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50 YEARS ON, HOW DOES IT FEEL?

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By Lily Murphy

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The Montréal Review, January 2015

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 Bob Dylan (1965). Photo: Jerry Schatzberg

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In 2014 the handwritten lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone fetched $2 million at auction. In 2015, the iconic Dylan song celebrates it’s 50th birthday.

Like a Rolling Song emerged from a rather exhaustive tour of England that Dylan undertook in the Summer of 1965. He scribbled up to twenty pages of Like a Rolling Stone in the suite of his London hotel as he was recovering from a bad acid trip.

Dylan called what he wrote ‘a long piece of vomit’ but when he arrived home to the States to record the album Highway 61 Revisited, he decided to clean it up in order to add it to the album.

Dylan took himself off to a cabin in upstate New York where he fleshed out this ‘long piece of vomit’ and turned it into the song we know today. In June he went off to record his new album, with the new song in tow.

It took two hard days that month, and up to twenty takes, to get the sound of the song right. An acoustic version didn’t give justice to the vexed tone of Like a Rolling Stone so Dylan and co went down the rock route. The electric sound worked for Dylan and his musicians, except for the record company.

Columbia Records were not satisfied with the length or the sound of the song. At up to six minutes long, Columbia thought it was too long for radio play while the electric sound veered away from Dylan’s folk roots.

Columbia were persistent Like a Rolling Stone be dropped from the album but, thankfully it was purposely leaked to some music DJ’s and as it’s popularity grew with listeners, Columbia backed down and let the song become part of musical history.

Like a Rolling Stone is perhaps the one song that bridges together the folk Dylan and the rock Dylan. The lyrics hang heavy with the cynical tone of the folk club troubadour but the musical sound harks of a new era rock star, but it’s subject matter still garners much debate, even 50 years after it’s incarnation.

The subject at which Dylan directs his bitterness in the song has thrown up several names over the years. Of the many names that have popped up over the five decades since the song was written, including Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull, one name continues to flaunt strong indications to the character of ‘Miss Lonely.’

One strong version of events regarding the song’s conception is that Dylan was sick and tired of the New York 1960’s ‘it’ girl Edie Sedgwick, with whom he allegedly had a  relationship.

Sedgwick came from a wealthy family and arrived in New York in 1964 to pursue a career in the modelling business. It didn’t take long for her to make an impression on the New York social scene and Vogue labelled her the city’s ‘it’ girl, but the truth was that Sedgwick was a troubled soul who was eventually consumed by the very scene that christened her the ‘it’ girl of 60’s New York.

Within a few years after arriving in the big apple, Sedgwick had squandered her money on a social life which included a chronic drug habit.

Sedgwick mingled in the same circles as Dylan and grew close to him, but she also gravitated towards Andy Warhol and became part of his factory set where she starred in a number of his Avante Garde films. This did not amuse Dylan, who loathed Warhol and his weirdo friends.

Dylan was fond of the ‘it’ girl but he was shunned for the bright lights of Warhol’s factory, and while Dylan was in England conjuring up Like a Rolling Stone, Sedgwick was in Paris with Andy Warhol.

He has never stated publicly who ‘Miss Lonely’ is, but Edie Sedgwick does paint a strong picture of the rich girl who falls from grace in Like a Rolling Stone.

The opening lines of the song introduce us to the former bourgeois life of Miss Lonely. ‘Once upon a time you dressed so fine……’ from there she ends up ‘having to be scrounging her next meal.’

The jugglers and the clowns mentioned in the song are the ones who perform tricks for her. These clowns are the many men Sedgwick played around with, for the most part in return for drugs and fame.

But what of that ‘chrome horse’ and that ‘diplomat’? The one who ‘carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.’

Sedgwick was known to drive around Cambridge campus in a Mercedes, that famous chrome horse perhaps? ‘Once upon a time you dressed so fine,’ yes this is another aspect of where most of her money went, it was spent on expensive clothes. She went to the finest schools, yes, but she was known to party hard there, she was ‘only used to getting juiced in it.’

The diplomat can be Andy Warhol, who was in his mid 40s at the time. Dylan saw him as nothing more than just another rich New York socialite. But what of the Siamese cat? Perhaps Dylan just stuck that in to paint a picture of Warhol as an absurd fame hungry individual who craves attention for the sake of it.

