less written by Dylan than channeled.

Indeed, though the words are important and the melody (based on a "La Bamba" chord progression) infectious, the song -- the recorded performance -- transcends them. It's not for nothing that Rolling Stone magazine named it the greatest song in rock history, ahead of "Satisfaction," "What's Going On" and even "Johnny B. Goode."

"It works on its own terms," says Marcus. "It puts you on the spot. It asks of you the fear and courage that it asks of its subject."

'This is where his style became a body'

Dylan wrote the song on the 1965 tour chronicled in the documentary "Don't Look Back." On June 15, he showed up in Columbia Records' New York studios and attempted a few takes, but the song refused to come together. The next day, with Kooper (a guest of producer Tom Wilson) present, Dylan tried again.

The first three takes set the stage, and then, on the fourth, Dylan and his band nailed it. They tried several more attempts, but never came close again.

Though the song screamed "single" to many, Columbia was uncertain. The song was six minutes. AM radio didn't play six-minute songs, and Dylan didn't want it cut in half, as was done with long songs such as the Isley Brothers' "Shout" or Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."

Dylan
The song kicked off Dylan's 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited."

But the timing was right. A Columbia assistant sneaked the song, as is, into a New York club; it was a hit. Radio stations that dared play a truncated three-minute version found themselves besieged by listeners. The song rose to No. 2 and cemented Dylan's sound: "This is where his style became a body," says Marcus.

It also changed his audience. "It made itself a home on Top 40 radio," says Marcus. The exposure made Dylan exponentially bigger.

Indeed, the Dylan sound was quickly parodied and exploited. Gravel-voiced Barry McGuire took the P.F. Sloan-Steve Barri song "Eve of Destruction" -- which owes an obvious debt to Dylan -- to No. 1 later in 1965. A garage band named Mouse and the Traps did a Dylan sound-alike, "A Public Execution," which Marcus recalls inspired questions of, "Have you heard the new Dylan?" before the artist was revealed.

Even Dylan himself had fun with "Dylan," offering deeper vitriol ("Positively 4th Street") and burlesquing his own voice ("Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window") before, inevitably, he went off in another direction, as he's done so often in his career.

'In the air'

As with many Dylan songs, the subject has been much debated. An old girlfriend? A Greenwich Village folkie? Dylan himself?

Marcus steers clear of lyrical analysis, believing that any explanation is a "waste of time," though he observes that the spirit of the song is such that "if the song had been sung in any German-rooted language, it would have the same effect."

Marcus
Greil Marcus

Which perhaps makes "Like a Rolling Stone" all the more serendipitous, something "in the air," as Marcus says.

It has stayed in the air, mysterious, thrilling and haunting.

There are the images, as sharp and inscrutable as Dylan ever produced: "the mystery tramp," "a chrome horse with your diplomat," "Napoleon in rags." There are the aphorisms: "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

There is the phrase "rolling stone," whose pop music forebears Marcus traces to Hank Williams and Muddy Waters, giving the song both country and blues roots deep into the American soil.

There's the production, smoothed out by Bob Johnston, who guided Dylan through "Highway 61 Revisited," "Blonde on Blonde," "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline."

There are the ensuing performances of the song: a clumsy, booed recital at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that has entered legend; an angry, defiant blast -- like a lifted middle finger -- to close the bitter 1966 "Albert Hall" concert.

And, as Marcus writes, the song has the ability to stop time and silence listeners, as if they'd never heard it before.

By now, Marcus himself has heard "Like a Rolling Stone" thousands of times. When he talks about his book on radio shows, the host inevitably cues up the song to kick off the proceedings. Marcus listens, smiles, "and then [the song] goes away like smoke."

And how does it feel?

"I'm not even close to being sick of 'Like a Rolling Stone,' " Marcus says. "Every time I hear it, it's like the first time. I find that's even more true now than before. Now I don't just smile. I'm astonished."

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