Greatest hits compilations are the bane of popular music. They focus everyone’s attention to a minute segment of a musician’s career and ignore segments that deserve or even resonate louder and closer to the artist’s soul. Everyone dreams of writing a hit single, and the money earned from it must be nice, However, in the span of a musician’s career a hit song, in the terms creative output, has been proven time after negative; more often than not an anomaly. or millstone. Bob Dylan has written and performed over a thousand songs and yet “Like a Rolling Stone”, his biggest hit single, has come to represent a far more complicated music career than the song alone could represent. That said, I come here to praise Caesar not bury him so my thesis statement reads like this: There wasn’t a song written to that point that even closely resembled it. A world wide hit, it foretold of the things to come.
At times, Bob Dylan could be a real son-of -a-bitch, especially of you annoyed him. If you were very troublesome, you might be the target of a Dylan attack song. Unlike another master at that type of song, John Lennon (“How Do You Sleep?” “Mind Games”), Dylan’s were more subtle. You could narrow the field of whom he might be addressing but only so far.
The most likely target usually female – the top two among them were the ones he felt the deepest about his ex-wife Sara and early paramour, folk singer and companion Joan Baez, but then it could be a one of a number of other women Dylan would have affairs with. We know “Like a Rolling Stone” has a female at its center, as if any other blues man worth his salt in songs it always is, for in the second stanza of the dressing down that the narrator hands out in a venomous scorn, as he does in “Positively 4th Street”, as he lists her foibles:
“Ahh you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it”
A problem exists within the song, and to a large degree spoils its iconic status as far as I’m concerned. It, again along with “Positively 4th Street” are both very good songs but they basically at their heart are scornful diatribes against what was most likely a ex-lover and, though we are led to make our own conclusions about “Like a Rolling Stone’s” purpose, it is pretty clear that a protest song it is not.
In the end, “Like a Rolling Stone” lacked all the things that make Bob Dylan Bob Dylan, rye humor, the playful surreal relationships that seem to exist in all Dylan’s great songs and irony, not bitter. Though it may be an iconic song and became arguably the soundtrack of the 1960s, it is not the greatest song of all time. It’s not Bob Dylan’s greatest song. It isn’t even the greatest song on the Highway 61 Revisited.
Those who think so need to listen with their ears and not with those of some popular magazine’s.