Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was released by Columbia Records on July 20, 1965, but it was a grueling process to make it into the iconic ballad beloved by millions in the years that followed. In the new biography The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941-1966 (Little, Brown and Company), Clinton Heylin writes about how the American singer-songwriter was depleted and exhausted following a grueling U.K. tour and struggled to produce a version of the song that both he and his record label were happy with. Years later, Rolling Stone magazine would list the song as No. 1 in its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” ranking, but at the time, it was a problematic track. Here, Heylin explores this stressful songwriting period in the artist’s life.
By the spring of 1965, nascent rock bands were beginning to flex their undeniable commercial muscle in the studio, demanding the hours, and sometimes the days, to realize their latest pitch to posterity, no matter how many rolls of the dice it took. In April, The Kinks went into the studio to cut not one but two singles—“Set Me Free” and “See My Friends”—trying to replicate a streak of three consecutive number ones between August 1964 and February 1965. When “See My Friends” came out a little too experimental, they returned three weeks later, and cut a klassic. A week after that remake, The Rolling Stones tried cutting their latest, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” at Chess in Chicago, and when that didn’t work, took it to LA to break the mould. The Who would record “My Generation” no fewer than four times between August 16th and October 13th, trying to ensure they didn’t f-f-fade away. Even the ever-efficient Beatles recut breakthrough song “Norwegian Wood” nine days after spending four and a half hours working on it, the day before The Who definitively defined their generation.
Such is the musical context surrounding the two afternoons it took to capture “Like a Rolling Stone” ( June 15th/16th) after Dylan temporarily abandoned the song at the end of day one without capturing a complete take, the blame for which has been placed squarely at Tom Wilson’s door by one vital component, about whom early on the 15th Dylan tells us, mid-song, the woman killing him alive “ain’t as good as this guitar player I got right now”:
Michael Bloomfield: The producer was a non-producer … a black guy named Tom Wilson. He didn’t know what was happening, man! … We did twenty alternate takes of every song, and it got ridiculous because they were long songs … It was never like: “Here’s one of the tunes, we’re gonna learn it, work out the arrangement,” that just wasn’t done … It was just like a jam session, it really was. … I was there man, I’m telling you it was a result of chucklefucking, of people stepping on each other’s dicks until it came out right.
It was certainly déjà vu for Wilson and Dylan, who were presiding over their second session in five weeks to result in no product worth a Columbia label. But to suggest Dylan was wholly the injured party would be to deny his complicity in the chaos. Before the first session, he had already made a critical misjudgement, instructing Bloomfield, “You talk to the musicians, man. I don’t want to tell them anything.”
Bloomfield, for all his undoubted talent, was a mere studio novice. With the exception of this diffident bluesmaker, the musicians were all veterans of January’s sessions: Bobby Gregg, Joseph Macho, Al Gorgoni, Frank Owen and Paul Griffin.
Michael Bloomfield: All these studio cats are standing around. I come in like a dumb punk with my guitar over my back, no case, and I’m telling people about this and that, and this is the arrangement and do this on the bridge. These are like the heaviest studio musicians in New York. They looked at me like I was crazy … But Bob remained completely isolated from that. He just sang his tunes and they fitted the music around him … I never saw any communication between Dylan and the band. … I could probably have put a more formal rock ’n’ roll sound to it, or at least my idea of one, but I was too intimidated by that company.
Nor does Dylan seem to have fully processed the chastening experience at Levy’s, having again arrived at a session with only one finished song and, in Bloomfield’s words, “No game plan. The day before, he was still writing the songs.” When Dylan successfully completes the second semi-improvised blues jam of the day, he actually boasts, “We recorded that song and I don’t even have any words for it, man!” The song in question “(Sitting on a) Barbed Wire Fence,” was a semi-improvised piano boogie searching for a home.
Yet the session had started promisingly with a complete first take of “Phantom Engineer” that steams into town fuelled up by Dylan’s pounding piano. The musicians were used to Dylan’s rapid-fire methodology, shuttling from song to song, refusing to get bogged down. But this time it took ten takes, four of them complete, to get “Phantom Engineer,” and six takes, three of them complete, to get “Barbed Wire Fence.”
