The idea that there are only about – depending on who you believe – three, five, seven or however many basic story plots that have ever existed is always being bandied about. Reductionism isn’t difficult – I don’t know why they don’t go further and say that there’s only one: somebody does something. The same thing must apply to pop songs too, albeit to a slightly lesser degree because plenty of songs don’t really have a plot at all. Still, I suppose the, “I love you, but you don’t love me,” type of song is quite common as must be, “I love you, you love me,”; “We’re all having a bad time,”; “We’re all having a good time,”; “That’s a nice place,”; “Do you remember what things used to be like?”; “Do this, that or the other,” and, if it comes down to it, my personal favourite, “Finger pointing songs.”
Bob Dylan’s often cited as the inventor of the finger pointing song, but he wasn’t. From hymns about how the Devil’s gonna get spanked by Jebus in “I’ve Got The Joy, Joy, Joy”, to I’m Going To Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair from South Pacific, pointing the finger at those who’ve done you wrong has been a theme since people realised that the a pretty tune and a catty swipe at something go together like fruity gravy and meat. However, he did write an awful lot of them and, from when he first started up to about his motorbike accident in 1966, he pretty much was synonymous with that theme. In fact, if you could make a case that Subterranean Homesick Blues is a finger pointing song, he released five singles in a row that were all finger pointers in 1965 alone.
Like a lot of artists, Bob Dylan was good at recognising what he was good at and there are a lot of things in his favour that make him King Finger Pointer.
- Like A Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
“I wrote it as soon as I got back from England (in 1965, as recorded in the film Don’t Look Back). It was…all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest…Revenge, that’s a better word. It was telling someone they didn’t know what it’s all about, and they were lucky…Seeing someone in the pain they were bound to meet up with.”
Bob Dylan, 1972.
This is his pièce de résistance, really. I like Positively 4th St. too, but… If you’ve seen When We Were Kings, the film about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble In The Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire – without giving the end away about 45 years after it happened – Ali knocks Foreman out and there’s a photo taken at the moment Foreman inexorably collapses, almost broken in half, to the canvas.
Norman Mailer, never one to miss an opportunity to make everything about him (look who’s talking, eh?), is at his most animated during the film when he talks about this photograph because he talks of the perfect timing of the photograph, mostly, he says, because of the look it caught on his face. And that is an interesting section of the picture, but maybe Norman shouldn’t have been the one pointing it out. I’m sure George Plimpton would have, genial fellow he appears to be.
As it goes, Norman Mailer does make a really good point about what else the photograph shows us, and it is about Ali, without whom the picture wouldn’t have even existed. Anyway, what Norman takes a moment out of his busy schedule of self-reverence to tell us is that Ali has another punch cocked and ready to go, but he doesn’t let Foreman have it – and I can’t remember if Mailer or Plimpton says this bit, but I hope it’s Mailer – he says that the reason Ali doesn’t make sure with that punch that’s all packed and ready to go is “…so it doesn’t disturb the poetry of the image of Foreman falling,”
I don’t know if Ali was thinking that. My immediate thought is that he’d spent the last twenty minutes or so having man mountain George Foreman beat the shit out of him on the rope-a-dope and he looked dead on his feet to me so the non thrown punch seems more like he barely has the energy. When I think about it, and I think about Ali, part of me does wonder if part of his brain didn’t contemplate something along the lines of what Norman Mailer suggested.
Anyway, the point is, Bob Dylan might be a giant in the musical world, but he’s no Muhammad Ali. Positively 4th St. and, even more so, Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window are weaker follow up punches that almost – almost – ruin the beauty of the initial knockout blow that was Like A Rolling Stone.
Mind you, if we’re going to compare the two in terms of poetry? I think Ali was more a poet than Dylan. A children’s poet, for sure, but so what?
Like A Rolling Stone might not count as poetry to my ears, but it’s one hell of a 7″ single from the first second to its last.
I love a good introduction on a record. I particularly like a catchy few notes on a great sounding guitar. The Beatles had loads of them. So did The Stones, The Smiths, The Stone Roses. You name the great guitar band and they’ll have a load of great guitar introductions. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be a guitar, pretty much anything apart from accordions or bagpipes can be good. Even a cappella introductions. Like A Rolling Stone has one of the all time great introductions because it’s just one crack on the snare drum and – bam – it’s happening. Like a sudden punch in the face that leaves you wondering if the next six minutes actually happened because it’s just a blur, lurching from one thing to the next, none of particularly tangible.
