Ever have a great run of great ideas — one after another?
Bob Dylan did. In a span of 14 months — from January 1965 through March 1966 — Dylan created three classic albums in a row: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. As you might imagine in such a flurry of activity, a lot of ideas never made it out of the studio.
This week that stockpile of rehearsal audio, studio chatter and alternate versions of songs is being released for the first time. It fills six CDs (and an interactive website) in a set titled The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12. NPR’s Don Gonyea is a big Dylan fan — and out of all that material, he zeroed in on one song and its surprising evolution.
I don’t recall the first time I ever heard “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was probably a kid in Michigan with my transistor tuned to AM radio powerhouse CKLW, not long after the song came out 50 years ago.
There’s that opening drum beat. Then the organ. Then that voice. But this is no once-upon-a-time fairy tale: There’s imagery and vitriol in the lyrics, a take-no-prisoners toughness to the sound. Now, with all of these previously unreleased tracks, we get to join Dylan and the studio musicians from his first fumbling attempts to nail the track. They worked on “Like a Rolling Stone” over two days in June of 1965 at Columbia Records’ Studio A in a New York City.
They first attempted the song as a waltz. How does it feel? Well, it feels wrong: Dylan’s voice breaks, and he’s unsure of the words. Al Kooper was one of the musicians at that session — and when I invited him to come by NPR to listen through the alternate takes, he heard this one and immediately started shaking his head.
“The concept of a waltz — it’s a ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that I don’t think suits the lyric he was trying to express,” Kooper says.
After struggling to make the words fit a time signature that won’t yield, the crew calls it a day. Overnight, a decision is made: Play it in 4/4.
They try it the next day, and it’s immediately better – but it’s still missing something. That’s when Al Kooper, who was on hand to play guitar, slips over to the Hammond organ and starts noodling.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Kooper says. “And I was a lucky lad that day.”
Clearly, Kooper says, there was pressure in the studio. Not only was Dylan was taking his craft to a new, noisier, more complex place, he was giving the musicians basically zero guidance about how to keep up. And yet, Kooper says first time they played the song all the way through with the new arrangement, there atmosphere in the room changed. Producer Tom Wilson called them into the control room to listen back to it.
“And about a minute into it,” Kooper recalls, “Dylan said to Tom Wilson, ‘Turn the organ up. Tom said, ‘That guy’s not an organ player.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care. Turn the organ up.’ And that was the moment that I became an organ player.”
As we learn from hearing these newly released cuts, Dylan didn’t yet know he’d nailed it. So he keeps going, playing it over and over, faster and faster. They did take after take, but nothing matched that first full version of the song. There’s a looseness to it. Sure, it isn’t perfect — but it’s right.
All of the effort that went into this has been tucked away for 50 years. Now, we all get to hear how they got there: genius, craft, trial and error, dead ends, and the path to a piece of brilliant music history.
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