Rolling Stone magazine just announced its choices for “The 500 Greatest [Rock] Songs of All Time.” Your favorites are all there — “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles, “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin, “Light My Fire,” by the Doors, “Let’s Stay Together,” by Al Greene.
But the shocker is the selection for Number One — Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Huh? I wouldn’t even rate this as Dylan’s best song. (I’d go with “Blowing in the Wind,” #14.) “Like a Rolling Stone’s” outstanding feature is its clanging electric-guitar-and-organ arrangement (one of the first to use this particularly obnoxious sound), its plodding, can’t-dance-to-it beat, and of course Dylan’s raspy, insulting voice.
“Like a Rolling Stone” has never appeared anywhere near the top of the charts in the radio Oldies polls. The pick is usually “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (#2 here), “Louie, Louie,” by the Kingsmen (#55), or “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins, which always wins the Doo-Wop contests but is #90 here. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll now has a 50-year history and picking favorites is as much a battle of generations as of music.
Rolling Stone also has an obvious proprietary interest, since the magazine took its name from Dylan’s song (or was it from the real Rolling Stones, or Muddy Water’s 1948 hit, “Rolling Stone,” ranked #459?). Still, there’s much more going on here than meets the ear.
For Sixties-bred liberals, “the personal is political and the political is personal.” That makes music political as well. You can tell that from reading Rolling Stone, where Jon Stewart may be on the cover one week and John Kerry the next. For these people, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” represents the Dawn of Creation — the day radical politics was wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t last long. Dylan’s creation of folk-rock set off a brief era that lasted approximately as long as the Vietnam War. Springsteen revived the tradition in the next two decades, but for the most part folk-rock came and went.
Yet it has never died in the heart of true believers. Although he has never had a #1 record or #1 album, Dylan has kept a cult following, with his career moves are constantly celebrated by writers at Time and Newsweek. Thus his arrival at the top of the heap last week.
IT’S A SHAME POLITICAL liberalism has appropriated rock ‘n’ roll for its own purposes, because it really represents a remarkable flowering of many diverse elements of American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was born in the 1950s at the intersection of white and black society, both in the South and the North. Little Richard was a gospel singer. Fats Domino was a New Orleans piano player. Bill Haley and the Comets were a rockabilly roadhouse band suddenly catapulted to national fame with “Rock Around the Clock.” The Everly Brothers were childhood gospel stars, as was Sam Cooke, who (like many others) recorded his first songs anonymously so he wouldn’t be seen as “leaving the church.”
Then there were the urban street corner groups, mostly blacks and Italians, who began by harmonizing popular songs from the 1930s and 1940s and then started writing their own material. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Cadillacs, the Crests, and Dion and the Belmonts were all products of Harlem and the Bronx. At first, many of their songs were “covered” by popular artists like the Crew Cuts and the McGuire Sisters. But like bloggers of today, these talented amateurs — often recording in garages and basements — finally broke through.
All this amounted to an enormous cross-fertilization of diverse cultural strains. Elvis Presley — the “white boy who could sing black” – epitomized this hybridization, but the common carp that Elvis “stole” his music from black artists is completely misplaced. Elvis was a supremely talented musician in any vein. The best defense of Presley was made by Bo Diddley, another of the great originals of the era, who once commented, “Hell, give the guy credit. I stole a lot of stuff myself.” (His first great hit, “I’m a Man,” is a remake of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”)
Probably the most representative artist of the period was Chuck Berry, whose “Johnny B. Goode” (#7) was chosen by Carl Sagan to represent American culture aboard the Voyager space probe on its trip beyond the edges of the solar system. Berry began his career in the South as a black singer performing country-and-western. He was dubbed the “black hillbilly” and often booed off the stage by black audiences. Yet he “crossed over” to become one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll. His first big hit, “Maybellene” (#18), is a rewrite of an old Hank Williams tune.
SO WHERE DOES Bob Dylan fit into all of this? Dylan was a folk singer from a very different tradition. The 1952 issuing of Harry Smiths’ Anthology of American Folk Music set off a folk revival that produced a string of #1 hits for The Weavers in the early 1950s (“Goodnight, Irene,” “On Top of Old Smokey”). Right-wing zealots soon exposed the group’s left-wing background, however, and they were driven from the air, but the ball was picked up by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and other coffeehouse performers, who added Old English ballads to the repertoire. Dylan came from this tradition, borrowing some early material from the Anthology but writing his own songs as well. Following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, he became an authentic American folk troubadour.
Performing with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica, Dylan had a moderately successful career before college audiences in the early 1960s. He had a Columbia Records contract and “The Times They Are a’Changin'” became the anthem for a generation. Still he was not widely known. Then in 1965 he dismayed the Newport Folk Festival by going onstage with electric guitars and drums and giving his new material an upbeat, jingle-jangle rhythm. Pete Seeger frantically tried to pull the plug but it was no use. “Folk-rock” had been born.
The new mode — with no roots in gospel, rhythm-and-blues, or Doo-Wop — had a modest four-to-five-year run, coinciding largely with the Vietnam War. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (unranked) was the high-water mark. A few popular groups covered Dylan songs (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) and Dylan also dumbed down much of his earlier material for popular consumption. His success was brief, however, and he soon retreated into obscure poetry and vague prophecies. Dylan still writes fantastic folk music (try “Tiny Montgomery,” a dead-on perfect re-creation of something from the California gold fields), but his convoluted lyrics and rather ordinary music have never won large popular audiences.
One obvious limitation was his subject matter. Some of his best offerings are what can only be called the “12-chorus insult.” “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is a fare-thee-well to an old girlfriend that goes on so long you have to wonder who is reluctant to let go. “Positively 4th Street” (#203) is an endless rant. (“I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is/To see you.”)
And then there is “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Greatest Rock ‘n’ roll Song of All Time, whose message is:
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
Just like a rolling stone?
In last week’s New York Times, Shaun Considine, coordinator of new releases at Columbia in 1965, breathlessly recounted how he rescued “Like a Rolling Stone” from the slush pile and introduced it at a popular East Side disco. “By August it was in the [Billboard] Top Ten, rising to Number 2,” he says. Wow. The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (#179) was the #1 record (and Saturday Night Fever the #1 album) for almost an entire year and defined the Disco era. (As John Updike wrote, they were “three white men who managed to sound exactly like black women.”) But then Disco was distinctly apolitical. As one critic sneered, it was “the sound of black upward mobility.”
Dylan’s pop success remains largely a media phenomenon. His albums do not sell particularly well, rising quickly the first few weeks as cult followers run to the stores, then fading away. Like Laura Nyro and Carole King, he is an artist whose material has been best performed by others.
So how does “Like A Rolling Stone” emerge as the Greatest Hit of All Time? Because it is a landmark to Sixties-bred radicals who like to think of American history as “Things That Happened To Us.” “Like a Rolling Stone” still marks that first joyous 1965 uniting of protest songs and electric guitars. It was a political event, not a musical moment.
The greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time? For generating great music, Dylan couldn’t even tune Elvis’s guitar.