Dylan described the sound of the records he did around this time as having that “…wild, thin mercury sound.” Which sounds good, but the closest you’re getting to anything helpful is ‘thin’, which it is a bit – but it needs to be because finger pointing songs are sharp tongued and biting and, on Dylan’s versions, the musical backing tends to be in sympathy with the lyrical content. In fact, on Like A Rolling Stone, there are moments when his voice sounds like it’s trying to be a bit sympathetic and that snide Hammond organ practically taps him on the shoulder and asks him what the fuck he’s playing at, like the winnets that playground bullies always have surrounding them do. You know, “Oh, I heard him say your mam got bummed by a pig. You’re not gonna let ’em get away with that are you? You wanna do something about that.” Winnets, in case you’re unfamiliar with that term are also known as tagnuts, bum crumbs, bumtags, clingers, coco-pops, dogs, dill berries, dangle berries, dingleberries, fartleberries, klingons, toffee strings, waffle nuts and probably more besides. You know, claggy little bits of turds that get stuck around bum hair. Classy stuff, eh? I can’t think of a more apt description of people who hang too closely around arseholes, myself, so nyer, dyer (irony intended). Anyhow, that’s what the Hammond organ on Like A Rolling Stone sounds like to me. Like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons made out of a keyboard and a rotating speaker. It even sounds like him, ‘Ha-ha.’
So, the introduction couldn’t be any more straightforward, that single snare shot that sounds like the report of a pistol being fired into some poor bastard’s head at point blank range. It reverberates too, in the microscopically small amount of time in-between it happening and the rest of the band joining in – as if to represent the powder burn that comes with discharging a firearm that close to its target. I can’t tell you how immensely effective that one hit on that one drum is on this single. Pow! Take that, Mister Tooth Decay (thats an in-joke for Muhammad Ali fans). Incidentally, the drummer is Bobby Gregg, who later played on the electric version of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence, which owes plenty to Like A Rolling Stone. Later on, he played with Peter, Paul & Mary which must have made a change for him – all those loving vibrations. He can’t have dug it too much though because after that he was in the band that made the delightful titled Church Of Anthrax album by acid tongued avant grade troubadours John Cale and Terry Riley. Even weirder is that the drummer in Dylan’s live band of the time was Mickey Jones, who was the bloke who was a fairly competent DIY-er in Home Improvement.
The rest of the instrumentation is pretty much as sharp as the drums and the organ. The electric guitar stings. If Ali hitting you felt like a sledgehammer, this is the bright, vivid stripe of a steel whip on sunburnt cheeks. Mike Bloomfield, the guitar player on this was told by Dylan – and I love this – “I don’t want you to play any of that B.B. King shit. I don’t want you to play any of the fucking blues” And he doesn’t, because the blues is about wallowing in misery and enjoying it a bit and no bugger’s going to be enjoying what Dylan’s going to be talking about. Not like that, anyway. What he plays is what Laurence Olivier would have in Marathon Man, had his instrument been a Fender Telecaster instead of dentistry tools. It probes and it finds soft spots that it burrows into and inflicts itself. Only in the closing couple of seconds does it discover a previously absent element of sympathy in its notes, and that somehow makes it all even worse because it’s like its enjoyed its work and is softly stroking the bloodied carcass that it’s just comprehensively ruined with its bile and bite. Dylan plays and electric guitar too and, while its job isn’t as clinical as Bloomfield’s, it does an important job in the evisceration of the subject because it drives the rest of them onwards. It’s a bit like the old Aesop fable about the drummer boy who gets caught by the enemy and tries to talk his way out of trouble by pointing out that, actually, he’s never hurt anybody personally. The enemy don’t give a shit and, before they knife him, tell him, no, maybe he’s not spilt any blood himself, but his beating of the drum has driven others in his army on to do exactly that. It’s not particularly artful but, given the length of the record, it becomes more and more effective. You can hear the band start to wind down from the end of about the third chorus onwards, but Dylan’s guitar rallies them as if to say, “We’re not done yet. Come on! There’s plenty more where this came from.” Sometimes you see a one sided fight and the victor just doesn’t seem to want to stop, long after he’s won and you’re thinking, “Come on, he’s had enough. You’ve made your point. You’ve won. Leave it now.” And they just don’t. Well, that’s Dylan all day long. Not a man who ever seemed likely to tire of sticking the pointed toe of his Chelsea boots in. (See his continued barrage I mentioned earlier too). Mike Bloomfield gets the idea before the rest of the band do and joins in with Dylan’s guitar, emphasising and wheedling everyone back to the fray, long after the subject’s stopped moving. The piano sounds like the honky tonks that don’t stop playing when the bottles start flying and the bullets whine around earholes in corny old Westerns. Dylan’s once ubiquitous, asthmatic harmonica makes an appearance here, but it’s gilding the lily because Al Kooper’s just invented the concept of Nelson Muntz on the studio Hammond organ that he didn’t really know how to play.
