Like a Rolling Stone at 50: did the hecklers have a point?
It is 50 years (July 20th 1965) since the release of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.
It says some interesting things about popular culture, longevity and memory that not only is Dylan still performing it but that the song, far from being consigned to an audio archive, is still current too.
The details of the song are well enough known.
It was an electric Dylan, a break from his folk days and a deliberate one. That was not universally popular. It was also 6 minutes long, too long in the view of record company executives who at first declined to release it. Radio stations received a disc with the song split into A and B sides at 3 minutes each, a more normal single length.
DJs simply ran the two together on a tape so compelling was the song.
There are theories about what the lyrics mean, and you can Google them. Suffice to say they were not inspired by Dylan’s reading of Marx’s Capital. Even so lines like ‘no direction home’ arguably summed up the changing times of the 1960s.
The song did have politics though. As the late Mike Marqusee argues in his book on Dylan Wicked Messenger, the protests by Pete Seeger and those involved with the Newport folk festival, of which Dylan had been a feature were not simply those of old fuddy-duddys who disliked electronic guitars and organs.
Their argument was that the folk festival and the unity amongst black and white that it had achieved was a really significant thing in terms of 1960s America. Electronic Dylan was the music of commercialism, of the charts and big money and it risked undermining what had been achieved.
Dylan’s view it seems was that in reality while Newport was fighting against the reactionary nature of US society, it too in terms of the cultural forms it supported had become conservative. For Dylan the really radical thing, in terms of musical form, was to move on to the terrain of electric music.
Marqusee suggests that later Dylan felt that the Newport organisers had more of a point than he had allowed for at the time and that he by contrast had overestimated the radical impact of going electric.
After Newport the heckling of Dylan on his subsequent British tour was at least in part the work of socialists and Communist Party members who were able to promote some organised walk-outs of concerts when the acoustic folk music turned to electric instruments.
At the time this form of protest was largely seen as backward and somewhat reactionary. It seemed to be trying to argue against the youth culture of the 1960s and alternative and radical politics that often went with it.
Yet 50 years on as we survey a mass market music industry, itself now challenged by developments in downloading music via the internet, it seems more and more likely that the protesters had a point.
Like A Rolling Stone was and remains a great song but the direction it led in was not always so happy. Bob Dylan’s recent records, focusing more and more on the traditional US folk songs which represent where he started out in the early 1960s underline the point.
In terms of the ‘Judas’ comment made via a heckle at an electric concert he played at Manchester Free Trade Hall (now a Radisson Hotel) in 1966 the political context of the song has some importance.
Like a Rolling Stone remains an important song and Dylan’s electric turn a key moment in the history of popular music post-1945. However 50 years we should at least be able to understand what those who didn’t agree were on about.