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.
- What was it you wanted? (Oh Mercy)
- Everything is Broken (Oh Mercy)
- Man in the Long Black Coat (Oh Mercy)
- Political World (Oh Mercy)