Dylan, “Rolling Stone”, And The Accidental Genius
I have been listening to the “Like A Rolling Stone” over the past few days, 20 takes on the classic song that everybody now feels happened almost by accident. Genius by deflection. Well, if you shoot somebody once it might be by accident, if you shoot em 50 times the chances are excellent it is on purpose.
I am sure that isn’t exactly what Greil Marcus (the bloated blowhard of rock critics) meant when he claimed Dylan and his band came up with the final version by accident… but what did he mean? If you are going to romance something beyond recognition, by all means let it be “Like A Rolling Stone” but if you are going to claim he didn’t have the song down, and indeed, might have never released it at all, show some proof.
The earliest rehearsals on Album Four of XII, the “Like A Rolling Stone” sessions, are harp takes, and it is already there. An instrumental on the harp and the heart of the song is in place. IN TRACK ONE. It already had that swing.
By Take Four the song is done, everything else is fixing it up, making it perfect. Does anybody who listens to “Take 4” believe for a second Dylan doesn’t have the song in place? Why? Because Dylan doesn’t move up an octave on the chorus?
The lyric, one of his greatest, is already there from the first time he sings it in rehearsal… where did he write it? He certainly WASN’T finding his way through the words in the lyrics, he already he had it down, it was done.
Did the song finally get somewhere special? Absolutely. On “Track 5” you can hear him stretch that “feeeel” for the first time. Fabulous. But so what? That’s why you rehearse, to get it right. You don’t rehearse to create, you rehearse to perfect. It was in place in Dylan’s head, not perfect, not what it would end up, and I am certainly overjoyed to have the evolution of one of the greatest songs ever. But what it isn’t is what Greil Marcus is claiming it is, it isn’t random, it might not not have happened. It had to happen once Dylan wrote the song, he knew what he had. Why would he have dumped it? He heard it in his mind’s eye, and he had his band search until he found it. And even if he didn’t, how bad is even the worst version here?
None of what happens is “accidental” in any really sense: the genius, the accident of creation if you like, occurs earlier. It occurs somewhere with someone that happens, and then the glimmer of a word or a sound, or with a guitar on your lap, playing an Everly Brother’s song and watching it evolve into something else entirely.
Just because Marcus decided it happens in the studio doesn’t make it so. “Like A Rolling Stone” is genius, but it is considered genius.