The opening lyrical salvo, “Once upon a time…” might make you think this is a fairy story and, in a way, it is because most fairy stories don’t have happy endings and, despite the warped view that most adults appear to have of them, there’s plenty of brutality in most of them. Arbitrary violence and bad sorts not really getting their comeuppance. It’s odd, isn’t it? Very few adults exhibit the cruelty that comes so easily to little kids and they also like to pretend that children are beautiful, kind little sausages. Weird, huh?
As the Nelson Muntz organ makes abundantly clear, while this might well be a finger pointing song, it’s pointing the finger at a girl who’s fallen from grace. We don’t get a name apart from Miss Lonely, which is nothing more than a cruel nickname anyway. The title possibly suggests Mick and Keef’s band and there’s a possibility it’s not about a girl at all, but Brian Jones.
Diversion – The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones.
There are quite a few distinct phases of The Rolling Stones and my favourite is their first – the Brian Jones lineup. Later, you’ve got the Mick Taylor Stones and the Ronnie Wood Stones. I don’t mind bits of the Mick Taylor era – he’s a ‘better’ guitar player than Jones was, but he doesn’t have the inventiveness and musical creativity that Jones had. Taylor’s a purist to my ears and, while what he plays is impressive, it just doesn’t move me like Brian did. Ronnie Wood? I’m not taken with him. I’m sure he’s alright and everything but I just don’t give a shit about The Stones by the time he joined them. I quite like some of The Faces’ records, which he’s the guitarist on, but I don’t think Ronnie and The Stones have ever really done each other any favours.
Mind you, Brian Jones also comes across as a pretty dreadful human being and just because being in The Rolling Stones gave him a license to play up. From what I can gather, he was exactly the same when he was still at school. He’s got a cruel face, Brian. Mind you, I feel ever so slightly sorry for him because the fashions of the sixties – like most, no all eras – look much better on the terminally skinny and Brian had a bull neck, a barrel chest and short, thick legs. I also dislike the look on his face, which tended to be either sneery and snide or just blotto.
Still, The Rolling Stones’ sixties output wouldn’t have been a tenth as good without Jones’ contributions: the sitar on Paint It Black; the marimba on Under My Thumb; the dulcimer on Lady Jane; his mellotron on their underrated 1967 psychedelic era output (2000 Light Years From Home, She’s A Rainbow, We Love You); his recorder on Ruby Tuesday. He’s all over those records and it’s what he came up with on all those different instruments that set The Stones above almost everybody else’s singles during those days.
I can’t think that Like A Rolling Stone is about Jones though. It’s from 1965 and, whilst Jones might not have had the media presence of Mick or Keef and he didn’t write any of the songs as such, he wasn’t really looking like a spare part until 1968 at the earliest. Had this single come out then, yeah, maybe I could see it. But 1965? With The Last Time laying waste to the charts? Nah.
But The Rolling Stones didn’t invent the phrase, “Rolling Stone.” Obviously, A rolling stone gathers no moss is an ancient cliche, and Dylan probably knew all about Hank Williams’ song Lost Highway, with the line, “I’m a rolling stone, alone and lost,” which fits with Dylan’s song perfectly.
End of Diversion.
If it’s not about Brian Jones though – and it’s not – who is it about? Edie Sedgwick, another Warhol superstar who probably fit the bill for some people because she really was a poor little rich girl who ended up in the gutter. I don’t know a lot about Edie Sedgwick apart from having seen the film Factory Girl with the undeniably beautiful, if slightly cruel faced, Sienna Miller playing her.
Most assume, however, it’s about Joan Baez and with good reason. Joan had given Dylan a big leg up in America when he was a nobody and she was a somebody by inviting him up onstage with her. When Dylan toured Britain in 1965 and invited her along, she might have assumed that he was going to repay the favour as the roles were reversed here – he was the big deal and she wasn’t. But he didn’t. And Joan wasn’t the sort of girl to demurely keep her mouth shut about, well, anything really. Furthermore, in Like A Rolling Stone, he refers to a “…mystery tramp…” with whom she said she’d never compromise, and “(You used to be so amused at) Napoleon in rags with the language that he used”, whom she’d previously laughed at. Baez regularly took the piss out of Dylan for his scruffy attire… Not that she was totally horrible to him because even while she mocked his grubby threads, she was never shy of calling him a ‘genius’ and Dylan might be referring to that with his line about his own use of language. The next lines, “Go to him now, he calls you. You can’t refuse,” imply that she was besotted with him and that besottment (?) was, by now at least, entirely a one way street.
