So the first thing I guess I need to point out is that I always heard this song as Dylan singing to himself. All that taunting vitriol, all that sarcastic character-dissection, had himself as a subject. This was obvious to me from the first time I heard the song, back in high school, and this is the level on which I always related to the song.
I was shocked, when I first started reading Dylan bios and interpretations, to discover that not everybody heard the song that way. That some listeners took the "doll," the "Miss Lonely," the "Princess," the you, of the song to be a separate person from the speaker. That some listeners - aw, hell, probably most listeners - heard it as the singer telling somebody off. As if it's one big raspberry.
"And it's true sometimes you can see it that way," he wrote in another song. Occasionally I can listen to "Like A Rolling Stone" and hear all that hatred being directed outward. But more often I hear it directed inward. That's still the level on which I relate to the song. Which may say more about me than about the song. I'm okay with that.
For a long time I would listen to "Like A Rolling Stone" at significant turning points in my life, rites of passage, moments of high stress or disappointment or even achievement and triumph. This habit began in my freshman year of college, first weekend of fall semester, when I was, wouldn't you know it, all alone for the first time in my life; Friday evening, campus emptying out because everybody had gone home for the weekend, and there I was, all alone. I played "Like A Rolling Stone" (from a German version of Dylan's greatest hits that I had picked up at a thrift store in Annapolis: fantastic cover photo) over and over and over - until my mom came to pick me up to go home for the weekend. Aw, hell, I was only seventeen.
I was familiar with "Like A Rolling Stone" before then, but that was the first time I really knew it. In almost the Biblical sense of the word, if that's not too weird. I mean, I crawled inside that song, curled up, and wailed, right along with Al Kooper's organ, Mike Bloomfield's guitar, and Dylan's voice.
At the time I fancied myself a Beat existentialist and what I heard in that record was an affirmation of the fundamental solitariness of each and every one of us, and therefore our equality, in the face of a vast unfeeling what-the-fuck-is-it?, and so the only honest reaction is to be Beat, to be humble, street-wise, cognizant of the truth of the freak and the freakishness of the truth. "When you ain't got nothing you got nothing to lose / you're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."
And so I would listen to it whenever I felt I needed to be reminded of these home truths. When I got dumped by a girlfriend or turned down for a date (I swear I still didn't hear the song as a put-down), or conversely when I had a date and needed to psyche myself down for it; when I was starting a new semester, a new class, a new job; any turning point. Bad or good, because you can never tell which it's going to be.
Here's the thing: this habit continued even after I stopped fancying myself a Beat existentialist and started fancying myself a Believer. Because even as a Believer I was always something of an existentialist. God may be there, or even everywhere, but even so, on some level, even if it's just a whiny emotional level, you're still all alone, a complete unknown, a rolling stone. At least it can feel like that, and it's cathartic and healthy, I always felt, to acknowledge that feeling, remind yourself of that home truth, even if it's only a prelude to getting on your knees and begging for some break in your solitude. You know, figure out where you're at before you try to get somewhere else.
For example, the day I graduated from college, which happened at perhaps the height of my religiosity, I went back to my apartment after commencement and played every version I had of "Like A Rolling Stone" back to back. (At that point this probably meant: the original version, the Self Portrait version, the Before The Flood version, the Budokan version, and the Unplugged version. Now it would mean at least a couple dozen renditions.) Why? Graduation should be a joyous, happy day, full of friends and relatives. And it was. But hey: very few joys are unalloyed, and this one came with a lot of anxiety about the future, and anxiety makes you feel isolated. Like a complete unknown. Who really knows you?
I got my PhD today. Walked across the stage, shook a bunch of hands, and got a piece of paper that says something in Latin about what I've done.
I came home and listened to the Budokan (live '78) version of "Like A Rolling Stone."
Curiously, I had fallen out of the habit of marking every life change with a territorial spraying of "Like A Rolling Stone." But today I had to.
I mean, there I sat, in the old wood-paneled theater with big marble statues looking down at me, and under them a phalanx of professors clothed in the robes of the false priesthood (to steal a phrase from an old professor of mine), and to either side of me people I should know, because we've been in the same department for years and years, but who I don't know at all, and I've "gone to the finest school all right" but the future is uncertain to say the least, and I'm "going to have to get used to it," and nobody's "selling any alibis," and on and on and on. What else could I do but go home and listen to "Like A Rolling Stone"? Time to make a deal.
Why the Budokan version?
Two reasons. One in me and one in the song, although both are both.
First, the Japan connection. When I first lived in Tokyo, rock fan that I was I put on my walkman one day and took a walk (man) down to the Budokan. Pilgrimage. I was listening to Bob Dylan At Budokan that day, and the Vegas vibe of that album made sense in a way it never had before.
Standing there in downtown Tokyo, not knowing Japanese (I hadn't started studying the language yet), as an American you can feel completely and totally cut off from everything that you know, everything that you consider a home truth, everything that helps you make sense of the world. The mental and spiritual underpinnings of where you are seem utterly different from where you came from; nothing means what it should, if it means anything at all.
So why not jettison all the folk-blues-rock-confessional-acoustic-electric "authenticity" of your oeuvre in favor of a slick big-band jazz-soul-rock-gospel presentation of it? I mean, that makes sense. Why not replace Bloomfield's screaming guitar fills with greasy fake sax fills? Isn't authenticity just a rhetorical pose anyway? Even if it isn't it's always in danger of becoming one, and so why not scare it a bit by surrounding it with nifty conga drums and some backing singers? Wake it up, make it sing for its life?
The second thing is that in the Budokan version Dylan makes musically explicit (he doesn't change the words) something that's only hinted at in the original: the triumphal potential of the lyric. He changes the melody so that his voice goes up at the end of each line, and just for good measure he adds a gospel chorus to the refrain. Message: it can be a good thing to realize you're all alone like a complete unknown etc. It can be liberating. The song doesn't have to be a complaint or even just a bracing slap in the face: it can be a hymn. That's what it means when a couple hundred Japanese (!) fans rush the stage in Tokyo's International Forum in 1997 (I was there) and sing along to the song. Know thyself, you know?
Embracing alienation: that's what the Budokan '78 version of this song is about.