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May 24, 2006

Book Review & Josh's Songbook #3: Like A Rolling Stone


If any song deserves an entire book to be written about it, that song might be Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone". Certainly a great 3-chord rock song, it also happened to usher in an entirely new era in Pop/Rock music -- songs that actually mean something (and can make the charts, even at 6 minutes long).

Noted Dylanologist and music critic Greil Marcus' book Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads examines the source material, musical content, and vast influence of this song. Unfortunately, Marcus does so with poeticism, impressionism, and even mysticism, rather than journalism. Marcus' purple prose and outright idolatry interfere with his mission.



Art criticism in general always walks a razor's edge, attempting to describe in words the effects of a visual or aural artform. But phrases like "this sound within the sound tells you the story can't end soon, and that it won't be rushed" (about an organ line - p. 115) and "The first sound is so stark and surprising, every time you hear it, that the empty split-second that follows calls up the image of a house tumbling over a cliff; it calls up a void" (p. 94-95) just leave me wondering if the critic could make up anything about any song.

And Marcus loses credibility with his over-adulation of Dylan and his oeuvre. Which is certainly saying something coming from a true fan like me. (Ask me the greatest songwriter ever, greatest lyricist ever, most important pop musician of all time, favorite concert of the last 10 years -- my answer will be Dylan.) But when the author spends pages seriously analyzing Dylan's spectacular disaster of a movie Masked and Anonymous, he is going too far. He finally loses all credibility for me when he states the only two songs since Rolling Stone to live up to it have been Dylan's musically monotonous Highlands from Time Out of Mind, and a Pet Shop Boys cover of a Village People (!!!) song (Go West).

Marcus' greatest successes come when he discusses the impact of the song, specifically offering reactions to the song by people like Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner. What I had hoped to read was a book that showed how Dylan made the leap from folk music to rock 'n roll, the turmoil of the actual recording process (the released version was the only decent take all day) and the impact on pop/rock music around the world. Marcus wrote about all of these, but deciphering his message through the diversions and imagery was a little too much for me.

Too bad, because without a doubt, Like A Rolling Stone is the greatest pop song of all time! Even with a 3-chord (C,F,G) structure straight out of Louie Louie or La Bamba (or a hundred others), the almost unprecedented 6-minute long song feels like 3, and leaves you wanting more.

The reason? An incredible lyric, both as music and as poetry. Musically, the lyrics flow so well, with an intricate, impossible rhyme scheme that was never even attempted again in pop music. Lines like:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people, they're drinking, thinking that they got it made.
and:
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all came down and did tricks for you.
Meanwhile, the 3-syllable ending to each line creates a surprise every time, as you wait to hear how Dylan will fit it in. (It still grabs attention in concerts today -- although Dylan has taken to rushing every word out so fast the overall musicality is lost.)

Poetically, the lyrics were meaningful, if only for carrying any meaning at all. In a time of Be-Bop-a-Lu-La's, Dylan made pop music smart -- an influence that has been acknowledged by almost every pop musician at the time and since. Although the meaning of the song is debatable -- is it an angry rant at a woman too ensconced in her own "scene" or is it a warning to that woman, carrying an optimistic tone in breaking out of the scene? Either way, Dylan displays his usual gift for writing brilliant epigrams like "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" and paints a detailed portrait of the subject.

As most of you will already know the song, maybe even own the standard radio version found on the album Highway 61 Revisited from 1965, I highly recommend checking out the live version from Dylan's tour with The Band, found on the double album Before The Flood (and also used to perfection in the highly-underrated Scorsese segment of the 1989 movie New York Stories).

Posted by JoshHornik at May 24, 2006 12:39 PM

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