Those prepared to ignore advice might just recall that it’s fifty years since Dylan’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ England tour, a tour that proved highly significant in more ways than a historic film documentary. Although no one knew it at the time, the ‘65 tour represented a turning-point in Bob Dylan’s career, signalling the end of the so-called ‘folk-protest’ Dylan as prelude to a metamorphosis that has helped to shape popular music ever since. Famously, or notoriously (depending on your point of view) this was announced two months later at the Newport Folk Festival in America when Dylan ‘went electric’.
Manchester also played a significant part in that change, when, the following year, Dylan was castigated as ‘Judas’ during a concert at the Free Trade Hall. Dylan replied with a particularly frenetic version of probably his most famous song, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
But the ’65 tour is also important in that it provides a crucial clue to finally resolving one of the enigmas of popular music: what is the meaning of Like a Rolling Stone? Named the greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, its significance has been endlessly debated.
Rock music – the marriage of poetry and rock ‘n’ roll – is arguably the outstanding cultural expression of the last half-century. And it was Dylan who invented the medium in its purest form as ‘folk-rock’, thereby transforming popular music into an art form. The song that cemented this metamorphosis in the summer of 1965 was the six-minutes-long foundation Stone with its brilliant imagery and anthemic chorus.
Perhaps nobody has expressed the impact it made at the time better than that other beacon of folk-rock, Bruce Springsteen: “The first time I heard Bob Dylan…on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind: Like a Rolling Stone…Dylan was a revolutionary…He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world…To this day, wherever great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan.”
Paul McCartney remembered listening to Rolling Stone at John Lennon’s Weybridge mansion: ‘It seemed to go on and on forever,” he said. “It was just beautiful. He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.”
So much for its cultural significance; but what’s the song actually about and why has it had such a strong hold on the public imagination?
On the surface, Stone is about a young woman learning from painful experience that pride comes before a fall, the song’s most telling line being: “Now you don’t seem so proud,” while the singer seems to be taking delight in her discomfiture, repeatedly taunting her with the song’s chorus: “How does it feel?”
In an almost unparalleled break with his usual habit, Bob Dylan commented several times on the song’s gestation and meaning: “I wrote it as soon as I got back from England,” he was quoted in the 1972 Anthony Scaduto biography. “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.”
The reference to England relates to that 1965 tour, famously filmed by D A Pennebaker under the title Don’t Look Back and recently voted by film critics as one of the 10 best documentaries of all time.
Don’t Look Back is probably best-known for its opening scene. This shows Dylan displaying a series of cue cards relating to his song Subterranean Homesick Blues, often cited as the first music video. But the documentary also reveals an ending as well as a beginning in the shape of the final break-up of one of the most newsworthy celebrity affairs of the last century, that between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
The two first got together in 1962 when she was America’s ‘Queen of Folk’ and he an up-and-coming but still relatively unknown singer-songwriter. By the time it came to an end, he was the star, she famous largely for her association with him. Ever since, music historians have debated the nature of their relationship. Where she was concerned, there never seemed any doubt. What the historians didn’t realise was that Dylan himself had also expressed his own feelings about the affair in no uncertain terms – in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
Those feelings were inextricably bound up with Dylan’s rejection of his own status as a ‘folk-protest’ idol, with Baez as his greatest champion, and his subsequent invention of rock music as the expression of a more philosophical attitude to the world, one which scorned ‘protest’ as mere self-righteous posturing. In the interim, he went through a crisis so profound that it almost ended his career. Recalling this period later, he explained:”‘Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained. I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing…It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you, if you don’t dig yourself.”
This crisis came to a head in a short series of concerts on the East Coast of America with Dylan sharing equal billing with Baez. “There was serious conflict,” Scaduto quotes a member of the tour. “When we were finishing up the tour there were real blow-ups and everybody was walking gingerly. Dylan was very upset much of the time…”.
Dylan was upset over the fact that Baez, herself growing ever-more-committed to political protest while he’d already totally rejected it, would tell him to his face that his interest in being ‘the rock and roll king’ amounted to a betrayal of those committed to reform. Dylan had retorted angrily: “I’m not responsible for those kids,” while criticising her for her ‘naivety’ about the value of political commitment.
Amazingly, and one might think suspiciously, Dylan then actually invited Baez to accompany him on his ’65 England tour. Baez assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Dylan would invite her up onto his stage to promote her career in England, where she was relatively unknown, just as she’d invited him up onto her stage in America, when he was still relatively unknown.
Don’t Look Back shows in stark black and white Baez’s embarrassment and ultimate humiliation as Dylan studiously ignores her and then impassively allows his road manager, Bobby Neuwirth, to abuse her openly on camera, before Baez finally accepts the now-manifest rejection of her ex-lover and leaves both the film and his life, going off to stay with her parents in Paris to nurse her emotional wounds.
