“Like a Rolling Stone” is a 1965 song by the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Its confrontational lyrics originated in an extended piece of verse Dylan wrote in June 1965, when he returned exhausted from a grueling tour of England. Dylan distilled this draft into four verses and a chorus. “Like a Rolling Stone” was recorded a few weeks later as part of the sessions for the forthcoming album Highway 61 Revisited.
During a difficult two-day pre-production, Dylan struggled to find the essence of the song, which was demoed without success in 3/4 time. A breakthrough was made when it was tried in a rock music format, and rookie session musician Al Kooper improvised the organ riff for which the track is known. However, Columbia Records was unhappy with both the song’s length at over six minutes and its heavy electric sound, and was hesitant to release it. It was only when a month later a copy was leaked to a new popular music club and heard by influential DJs that the song was put out as a single. Although radio stations were reluctant to play such a long track, “Like a Rolling Stone” reached number two in the US Billboard charts (number one in Cashbox) and became a worldwide hit.
Critics have described the track as revolutionary in its combination of different musical elements, the youthful, cynical sound of Dylan’s voice, and the directness of the question “How does it feel?” “Like a Rolling Stone” transformed Dylan’s image from folk singer to rock star, and is considered one of the most influential compositions in postwar popular music. Rolling Stone magazine listed the song at number one in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. The song has been covered by numerous artists, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Rolling Stones to The Wailers and Green Day.
It was ten pages long. It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, “How does it feel?” in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.
However, Dylan told two interviewers on CBC Radio in Montreal that “Like a Rolling Stone” began as a long piece of “vomit” (10 pages long according to one account, 20 according to another) that later acquired musical form. Dylan has never publicly spoken of writing any other major composition in this way. In the interview Dylan called the creation of the song a “breakthrough”, explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career. He said that he found himself writing this endless diatribe 20 and out of it he took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. “And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should do … After writing that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play. I just had too much, I want to write songs.”
From the extended version on paper, Dylan crafted four verses and the chorus in Woodstock, New York. In 2014, when the handwritten lyrics were put up for auction, the four-page manuscript revealed that the full refrain of the chorus does not appear until the fourth page. A rejected third line, “like a dog without a bone” gives way to “now you’re unknown”. Earlier, Dylan had considered working the name Al Capone into the rhyme scheme, and he attempted to construct a rhyme scheme for “how does it feel?”, penciling in “it feels real,” “does it feel real,” “shut up and deal,” “get down and kneel” and “raw deal.” The song was written on an upright piano in the key of G sharp and was changed to C on the guitar in the recording studio.
For the recording session, Dylan invited Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to play lead guitar. Invited to Dylan’s Woodstock home for the weekend to learn new material, Bloomfield later recalled, “The first thing I heard was ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. I figured he wanted blues, string bending, because that’s what I do. He said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t want any of that B.B. King stuff’. So, OK, I really fell apart. What the heck does he want? We messed around with the song. I played the way that he dug, and he said it was groovy.”
The lack of sheet music meant the song had to be played by ear. However, its essence was discovered in the course of the chaotic session. The musicians did not reach the first chorus until the fourth take, but after the following harmonica fill Dylan interrupted, saying, “My voice is gone, man. You wanna try it again?”
When the musicians reconvened the following day, June 16, Al Kooper joined the proceedings. Kooper, at that time a 21-year-old session guitarist, was not originally supposed to play but was present in the studio as Wilson’s guest. When Wilson stepped out, Kooper sat down with his guitar with the other musicians, hoping to take part in the recording session. By the time Wilson returned, Kooper, who had been intimidated by Bloomfield’s guitar playing, was back in the control room. After a couple of rehearsal takes, Wilson moved Griffin from Hammond organ to piano. Kooper then approached Wilson and told him he had a good part for the organ. Wilson belittled Kooper’s organ skills but didn’t explicitly forbid him to play. As Kooper later put it, “He just sort of scoffed at me … He didn’t say ‘no’—so I went out there.” Wilson was surprised to see Kooper at the organ but allowed him to play on the track. When Dylan heard a playback of the song, he insisted that the organ be turned up in the mix, despite Wilson’s protestations that Kooper was “not an organ player.”
Dylan and the musicians in the studio recorded 20 takes before eventually deciding on the one we all know and love.
Here’s Al Kooper talking about the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone.”