Greil Marcus on Recording 'Like a Rolling Stone'

Dylan with producer Tom Wilson in the studio that day.

hide captionDylan with producer Tom Wilson in the studio that day.

Don Hunstein

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In, Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus recounts the recording sessions for the 1965 Dylan hit.

Playback: Bob Dylan, musicians and engineers during the recording of 'Like a Rolling Stone'

hide captionPlayback: from left to right — Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan, Vinnie Fusco (at rear), Sandy Speiser (foreground), Danny Kalb

Don Hunstein

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Recording Session 2 for "Like a Rolling Stone" / 16 June 1965, Studio A / Columbia Records, New York City

With Michael Bloomfield, guitar, Joe Macho, Jr., bass, Bobby Gregg, drums. Al Kooper is at the organ; Paul Griffin is at the piano; Bruce Langhorne is playing tambourine. Al Gorgoni and Frank Owens are not present.

Rehearsal take 1 — 1.53

Dylan leads the group into the song with a strong, strummed theme on his electric rhythm guitar. Paul Griffin has a loose, free bounce on the piano; Kooper immediately has a high, clear tone. Dylan stops it: "Hey, man, you know, I can't, I mean, I'm just me, you know. I can't, really, man, I'm just playing the song. I know — I don't want to scream it, that's all I know — " He takes up the theme again; Bloomfield and Gregg come in. The feeling is right all around; a rich ensemble is coming together.

Hoarsely, Dylan starts the second verse — "Never turned around to see the frowns" — and you can feel Bloomfield finding his groove. "You never understood that it ain't no good" — and it breaks off, just when it was getting exciting. From the control booth: "Bob, just you alone, so you can hear what your guitar sounds like, on this amplifier. Only you, please, for a minute." Dylan plays the lead-in, again, the rhythm behind "Once upon a time," a small, twirling dance around something that is yet to appear, and you begin to hear how the whole song is structured around those four words, that idea: how the purpose of the song is to make a stage for them. "That's enough," says the voice from the booth. "We can play it back for you."

Rehearsal take 2 — 3.03

"Let's do it, man," Dylan says. "Where's Gregg?" says Wilson. "Let's just do one verse, man" — and Dylan again leads on guitar. The tambourine is the first instrument to come in behind him, then a deep, resonant bass, then Bloomfield's guitar, then the organ. There is a lot of space in the sound; it hasn't cohered, and they are not gathering around the singer. Bloomfield is just fingering; there is no attack.

But with "You used to laugh about," both Bloomfield and Kooper step forward, as if recognizing their place in the song. With Dylan coming down on ". . . mmmmeeeaaalll," Bloomfield begins to press, to take off. The moment is immediately lost, and Dylan all but enters the chorus by himself:

How does it feel?

How does it feel?

To be on your own

— and here groaning, as if each word is a burden —

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone

Dylan tries to bridge the gap into the next verse on his harmonica, but what's left of the sound breaks into parts. They stop. Dylan looks for the theme again on his guitar; he and no one else is finding the melody, the point of view, the structure of the song.

Take 1 — 3.10

Wilson is very laconic: "OK, Bob, we got everybody here, let's do one, and then I'll play it back to you, you can pick it apart" — and then he sees Kooper at the organ. "What are you doing there?" he says with evident amusement. Kooper breaks out laughing. "Hah," Wilson says. Then he too is laughing: "Oh oh oh-kayyyy, stand by. This is CO 86446, 'Like a Rolling Stone,' uh, remake, take one." "Wait a second, man," someone says. "The organ player hasn't found his headset." "You gotta watch, Tom," Dylan says. "Hold tape," Wilson says.

