Sunday, April 22, 2018
Master Blueprints # 15: “You Never Turned Around To See the Frowns on the Jugglers and the Clowns When They All Did Tricks for You”
(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)
Song: “Like a Rolling Stone”
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Release Date: August, 1965
The birth-year range of the “Baby Boomer” generation is defined by Wiki as “beginning early- to mid-1940s and ending anywhere from 1960 to 1964”. Those of us on the tail end who were teens in the 70s (I was born in 1962) relate strongly to our Boomer roots. We see the images of The Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Woodstock, and we think, yeah, I can dig that (I just had to slip in this term in honor of those older Baby Boomer brethren). Most of us do anyway. In fact, there’s a fascination with it all.
Invariably, however, there’s bound to be a bit of disconnect when one has not experienced something firsthand, which requires research and reflection if you hope to hurdle this truism. I went through just such a hurdling process this week as I listened to Bob Dylan’s magnum opus (one of them, anyway), “Like a Rolling Stone”, opening wide a cascade of new insights on what it must have been like to be in your formative years in 1965, and hearing this song when it first came out.
I’ll get to that moment and the ensuing cascade of thought soon enough. First a bit of background.
Transitioning from one song focus to another on a weekly basis for these blogs can often be smooth, but I was under no illusion that this time around would be one of those. I’d been on a roll of sorts with the previous 6 entries, diving into some of my favorite Bob Dylan albums and/or building loose ideas and storylines from one to the next. But as I leafed through my cd options this past Sunday, I felt it was time to take a leap of faith. I’d been avoiding Dylan’s two mid-60s album outputs, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. I was well aware that both of these records are often ranked at or near the top of the all-time greatest Rock albums by critics, and so I was beginning to feel I’d be remiss to not tackle them sooner than later. With this in mind, I performed a quick eeny-meenie-mynie-moe, and with not much of a clue where I was heading, I proceeded to remove the winning cd from its sleeve and popped it into the player.
Why the hesitancy? Well those who have read these blog entries even on a cursory basis can pretty much conclude that I’m a studio-album-oriented kinda guy. I get many of my writing points from that broad perspective and then hone in on a given ‘song of the week’ as I continue to listen to it through the lens of the original host album. Great albums have a contextual story behind them, and I’m often compelled to tackle that first. My hang-up here was, although these 2 seminal works are chalk full of song chestnuts, I’d never really felt that ‘album vibe’ from either of them. As I began listening to Highway 61 Revisited this week, I recalled feeling the same way from time to time when I was writing my ‘Stepping Stones’ series six years ago, which was centered on the music of the Rolling Stones. Those occasions were when I was writing about some of the Stones earliest hits from albums like Out of Our Heads and Aftermath. The album vibe wasn’t working then either. In such cases I would have to come at things from a different angle.
It’s been fairly well documented that the Beatles Revolver (released in 1966) and then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (’67) were the first album-oriented Rock records, and I tend to agree (although I have to say, Bob Dylan’s much more subtle first contribution to album orientation, John Wesley Harding, came out around the same period). So if Highway 61 Revisited (released in 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (’66) predated album orientation, what was it about them that was so revolutionary? The answer, which I came to this week, is actually quite mind boggling: I now believe that virtually every song on these albums conceptually equates to a classic rock album in and of itself. Bob Dylan was so prolific at this time in his career, that he would singlehandedly usher in the era of album orientation……by actually taking the concept one quantum leap further!
Once that ton of bricks hit me over the head after several cycles through Highway 61 Revisited, I began thinking, “ok, how am I going to zero in on anything here if I’m listening to up to nine different ‘albums’ for one blog entry”? At this stage I had to make another conscious leap of faith…. this time it was to choose a song and just run with it. I narrowed it down to four choices: The title track, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Desolation Row”, and what my final choice turned out to be; the opening number “Like a Rolling Stone” (I’ll just have to circle back to those others at some other time). I simply decided this song was too big to pass up.
