With a sharp crack of the snare drum on 4, followed by the thump of the bass drum on the “and,” the drummer, Bobby Gregg, kicks off the third take of the day, June 16, 1965 in Columbia Records’ Studio A in New York City. The electric guitars, piano, organ and bass guitar fall into place on the 1, and play the two-chord riff once, twice, three, four times before the singer, Bob Dylan, hurls out the opening line: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine…” When the song reaches the chorus, with its “La Bamba”-esque chord progression, Dylan puts an extra push behind the first “How does it feel?” and then asks again: “How does it feel?”
Bob, on electric guitar, and the band of studio musicians (Mike Bloomfield, electric guitar; Paul Griffith, piano; Al Kooper, organ; Russ Savakus, bass guitar) had started working on the song the day before, at the end of a long session. For the first take on the 15th, they played the song as a waltz, in 3/4 time. The third and final take of that day was the only complete run through of the song. On the 16th, they did 9 takes including 6 complete run-throughs before listening back and realizing that the second complete take, take #3, was it. Columbia rush released the song as a single on July 20th. It became Dylan’s first #1 record.
In his 1971 book Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, Anthony Scaduto wrote: “When you heard Rolling Stone back then it was like a cataclysm, like being taken to the edge of the abyss, drawn to some guillotine of experience.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to this song, how many times I’ve put it on in the car and belted out those lyrics right along with Bob. But every time, every single time, it gets me. I get that rush, the thrill of being enveloped in perfection captured and sustained in six minutes and eleven seconds of music unlike any music before or since.
So, for you, what do you say? How does it feel?
There are two wonderful books that I turned to to get most of the background information for this post. Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions (1960-1994) by Clinton Heylin and Bob Dylan Complete Discography by Brian Hinton.
This song is one of rock ‘n roll’s definitive works. It is both timeless, yet it represents so much of the era from which it came. Maybe I’m wrong, too, but it’s one of those songs that you don’t hear being covered. Perfection needs no afterthoughts.
Al Kooper…. One of my all time favorites. Did you know that in recent years he was living in Somerville, teaching at Berkeley, before he had a stroke….? If you don’t have it, try to find his double cd “Soul of A Man”, recorded live at the now defunct Bottom Line in NY. He performs a number of great songs from his long portfolio. In addition to “Like A Rolling Stone”, did you know that he also played organ on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
A li’l trivia for ya, which you probably know already….