There's a count-off, the snare shot and the kick drum making a single noise — and everything flops as it begins, the piano leading but nobody following. Then immediately Kooper picks up the slack, with a distinctive part, and the others play off of his confidence — or his brazenness. But the vocal is drifting, with Dylan searching for the right emphases: "You used to!" Bloomfield begins to find his footing — and you can hear how Kooper holds back as he does so. Dylan bears down: "Now you don't talk so loud" — and when he reaches "mmmeeeaaalll," that word now plainly the hinge of the song, the magic word that will open its door, Bloomfield catches the rising spirit that will take the verse into the chorus, that thrilling spring! and then an upsurge, an exhalation, after the first "How does it feel":

When you're on your own

Without a home

Like a complete unknown

— with Dylan singing that line as if he's completely surprised by it, as if he's never heard it before —

Like a rolling stone

But the drumming is too strong, too loud, and the beat is too crude — fit for a parade. Gregg is taking too much of the rhythm for himself, damaging any sense of a common sound. Kooper improvises on a chorus, but without focus, and he drifts away, toward a reverie. Dylan breaks it off: "Naw, we gotta work that part out." "You said once," a voice says, "but you did it twice." "I did it," Dylan says, "but I finished it once, don't you see?" "No." "Like a rolling stooooonnnnne," he says, demonstrating on guitar, hitting the strings hard, the theme echoing. "Hold it out," says the voice, "go to the next verse." "No, no, no," Dylan says, "here's what I mean" — and again he sets about showing the others what the song is, how they will get from the verse to the chorus, and then he loses focus. "Hold tape," Wilson says. "Even if we screw it up," Dylan says, a new command in his voice, "we keep going." "OK," Wilson says.

Take 2 — .30

There's a bright introduction, but the piano slips, and after "Once upon a time" everything is confused.

Take 3 — .19

They have moved on without a break, and in these few seconds a lot happens. With the count-off — "One two, one two three" — Gregg hits his snare and kick drum hard, a huge sound, the big bang, and it's the first true moment of realizing the song, of setting whatever it is they're doing apart from whatever else they've done. The musicians, especially Bloomfield, Griffin, and Kooper, come in smoothly, as if they know where they're going. There is a strong and single sound; they try to get a purchase on the song, to give it definition, a real beginning so it can reach its end — but they break off before Dylan even begins to sing.

Take 4 — 6.34

"Four," Wilson says. As it happens, this will be the master take, and the only time the song is found.

"One two, one two three": the bang that sets it off is not quite as big as in the take just before, but it somehow makes more space for itself, pushes the others away for the fraction of a second necessary to mark the act. Gregg, too, has found the song. He has a strategy, creating humps in the verses and then carrying everyone over them.

As big as the drums are, Griffin plays with light hands; you can imagine his keys loosening. At the very start, piano and bass seem the bedrock — but so much is happening, and with such gravity, you cannot as a listener stay in one place. You may have heard this performance thousands of times, but here, as it takes shape, the fact that it does take shape doesn't seem quite real. The false starts have created a sense that there can be no finished version, and even if you know this is where it happens, as with all the takes before it you are waiting for it to stop short.

Bloomfield is playing with finesse, passion, and most of all modesty. He has a sense of what to leave out, of when to play and when not to. He waits for his moments, and then he leaps. And this is the only take where, for him, everything is clear.

There is a moment, just after the first "How does it feel?" when Kooper's organ, Bloomfield's guitar, and Gregg's cymbals come together in a single waterspout, and you can feel the song running under its own power. You wonder: what are the musicians thinking, as this astonishing story, told with such a sensation of daring and jeopardy, unfolds in front of them for the first time?

Kooper holds down a stop at the fade, long after everyone else has quit playing. "Like wild thing, baby," someone says, beside himself. "That sounds good to me," Wilson says, happiness all over his voice.

Unslated take — 1.00

Wilson, confident: "All quiet, go, Bobby." Dylan leads with a harsh guitar sound. "Ready?" he says. "Not ready." "When the red light comes on." Dylan goes back to his guitar: "No good, huh?" "Keep going," someone says. "Play that back, Pete, please," says someone else.

