Happy Birthday “Like a Rolling Stone”: The Best Dylan (and Hendrix) Performances
Tracing the history of rock 'n' roll's greatest song through three classic recordings.Music Features Bob Dylan
Fifty-two years ago this week, Bob Dylan’s electrifying 1965 single “Like a Rolling Stone” was racing for the top of the charts, transforming the soft-spoken folk singer into an confrontational, era-defining rock star with every passing day. His new album, Highway 61 Revisited, was barely a week old at this point. It’s difficult all these years later to consider any other versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” beyond the perfect, six-minute studio recording that was released at the time, with its revolutionary aggression and caustic interrogation of Dylan’s audience: “How does it feeeeeel?” But the greatest rock song that ever was (according to countless critics and historians since its inception) has been re-interpreted many times by many admirers, from Judy Collins to The Wailers to, of course, The Rolling Stones.
The Paste Vault has numerous recordings of the song available for free streaming, including a few extended ones by Jimi Hendrix. So let’s compare and contrast the original with Dylan’s versions in 1974 on his much-ballyhooed tour with The Band, another version by Dylan a quarter-century later and Hendrix’s virtuoso take from 1968.
No one knows better than Dylan how hard it is to recapture the magic of the original “Like a Rolling Stone,” which he wrote in the wake of a draining tour of England, just as the crushing weight of expectations was starting to calcify his creativity. He was so dissatisfied with his growing stature in music that he considered quitting altogether. But something kept pulling him back—in no small part, it was a festering disdain for people, fans included, whose criticism of his work was rooted in bourgeois complacency.
“I still feel like the same person,” Dylan said in 1997. “One of the feelings of it was that you were part of a very elite, special group that was outside and downtrodden. You felt like you were part of a different community, a more secretive one. And this community spread out across America … every little city you went to, if you knew who to call, what to look for, you could find … like-minded people. That’s been destroyed. I don’t know what destroyed it. Some people say it’s still there. I hope it is. I know, in my mind, that I’m still a member of a secret community. I might be the only one, you know?”
Genius knows genius, and the plaudits from musical icons for this song are unreserved. “The first time I heard Bob Dylan,” Bruce Springsteen said in 1989 when inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.”
The late Frank Zappa remembered first hearing the song in Los Angeles at age 24. “I wanted to quit the music business because I felt, ‘If this wins and it does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else.’”
Elvis Costello was 11-year-old Declan McManus when it first caught his ear. “What a shocking thing to live in a world where there was Manfred Mann and the Supremes and Engelbert Humperdinck and here comes ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”
Many elements of the song have been picked apart and studied, from Al Kooper’s iconic opening keyboard line to Mike Bloomfield’s arpeggiated guitar. If there’s anything generally underrated about it, it’s the vocal, which changed rock forever. As Rolling Stone noted in 2010, “When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.”
Let’s start with Dylan and The Band from the 1974 reunion tour that was the hottest ticket in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, with a reported 5.5 million people applying for the 650,000 available seats. The tour would restore both acts to the glory of their late-’60s peaks, and culminated with the release of the live album Before the Flood. This Valentine’s Day 1974 performance from the Los Angeles Forum has a false start that’s so quick you may miss it. Yet it’s Dylan’s best attempt at recapturing the original recording’s sense of anger and vengeance. And it also is very familiar in straddling the line perfectly between speech and song.
When The Band joins Dylan in the vocal, the song takes off. And The Band really provided the perfect accompaniment, since their sound grew out of Dylan’s entry into rock with this very song. Years earlier, on their ground-breaking tour of 1966, they had literally spit the lyrics at the audience on Dylan’s orders, after he was heckled and famously called “Judas” for going electric. (His famous rejoinder before kicking into the song in Forest Hills, NY: “I don’t believe you… You’re a LIAR.”)
But judge for yourself.
A later version—more than 30 years later, to be precise—of the song sounds more waltz-like as originally conceived, and Dylan’s anger has clearly mellowed with age. But how could it not? This performance was recorded on July 26, 1999, at Tramps in New York. Here the song also slowed down and Dylan moves the dividing line between singing and speaking decidedly more toward the former, his nasal tenor as prominent as ever.
A less staccato version is by Jimi Hendrix from 1968 at Winterland in San Francisco. Hendrix’s singing is spectacular and changes the mood entirely from anger to something more sad and regretful—soulful, even. Also notable is the obvious instrumental impact that Dylan had on some of the era’s great blues guitarists—which he was not. As on the original recording with Mike Bloomfield, Hendrix’s guitar part is jangly and arpeggiated, a new arrow in the quiver of blues-based guitar rock at the time.
Hendrix’s version is the longest in the Paste archives. That’s ironic because the coordinator of new releases at Columbia Records at the time, Shaun Considine, wrote in 2004 that the length of the original recording nearly prevented it from being a single. And the song’s release and ultimate popularity was, as Elvis Costello attested, central to its cultural impact and its ability to shape future artists.
Considine wrote that the executives said the song, at more than six minutes, was too long to be a single — and that they just didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan was a folk singer, after all. So he took it to a popular New York City club and played it for a crowd that went wild, barely recognizing it was Dylan. Radio personalities were in attendance and asked Columbia for it. The company released it as a two-sided single, cut in half, but the stations simply recorded it into one song as intended and played the full version. In the weeks ending both Sept. 4 and Sept. 11, 1965, “Like a Rolling Stone” landed at No. 2 on the singles charts behind The Beatles’ “Help!” The fact that singles were no longer limited in length liberated all musicians, and especially The Beatles, to eschew editing down their most consumable works.
The most enduring legacy of “Like a Rolling Stone,” though, is its punk ethos of not perpetually revisiting old, successful works but embarking in new creative directions and challenging the audience to follow. Bob Dylan did it not just with his revolutionary words, but also with his music.