This rejection was entirely consistent with Dylan’s growing reputation at the time for cruelty towards those who openly treated him as a messiah, a cruelty that stemmed from his inchoate sense of acting in ‘bad faith’ – as existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre so appositely expressed it. His disgust at continuing to give his ‘folk-protest’ fans what they wanted to hear when it no longer meant anything to him. This is precisely the meaning behind Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan, bitter against himself for his hypocrisy, turned his anger outwards onto those, most particularly Joan Baez, who made him aware of that hypocrisy. And there’s no one more angry, more bitter, more savage than a man who feels very bad about himself but won’t openly admit it.
While, as a general rule, it would be true to say that Bob Dylan rarely writes songs about particular people (so-called ‘personal songs’), there’s no doubt that one of his greatest songs can be taken as a very notable exception to this rule. Certainly, at the time of writing, Dylan most definitely saw Rolling Stone as aimed directly at Baez. Seen from this perspective, the personal references in the song could hardly be clearer. Thus, for instance, the ‘diplomat’ in the song is Dylan himself, who is telling Baez, Machiavelli-like, that he used her to promote his career only brutally to discard her when he no longer needed her, leaving her as ‘Miss Lonely’. Dylan was naming himself as the ‘Napoleon in rags’ because Baez had constantly laughed at him for his vagabond ways, while at the same time treating him as a genius for his exceptional talent with words and meanings, hence his inclusion of ‘…and the language that he used’.
Similarly, Joan Baez is the one in the song told to ‘go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse.’ Dylan it was who called her, specifically to England, when Baez, completely besotted with Dylan’s genius to the point of slavish devotion, as she has readily admitted, couldn’t refuse. Referring to this, she was quoted as 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.’ Hence, Dylan in Rolling Stone: ‘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.’
On this level of Revenge Tragedy, there’s no doubt that the song appeals to the lowest, commonest denominator in us all, which is the instinctive desire for vengeance when someone points up something about us of which we’re ashamed. This certainly explains some of the song’s power over the human imagination. Who can honestly say they’ve never had such feelings? Who can say they’ve never sung along to Rolling Stone’s chorus without feeling a sense of catharsis akin to Dylan’s?
But if in the song Bob Dylan spewed out his vomit of anger and revenge against his former lover and patron with the force of a blowtorch, having already humiliated her on camera and broken her heart, Stone is so much more than an instrument of emotional torture, and it’s this that makes the song a work of art, in spite of Dylan’s motive for writing it. Remember that, while Dylan freely conceded the ‘steady hatred’ and desire for revenge that prompted the song’s composition, he also said that Stone was about ‘seeing someone in the pain they were bound to meet up with,’ revealing a parallel concern with Greek, as opposed to Revenge, Tragedy that would prove to be a recurring theme in his songs – not something usually associated with popular music.
Here is the philosophical Bob Dylan, the Dylan who surmises that Baez’s ‘princess on the steeple’ self-righteousness can only ever end badly, that pride always comes before a fall, that hubris always leads to nemesis. This truth of the human condition has probably never been better expressed than by the father of Western philosophy, Socrates, with his: ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ This is the nature of philosophy, when it’s based on truth, not to see the point of instruction as directed outwards to others, but inwards to ourselves.
But here’s the irony: didn’t what applied to Joan Baez apply equally to Bob Dylan? Possibly apply more to Bob Dylan since he claimed to espouse a philosophy of truth? Put simply, by condemning Baez for her self-righteousness, wasn’t he acting self-righteously himself? By damning her for putting herself on a pedestal, on a ‘steeple’, wasn’t he damning himself? For, in accusing others of being ‘superior’, like a vengeful boomerang, we’re inevitably accusing ourselves in the process.
With hindsight, Bob Dylan came to the same conclusion, telling Scaduto, when explaining a later album: “Before I wrote John Wesley Harding I discovered something about all those earlier songs I’d written. I discovered that when…talking about other people, I was really talking about nobody but me…You see, I hadn’t really known that before, that I was writing about myself in all those songs.”
To be fair to Dylan, he suspected as much almost as soon as he’d finished Stone, seeing himself from an objective point of view in the song Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?. He wrote this soon after Stone and it clearly references the earlier lyric. ‘Preoccupied with his vengeance…,’ Dylan writes, ‘he looks so truthful, is this how he feels…with his businesslike anger…’. ‘Businesslike’ no doubt because Rolling Stone turned out to be very good for Dylan’s career.
Whatever his personal motives for writing Rolling Stone, then, ultimately, Bob Dylan proved himself to be an artist, despite himself, proved that he couldn’t help but make the personal universal. And the upshot of this is that, while Stone’s ‘reality check’ might have been directed at Joan Baez, the song’s art means that it can just as easily be applied to Dylan himself or, indeed, to you and me. Take just one line in the song, one that must rank alongside ‘To be or not to be’ in its power and in its glory: ‘When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ This isn’t about material possessions but about self-delusions, about the fact that we’re all subject to the same human condition. Where the mystery of human life is concerned, we’re all alone and lost:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?