Like a Rolling Stone (Before the Flood). Not just the energy: perfect aggression.

By Tony Attwood

We have all heard Like a Rolling Stone so many times on recordings, and of course at the end of the Never Ending Tour gigs, that it is hard to go back and get a new perspective on it.

And yet the “Before the Flood” concert recording gives us this (unless of course this is the version you endlessly play), because it expresses something different within the song – something that is sometimes missing elsewhere.  Even though he disparaged the concept Dylan sounds utterly pleased to be singing the song with the Band on this album.

Perhaps in retrospect, listening to this album, and in particular this phenomenally vital version “Rolling Stone” we should have been ready for the next album: Blood on the Tracks.  But I doubt that in all honesty, any of us really were.

What this version of Rolling Stone gives us is the absolute link between the words and the music, without it ever becoming a hopelessly indulgent rock track with all the musicians turning their volume up to 11 while ignoring the rest of the band.  Of course we have an engineered version of the song, and can’t tell how it actually sounded in the arena, but given the sheer horrific beauty of this recording, I can live with that.

Of course everyone spoke at the time about the energy of the recordings.  But that is not the real point.  We speak about the energy now because we have heard Dylan concerts that seem to be more about going through the motions than giving us insights into the music, or even a great night out.  But energy is not the heart of it – it is the reinterpretation of this song showing the depth of feeling incorporated into the song, taking the music and the lyrics to new places that we hadn’t understood before.

Rolling Stone has what is in one way the simplest musical arrangement: a very limited melodic line over a classic chordal line of I, II, Ib, IV, V (if you play it in C that is C, Dm, C, F, G).  After a spot of IV V rotation the sequence goes back down the other way.

But on this recording you get the slamming of the door, the shouting out, the scream, and the ultimate show of resentment, jealousy, hatred, delusion, annoyance, and sheet bitterness.   And that is what this recording gives us more than any other – all those emotions in perfect harmonious aggressiveness.

This is the ultimate song of a Fallen Friend.  Some have suggested it contains attacks on Andy Warhol, some that it is about a girlfriend, some even that it is about himself.  Others find more general targets, such as the fans who only liked his folk music, and those who wanted him to espouse left wing causes.

One interesting element is that the words contain possible nickname references such as “mystery tramp” and “diplomat who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat”.  Visions of Johanna did much the same with its “Little Boy Lost, he likes to live dangerously”.

Were these real people, or just symbols?  If they were real, we can’t know who they really were, so the question is pointless.  Like Visions, the song only works if we can translate the images into something that relates to our own experience or understanding, and here the song is perfectly attuned, speaking of the person who once had it all and is now living on the streets.

There is one final person however that I find fascinating, the Napoleon in rags.  Again we cannot know who he is, but we can see the person Dylan refers to, the street merchant who claims to be more than he could ever possibly be.

Forever that falling set of chords IV, Ib, II, I, will be with us, via this monument to rock music.  Truly the greatest of all pop songs, and this was its greatest performance captured on record.

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10 Responses to Like a Rolling Stone (Before the Flood). Not just the energy: perfect aggression.

  1. says:

    Yiyi while driving plainly hear the call, she is face became pale, which is self-defeating ah, at the moment Qiang not around. Even people who have no one to discuss, Yiyi panic almost even cars are not open. Along the way crooked, thanks to fewer vehicles on the road which is the afternoon, a few more can not be otherwise non-hit, but also thanks to the traffic police rushed to the Great Wall Hotel commands are received along the cloth whistle, or Mercedes-Benz cars have long since been stopped by traffic police.

  2. Steve son says:

    The mystery tramp is the drugged hippie,Napoleon in rags is the guy with the hand inside his coat the drug dealer.the most frequently asked question of someone getting high for the first time is how does it feel?the song is addressed to dylan and all of us like him who got high and dropped out of college and lost their previous fake society values see,the diplomat is not where it’s at.the song is about lost false values due to smoking pot and the revelations that young people came can’t go home once you realize the phonieness of the society you were born in.

  3. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan’s (s)words are usually double-edged:
    a rolling stone gathers no moss, ie, liberate yourself from a stagnant position….rock and roll.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Following the Symbolist Poets, Napoleon represents the male ego, often inflated:

    “Your daddy walks in wearing a Napoleon Bonaparte mask”
    (Dylan: On The Road Again)

    “You need a different kind of man, babe/
    You need a Napoleon Bonapart”
    (I Shall Be Free)

    A pun on ‘boney part’.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    On Napoleon III:

    “The pale man walks on flower-dotted lawns/
    Dressed in black, cigar jammed between his teeth/
    ….For the Emperor’s drunk on two decades of excess/
    He’d told himself, “I’ll snuff out Freedom/
    With one small puff, like a candle”
    (Arthur Rimbard: Rage Of The Ceasars)

  7. Larry Fyffe says:


  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    “He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask/
    If he wanted to dance; he had a face like a mask/
    Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote/
    There was dust on the man/
    In the long black coat”
    (Dylan: Man In The Long Black Coat)

    A clear-cut miracle play the song is not although it seems women therein are easily deceived by the Devil.

    Whether the Stranger is the ghost of Napoleon dressed in a long black coat, rather than rags,; or perhaps he’s Satan himself; or maybe a Bible-reading Preacherman, Miss Lonely’s riding off with that ‘other’ guy once again.

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan recognizes the Blakean vision that all humans have a Godly light side and Satanic dark one, and a male and female side, Eve being carved from Adam’s rib. And that he is as capable as anybody when vulnerably situated of being deceived and seduced by those representing themselves as being what they’re not, ie Holy Men:

    “You changed my life/
    Came along in a time of strife/
    You came in like the wind/
    Like Errol Flynn”
    (Dylan: You Changed My Life)

    But it soon became clear what the Christian Robin Hood and his merry bunch of outlaws from Sherwood Forest were really up to in the alleyway dressed up in their pointed shoes and bells: the theives that he fell amongst were out to take Dylan for a ride.

  10. Babette says:

    About Napoleon in rags:
    “You used to be so amused
    At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used”

    Some very mean people make fun of people who are homeless or has a mental disease. A person with skizofrenia might have megalomania and think he is Napoleon. It is a commonly used e.g. Mentally ill persons often live in the streets.
    She had no pity for the poor man. Now she is at the bottom of the society herself , and Bob Dylan think she has deserved it.

    “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?”

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