This isn’t news to those loony tune Dylanologists. It’s not even news to Joan Baez who commented about those lines by saying, “It was not love that made me such a nuisance…it was desperation. For the first time in my short but monumentally successful career someone had stolen all my thunder from under my nose.” Dylan even sings, “Ain’t it hard when you discover that he really wasn’t where it’s at. After he took from you everything he could steal…” A bit of self loathing there. I think Dylan did hate himself a bit and no wonder. This is cruel, man.
I’ve said that the instrumentation never lets up, but sticking with the lyrics, Dylan does actually, at some points in the song, almost feel sorry for her. The chorus, “How Does It Feel?” sometimes is sung without spite and other lines suggest that maybe he’s experiencing some gentler emotions about her that he’s struggling with. Most of the time, though, he sounds positively gleeful about the fact that Miss Lonely is plummeting and plunging downwards in every conceivable way. Schadenfreude? Highly likely.
Providing this song is about Joan Baez, the question I have is this: why bother? He’d already ‘won’. He was the new big deal; he was it. The Nazz, man. Who was Joan Baez, apart from somebody who corduroy jacketed schoolteachers with nylon strung acoustic guitars behind their desks with which to sing Little Boxes to their classes to show they were groovy, would listen to while at home, planning lessons with an ecologically sound message for da kids?
Jacob Rees-Mogg – Tory cunt of the highest order -‘s father, William wrote an editorial in The Times, protesting about the harsh treatment of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards following the drug bust at Richards’ house Redlands with the headline (itself taken from Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot) Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel? And yet, that’s what Dylan’s doing here. Using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut open.
Diversion – Stupid cars.
When I generally think of using something excessive to accomplish a fairly straightforward goal, what I think of are 4×4 landrover type cars of the type often used by yummy mummies to go to the shops in. What’s going on there? Before they became ubiquitous on suburban drives, were these people driving to the local Waitrose in their Ford Escorts, thinking, oh this motor vehicle is much too small for me and a couple of pints of milk? Were they? If they want to go for a boat trip on a little river, do they secretly want to commandeer a Royal Navy Destroyer to do it in? Do they carve their Christmas turkey with a chainsaw? When they called in at the BMW dealership and saw the behemoth that they plan on pootling around the village in, did they think, “Now that’s exactly what I need for popping to the shops in”?
Fuck knows, frankly. I expect it’s because they’re not very confident driving, what with the roads being full of nutters and these Chelsea tractors elevate them to be a bit higher up so they feel safer. Maybe I’m over sympathetic, I don’t know (n.b: sarcasm). Mind you, when you see 4×4 BMWs with cuntplates on them, it’s the human equivalent of those Amazonian toads with bright red and yellow stripes on them, isn’t it? You know, it’s good to have a heads up about who you really need to steer clear of because that’s 3/3 in my book and if you need any more information than that about the occupant of a car, maybe you need to learn the hard way, like Miss Lonely did. Well worth avoiding. Having said that, they’re always really good at parking them, aren’t they?
End of Diversion.
Baez was third division in comparison to Dylan in 1965, so why bother, eh?
Who knows? I expect there’re a lot of reasons that probably combined. He was on a lot of amphetamines at that point and they’re not exactly known for calming people down and giving them a bit of perspective, are they? In Don’t Look Back, Joan Baez is pretty irritating and I can dig it that she might get on his tits, especially when he was busy trying vainly to get into Marianne Faithfull’s knickers and Joanie just wouldn’t take the hint.
Plus, he was a writer. He had to write something.
So yeah, maybe it’s a bit over the top in terms of butterflies and wheels, but it’s one hell of a record. The sound of an angry young man starting on something and not being able to get himself out of the groove once he’d begun. And maybe that’s the point. Dylan, so far as I know, has never actually explicitly stated that it’s about Baez and maybe that’s because he might seem a bit cruel to pin it on her, after all she did for him. On the other hand, even though it’s not about him, you know, he’s not Miss Lonely, it is really. Like A Rolling Stone is an achievement. It’s one of the all time great pop singles and he wrote it, played it, directed it and sang it. Fair dos, he wants – and deserves – credit for it.
And he’s not going to share that with anybody. Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan might not be all that lost, but he’s alone alright and maybe that’s all he wanted. Sometimes.