Take 5 — .30

"Hold it just a sec," Wilson says. "OK. Rolling five." Griffin kicks the song off very fast; Dylan stops him. "That's not it — how do we do it?" "That's not how you do it," someone says. "Well," Dylan says, "how do we do it, man, how do we start it out?" He goes back to the guitar and plays the theme slowly.

Take 6 a–b — 2.06

"Six roll," Wilson says, but the take cuts off as soon as the stick hits the snare. "Hold," Wilson says. "Hold." Dylan fingers his guitar, while Bruce Langhorne tries to make a beat on tambourine. Wilson: "You ready, Pete?" "Wait a second," Dylan says. "Play one verse, do one verse first, without recording." "OK, rolling six," Wilson says.

"Ah, no," Dylan says with disgust, as if this is the stupidest thing he's ever heard. "Don't roll six." He begins the song on guitar. "We're gonna have to do one verse."

They go back in. This time there is no snare; the piano keys the fanfare. Dylan begins to sing, but the beat is slipping. The drum beats stand apart from each other, and the whole sound begins to separate into its elements. Bloomfield steps up, with a luminous sound. The singing is fractured, fading, as if Dylan has lost interest, but then he dives for the chorus — and loses it. "Oh, let's cut it... it's six minutes long, man," he says, as if someone hasn't gotten the joke. "Only you with the guitar, man," Wilson says.

Take 6 c — .36

"Rolling six," Wilson says. Again Dylan's guitar is harsh; the drums clatter. Dylan stops after "dime." "Take it again, let's take it again," he says. "Is my guitar too loud?"

Take 8 (there is no seven) — 4.28

"Stand by, rolling eight," Wilson says. "Doesn't feel good?" says a voice from the booth. "Yeah, it feels alright now," Dylan says. There's a count: "One two — four five seven," and then the snare. Dylan leads on harmonica, the bass is strong — and the drums have turned martial and busy, undermining the song from the start. It's a mess, but it's alive, scattershot, everyone reaching in a different direction. The more oppressively Gregg plays, Griffin plays more foolishly. "WHOOAA — you've gone to the finest schools," Dylan shouts, riding the bucking line. The second verse is crackling, Dylan singing like William and Versey Smith chanting their version of "The Titanic" on the street in Chicago in 1927 and everyone agreeing that, yes, it sure was sad when that great ship went down, but everyone grinning, too, because it was such a great ship, and it went down, and they didn't. "Whooaa — you never turned around, to watch" — Dylan is flying solo. His rhythm guitar is pushing; Bloomfield is all but silent. Then Bloomfield picks up a theme from the piano — he has lost his own hold on the song. Budda bump, budda bump, say the drums, and by now that's all they say. The take breaks off two words into the last verse. "My guitar's too loud?"

Take 9 — .20

There's a count, a few notes — Wilson whistles it dead.

Take 10 — .24

Wilson, sounding weary: "Ten." Again a count, notes, whistle. "There's something wrong," he says. "Timewise."

Take 11 — 6.02

Dylan, again with disgust: "Say something's wrong time — " "Eleven," Wilson says.

As the song starts, Dylan already seems tired of it, and the first line is sing-songy. Everything out of his mouth is forced, each word emptying itself of emotion as it passes. Bloomfield is there only for the lead-ins to the choruses; Kooper presses. Dylan's singing gains force, but the timing is still off, and the drummer is still dropping dead weight. Dylan sings more stridently; he's more effective. But there is no whole — there is barely a song. So much is missing you can think that if everything hadn't come together seven takes back, they could reach forever and miss by more every time.

They're into the fourth verse, for only the second time, and Griffin is playing like Floyd Cramer on "Last Date." There is banging and clashing, but the vocal is beginning to take off.

With "You've got no secrets to CONCEAL" the last word shoots up like a balloon with its string cut, tracing a dizzying path in the sky. "Awwwwww," Dylan lets go after the last chorus, carried away, ignoring his harmonica. "Awwwwww — " "I'm afraid I screwed up," he says. The entire take was a screwup, but there were moments only chaos could bring.

