Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Griel Marcus

In 1965, Bob Dylan wrote his greatest and most memorable song, "Like a Rolling Stone." It was his first major hit, which peaked at #2 on the billboard charts. It ran for nearly seven minutes, something unheard of at the time - or even today. The book puts the song in its historical context and asseses its continuing influence on American history. Marcus's writing takes some getting used to with its improvisational style that seems to mimic a Dylan song. Nevertheless it is a fine homage to a remarkable time period.

1965. The British Invasion had conquered the airwaves. The Beatles were at the peak of their powers. The Rolling Stones mix of blues and sarcasm gave a new edge to rock music. At the center of it all stood Bob Dylan. In early 1965 Dylan released Bringing it all Back Home, his first foray into electronic music. He then toured England where he grew continually bored playing his old material on acoustic guitar. According to Marcus, Dylan considered retiring from music to write novels. In June 1965, he assembled a amazing set of musicians and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone." The song redefined Dylan's sound and pushed the boundaries of popular music.

Marcus reflects on the song's influence on American culture and its connection to American history. He also discusses its effect on Dylan's career and how it became the song that defined him. Dylan still performs the song and is always a highlight of ongoing "Never Ending Tour." For the listener the song takes on a different meaning every time it is played. It is simultaneously an angry song about alienation, but also a celebration of freedom and liberation. Dylan fans will enjoy this book, but I would recommend listening to the classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited to make the book easier to understand.

First ever live performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

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