Only at this juncture does Dylan bring in the main course, “Like a Rolling Stone,” still in waltz time (3/4) and in need of an arrangement. Five takes are logged on that first day, but it is mostly a case of Levy’s Revisited, the musicians “just messing around” until Wilson calls time on the day’s work, rightly sensing that they would need a full three-hour session the following afternoon to get this one right. At least he had already introduced one innovation—an important one—possibly at Dylan’s behest: continually running tape. So when, after a couple of rehearsals, a musician calls out, “Are we rolling?” Wilson can say, “Yeah, we’re continually rolling,” thus allowing us fifty years later to hear the transition from chucklefucking to pure serendipity.
It confirms what Bloomfield later admitted, “It happened almost by mistake”; day two, remake take four. Enter Al Kooper, who has pointed out, “You can hear Tom Wilson [say], ‘OK, this is take seven [sic]. Hey! What are you doing in there?’ … That was the moment he could have just thrown me out and rightfully so. And you know what? He didn’t.” At the time that Kooper commandeered the organ stool, they still haven’t managed a full take of “Rolling Stone.”
In fact, day two starts with Dylan in reflective mood, muttering into the mike (and maybe to himself ), “I’m just me, you know. I can’t, really, man. I’m just playing the song. I don’t want to scream it, that’s all I know.”* Frank Owen has gone, as has Al Gorgoni—evidently both Dylan’s decision. In their place, he has brought in “Tambourine Man” himself, Langhorne, on stand-by. But when Dylan switches to guitar—possibly at the suggestion of Grossman, who asks to hear just his guitar in the mix—and Griffin to piano, there is suddenly a great gaping hole where the organ once was. Kooper, who had snuck into the session hoping to supplant Gorgoni, seizes the moment and ends up replacing Owen.
Immediately, the organ makes its presence felt. It also frees Griffin to play all around the song, masking the moments where bass and/or drums lose their way. One more rehearsal, in which Gregg finally finds a use for that snare drum—the one which “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” to quote Bruce Springsteen—then, ker-pow.
Even hearing “Remake Take Four” now, surrounded by false starts, breakdowns and car crashes, it comes out of nowhere. And goes straight back there. Another eleven takes will be logged, only one of them complete. But having exhausted everything in his locker, Dylan pushes the envelope to see how far it can go. This far. Time to hear the playback, and get some feedback.
The studio has begun to fill with friends and other strangers. Even John Hammond Jr has popped in with a Canadian guitarist—in case they were in short supply—who, in his 2016 memoir, suggests this was the first time he met Dylan:
Robbie Robertson: [They] were listening to the playback of a song they had just cut. Sitting in the corner silently was Dion … John went over and [greeted Dylan] … You could barely see his eyes through the dark glasses he wore, but there was high voltage in the room coming from his persona. Bob [turned] to John, “You wanna hear something … You never heard anything like this before.”
The excitement in the room—captured by legendary photojournalist Eugene Smith—did not abate even when everyone decamped to Grossman’s Gramercy Park apartment with a hot-off-the-press acetate of the song. As Dylan recalled in 1987, “Different people kept coming and going and we played it on the record player all night. My music publisher [presumably Artie Mogull] just kept listening to it, shaking his head saying, ‘Wow, man, I just don’t believe this.’”
Even after he drove back to Woodstock to be with his pregnant girlfriend, he still wanted people he knew to share the high. According to another displaced Village folkie, John Herald, “Anybody he knew who passed by the Cafe Espresso, Dylan would run out and say, ‘I’ve got this great new song. It’s going to be really big, you’ve got to hear it.’ Then he would take them inside and play it for them.”
He also played it to his favourite ladies, though for Sally Grossman it was only when the song came “on the radio for the first time … riding around with … Sara in the car when she was pregnant” that she realized just how profound a statement her girlfriend’s husband had made. Dylan stated as much in 2000: “I didn’t feel like radio had ever played a song like that before. I know I’d never heard a song like that before. And everything I’d done up to that point had led up to writing a song like that.”