“Like a Rolling Stone” Revisited

First in 2004 and again earlier this year, Rolling Stone placed Bob Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone” at the top of its highly subjective listing of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Given the name of the magazine, it’s easy to find an association there that rewards skeptics and cynics suspicious of such deification. But in the years since its releas —as a single in July 1965, and as part of the game-changing album Highway 61 Revisited later that August—the song’s more than held its own as an expression of rock’s foundational ethos of freedom amid chaos, a crystalline document of the times. Whatever times you happen to choose.

Times like these. Some will say trying to find a connection between an apparently angry, vituperative rock song of 45 years ago and the year 2010 is a stretch. But listening to the song with ears attuned to the present day, the perilous state of the American economy, and the general sense of misfortune and dread that blankets this country, “Like a Rolling Stone” is as vital and insistent today as it was in the summer of 1965.

From the opening crack of Bobby Gregg’s snare drum, we’re on notice. We’re on point in the territory of a dangerous time. That first sound, that first break with silence might as well be a punch thrown by a segregationist, the report of an assassin’s rifle, a bomb dropped somewhere in Vietnam…or a sniper squeezing off a shot in Afghanistan. Consider the lyrics. There’s been much discussion historically as to who the “Miss Lonely” of the song really is, most of their consideration focusing on a particular individual. Some say it’s Edie Sedgwick, late of Andy Warhol’s Factory orbit; others have suggested it’s Joan Baez (once Dylan’s partner) or Marianne Faithfull.

But when you get past the specifics of the gender, there’s a universality at work that softens the song’s seemingly bitter aspect. Imagine Miss Lonely as Mr. Lonely, an everyperson, someone of either gender suddenly subjected to the velocities of the world at large. Listening to these lyrics and adopting a more generalized interpretation, what comes clear is the way the song’s character is just as easily any of us, regardless of gender, color or personal persuasion. The current state of the U.S. economy—the worst since the Great Depression—brings it all back home: the sense of drift, of anemic helplessness, of being at the mercy of forces we can’t hope to control.

How does it feel

How does it feel

To be on your own

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

That’s not nastiness or vitriol; those six lines perfectly distill the longing, the persistent existential angst that’s hung over our planet since the end of World War II. Those six lines reflect a clear, indelible understanding of our lives in the early 21st century.

Other lyrics in the song, seemingly directed at a moneyed, privileged class of poseurs getting their just comeuppance, could as easily be aimed at people today coming to grips with the collapse of the value of their homes, the threat of foreclosure, the implosion of their 401(k)s, dreams come-a-cropper in the face of a new economic reality, their lives rendered invisible by unseen forces.

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

“Like a Rolling Stone” perfectly embodies the heads-is-tails uncertainty of modern life, now and in long-ago 1965. More than just lyrically articulating the rock and roll mindset of liberation and risk, it contains the multitudes, distilling the collective experience of millions of lives caught, then and now, in the crossfire hurricane of modern life.

How does it feel?