It had been a while since I’d been truly bowled over by “Like a Rolling Stone”: Sometimes a popular song like this one introduces you to a great artist and then you move on to deeper stuff. However, with my new perspective this week….listening to it as an album in and of itself, I felt I had a fighting chance to get those old wowed sensations again. Another thing that would end up helping: Bass guitar lessons. For almost a year now, I’ve been getting great weekly lessons by a young virtuoso guitarist named Jake Hallett. Part of Jake’s approach has been to try to get me to hear every note in a major or minor scale as relating to a specific emotion. He often teaches in the key of C, because there are no sharps or flats which allows us to get better focused on his priorities, whereby he ties the major notes in C (C, F, G) to different uplifting emotions and the minor notes (D, E, A) to more melancholy emotions. Hearing the notes this way, helps to get creative with melodies, along with all sorts of other benefits. Slowly, it seems to be working.
Anyhow, in the past, when I’ve listened to “Like a Rolling Stone”, I’ve never gotten past 1) the singing, 2) the lyrics, and of course 3) Al Kooper’s Hammond organ playing. Each of these components are dominating ones. This week for the first time however, I cued in on Mike Bloomfield’s guitar. The reason? He plays it arpeggio style - or one note at a time. In other words, like a bass. Most standard guitar work is done in chords: triplets of notes played simultaneously (typically 1, 3, and 5, which in the root key of C would be C, E, and G), but not here. This lead guitar sound was something I could emulate. On top of that it was a fairly straightforward stepping up and down of notes. At first I was not sure what key the song was in because I needed my guitar in hand to figure it out (it would end up being in C), but I could hear the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5… the do, re, mi fa, sol, and to some degree even the emotions of each (still working on that). It was fantastic. In my mind’s eye, I was suddenly singing in the Salzburg Austria foothills with Julie Andrews.
Kidding aside (kind of), once I tuned into Bloomfield’s guitar this past Monday on my way to work, the floodgates of connection to “Like a Rolling Stone” began opening up all over again. I guess all I really needed was this new observation, this new ear. When I returned home I went directly to my bass and within minutes I had the entire song down; I’d pretty much worked it all out in the car. This added to my reacquaintance with my old song-friend. I began to envision what it must have been like for those older Baby Boomers who were in their formative years when “Like a Rolling Stone” first came out. Many Rock fans, and aspiring musicians of the period, including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, have commented that it was a life altering experience for them.
Every commentary I’ve ever seen that critiques “Like a Rolling Stone” focuses on who the source of Bob Dylan’s venom is in this song, which could be anyone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and naïve to those who had not. All well and good, but I think this misses the point. I believe Dylan had something quite a bit more intense in mind. After all, the type of person he was singing about would never be the type who would listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” in the first place. No, this was a song of solidarity. The people who were listening were those who could relate. This would include anyone who had been rejected, or who had experienced loneliness, or awkwardness, or struggles of any kind, particularly those who were going through these struggles at the time the song first came out…..”to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”. This was solidarity with the misfits, the free spirits, the oddballs, and the poets, the soon to be hippies and the agonizing Vietnam Vets as well as the draft dodgers.
There were many folkies and beatniks who did not understand. To them, Bob Dylan was abandoning the power of folk-music-protest that he had been blessed with when he went electric and started writing songs about other topics. But no, that was not it at all. Dylan was building on top of that foundation. He was choosing creativity over stagnation. With this in mind, a case could be made that the 60s as we know them really started right then and there with “Like a Rolling Stone”. Dylan had already done his protest stuff (which I will get to). What he was doing now was rallying the troops.
Associating with this deeper meaning now, I can see even more why I loved this song when I first heard it back in my own formative years. Being on that tail end of the Boomer generation helped to pull me away from the traditional views of success that tie it solely to wealth and power. My inherited attitude did not come without adverse reverberations. Yet, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for all the tea in China, because they were learning experiences. There is much to be gained from an independent spirit. Despite some of the ugly reputation related to drugs and dropping out, the 60s did after all teach us 70s kids this fact. And Bob Dylan was on the front lines, speaking his mind in extremely formidable and inspiring fashion.
- - Pete