Sedgwick used to gravitate between the Dylan set and Warhol’s factory crowd and drifting between these two sworn enemies proved her downfall was eminent as she eventually lost touch with both sets by the end of the 60’s, and in Like a Rolling Stone a haunting warning shot comes from Dylan in the line ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall.’

So who was the ‘Napoleon in rags’ and what of ‘the language that he used’? Again, the indication is that it’s that great nemesis of Dylan’s, Andy Warhol!

Dylan uses this image of Napoleon in rags to show to the world that Warhol who portrayed the image of the beatnik struggling artist was in fact a wealthy socialite who spoke elegantly and aloofly. Dylan also mock’s Warhol’s stature when comparing him to the pint sized French dictator.

Who is the mystery tramp? My guess is that it is Dylan himself. Although he too came form a somewhat well to do background, Dylan arrived in Greenwich village to conjure up an image of himself as the downtrodden bard. When Miss Lonely stares at the ‘vacuum of his eyes’ this is Dylan’s response to her, simply meaning he doesn’t care anymore.

Edie Sedgwick’s demise litters the song. References to drugs can be found everywhere, such as getting ‘juiced,’ ‘hanging out,’ and ‘kicks’. This demise is somewhat sneered at by Dylan who asks her how it feels that now she’s on her own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

The song is indeed darkly set, as throughout it there is the spectre of demise which haunts the lyrics. Even the title suggests an unsettling hopelessness.

Dylan came up with the title, Like a Rolling Stone, with the help of an old Hank William’s song. In Lost Highway there is a line: ‘I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost.’ It sums up the subject of Dylan’s piece, someone who falls out of favour with the world and becomes a non entity.

Warhol once remarked that everyone in the world will find fame for 15 minutes, the alleged subject of Dylan’s song can stand as testament to that statement.

When Dylan secretly married Sara Lownds in the Winter of  1965, it was said that Sedgwick was left emotionally bereft and socially bewildered. This was a time when she was finding problems at Warhol’s factory. She had been squandering her family’s money while in New York and was not getting an adequate wage from Warhol and this drove her to an unhappy split from the factory scene. She then moved in to that den of sin, the Chelsea Hotel, and turned her attentions back to Dylan, but he was by then a married man and not enthralled by Sedgwick anymore.

Five years after Dylan wrote Like a Rolling Stone, Sedgwick succumbed to the prophecies of the song. She had fallen from her position in New York’s high society and ended up selling family heirlooms to fund her drug habit, just like Dylan wrote, ‘take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe.’

In 1970 her drug habit resulted in her hospitalisation.  While in hospital, Sedgwick met a fellow patient named Michael Post and a year later they married. Not long into their marriage, Post reportedly woke up one morning to find his wife dead in the bed next to him after a night of alcohol and drug excess. Sedgwick was 28.

Whether or not it is true that Sedgwick was the inspiration behind Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan always stated that in all his songs there are real people, and Like a Rolling Stone is no exception. The lyrics were drenched in an obscure language, you must dig deep to find the meaning because Dylan has the knack of cloaking real identities with obscure names such as Miss Lonely, the Mystery Tramp and the Diplomat.

The first known performance of Like a Rolling Stone was at the infamous Newport Folk Festival on July 25th 1965, where Dylan was blasted as Judas for going electric.

The song’s debut was anything but smooth. Like a Rolling Stone, which is today revered as possibly the greatest song to date, was drowned out by boo’s from the angry folkies at Newport. When you hear Dylan spit put the line ‘When you got nothing, you got nothing’ to loose’ it can be interpreted as Dylan singing about himself as well as others.

Dylan wrote Like a Rolling Stone during a time in which he was sinking into deep conflict with himself. He had been drifting away from the music scene and was honing his skills into prose writing, but Like a Rolling Stone brought Dylan back to the world of song writing.

The song is perhaps Dylan’s goodbye note to the folkie, hippie scene of the 60s. It may also be a disgruntled look at the ideals of that time which were wasted on getting wasted and at the heart of this is the character of Miss Lonely who lived up to that waste.

In the six minutes of Like a Rolling Stone one can find a beauty within the bitterness Dylan spits out. As the listener, we can take the song and interpret it our own way to our own life which may have similar characters such as the mystery tramp, a miss lonely or a diplomat with a chrome horse! But 50 years on and the song never fails to impress, and never fails to conjure up more questions of its meaning.

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Lily Murphy is a freelance writer from Cork city, Ireland.

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