Take 12 — .29

"Stand by," Wilson says. "OK, we're rollin' for take twelve." Kooper plays an introduction; Wilson whistles for a stop.

Take 13 — 1.49

"Hey, Al, lay off on that intro thing there. Thirteen." Kooper now plays very schematically, as if solving a problem in arithmetic, and it doesn't work — and then on a chorus he goes wild. There is a strange, mysterious underwater sound from the piano. After a verse and a chorus they stop. "Why can't we get that right, man," Dylan says, swinging the words more effectively than he was able to do with anything in the actual take. "OK," he says wearily. "Try it again."

Take 14 — .22

"Fourteen," Wilson says. The drums are off the beat; Dylan blows the first line.

Take 15 — 3.18

"Fifteen," Wilson says. Kooper tries out a few lines — in an ice-skating rink. Gregg has lost the song entirely; everything he plays is decoration, but he is decorating something that isn't there. Dylan's voice is full but his singing has no focus. He rushes the chorus, even as Griffin and Bloomfield lock into the cadence the song wants. They get the chorus. The organ gets bigger with every line. And, in a way that pushes him forward, scrambling his timing but allowing him to barrel through anything in his way, his words dissolving and distant spirits handing them back deformed, now Dylan is singing off of Gregg's martial beat.

You say you never

Compromise

With the mystery tramp

Now don't you realize

He's not selling

Any alibis

As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes

And say unto him

"Unto him"? Where are we, in the Bible?

Do you

Want to make

A DEAL

And then "DEAL," like "CONCEAL" in take eleven, shoots up, out of the room, out of the building, with a tail of smoke, and Dylan's head seems to go with it. After "tricks for you" they lose the beat, and they stumble out of the song. That was the end of the session.

"I think it's one of those songs that's pretty timeless," Al Kooper says. "The other one that comes to mind is 'Good Vibrations.' When you hear it on the radio, it could have come out yesterday. It's a timeless record — so is 'Heartbreak Hotel.' They're putting out something unique, that has not been done before. And because they were recognized, it's become ageless. Which is great. We hear music that was done by people who died before we had a chance to pick up on it — for instance, Robert Johnson. So you're really glad, when you pass on, that you know people are going to hear 'Like a Rolling Stone' and 'Good Vibrations' and ‘Heartbreak Hotel,' and Robert Johnson. It's a good feeling."

No matter how timeless "Like a Rolling Stone" might turn out to be, what happened over the two days of recording sessions makes it clear that had circumstances been even slightly different — different people present, a different mood in the studio, different weather in the streets outside, a different headline in the morning paper — the song might never have entered time at all, or interrupted it. "I told all the musicians, you quit playing, you're gone," Bob Johnston says of the sessions that followed. "You quit playing, you're never going to hear that song again. Dylan would start a song — they'd be a third of the way through, and someone says, Waal, I didn't git that. The bass stops, or the piano player. Dylan would forget about that song and you'd never hear it again." "Like a Rolling Stone" is a triumph of craft, inspiration, will, and intent; regardless of all those things, it was also an accident. Listening now, you hear most of all how much the song resists the musicians and the singer. Except on a single take, when they went past the song and made their performance into an event that down the years would always begin again from its first bar, they are so far from the song and from each other it's easy enough to imagine Bob Dylan giving up on the song, no doubt taking phrases here and there and putting them into another song somewhere down the line but never bothering with that thing called "Like a Rolling Stone" again. Following the sessions as they happened, it can in moments be easier to imagine that than to believe that the record was actually made — that, circling around the song like hunters surrounding an animal that has escaped them a dozen times, they caught it. That is what makes an event, after all: it can only happen once. Once it has happened, it will seem inevitable. But all the good reasons in the world can't make it happen.

From Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Greil Marcus. Copyright 2005 by Greil Marcus. Published by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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