Searching back through the greatest hits of all time in music, we cannot spare Bob Dylan and his contribution to music. In this article we are attempting to understand the meaning behind one of the most acclaimed songs of all time “Like A Rolling Stone” written and sung by Bob Dylan. The single was released back in 1965 as part of his album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. The track was produced by Tom Wilson.
“Like A Rolling Stone” to-date is considered one of the most influential songs of all time-across all genres. The song marked a shift in Bob Dylan’s genres-from folk music to rock. A star was re-born and an eternal piece of music was written.
As many critics believe, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a page directly out of Bob Dylan’s life. It is a song written about one of his ex-girlfriends. However, this isn’t your self pitying, wishing all the best, I’m happy for you, live happily ever after even though you are with someone else-kinda song. “Like A Rolling Stone” serves some hot soup to the intended party-no mercy is shown in the lyrics. In an interview Bob Dylan said the following about the song;
“It was ten pages long. It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, “How does it feel?” in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion…”
Listen to “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan – “Like A Rolling Stone” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Verse 1 begins with right at the center of the song.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall.”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
Bob Dylan wants to convey a message with this song and he is not to waste anyone’s time. He’s right on top of it from the very first line.
Bob Dylan describes about someone’s exuberant lifestyle in the past-when they had it all. When you are doing so fine, you often tend to lose track of what’s important. You crave for more and sometimes you step off the rails. Bob Dylan’s ex-girlfriend had a glorious life-dated all the stars-had enough money to throw away. Notice how Bob Dylan says that she ‘threw money’ at the poor, as opposed to ‘giving money’. There’s a huge difference and those little words give “Like A Rolling Stone” a whole new light.
It’s not like the people around her tried to warn that she was on a destructive path. But she thought they were all just kidding around.
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
She had been a wild spirit. ‘Hanging out’ is a toned down way of saying she was with other men-a lot of them. She had her fun while she was rich and young and beautiful.
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
Now her voice is a bare whisper-which used to be loud commands. Now she has her head held down-which used to be chin-up and swollen with pride. She has fallen so down that she has to beg for her next meal. Yup, Bob Dylan spares no empathy in these lyrics from “Like A Rolling Stone.”
The chorus of the song is no better for the past girlfriend;
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without a home?
Like a complete unknown?
Like a rolling stone?
Bob Dylan keeps on asking how does it feel, now that she has been stripped down to the gutters. She has no home and nobody knows her name-all of which she used to have aplenty and be very proud of.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss” is a popular quote in western culture. It means the people who are always on the go have no commitments to anything. They don’t stagnate in one place. They move, change and evolve. The ex-gf failed to grab on to anything. She let the riches flow her away-and flow away they did her to the gutter. And looking back, she has no roots to hold on to.
Verse 2 kicks in;
Aw, you’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
She went to the best school in the area, probably through her riches. But she was a loner there. Because she would not let anyone into her status. “Juiced” is slang for drinking. So looks like Miss Lonely partied it up-and even still she had no friends.
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
School makes you book-smart. People and society makes you street-smart. She did not associate people below her class and stature. But now that all her fortunes are washed away, she has to make the streets her home, and it’s going to be a real struggle as she has no clue how things are on the street level. Just being book-smart on the streets would probably get you killed.
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say, “Do you want to make a deal?”
She doesn’t want off of her high horse, but it’s time to look at the reality of things. That tramp stamp on your back is a sure sign that she has succumbed to prostitution (Bob’s real ex-gf didn’t go into prostitution-it’s just that Dylan thinks she might as well have). The rest of the lines describe her being a prostitute. The man who has paid for her ‘services’ is not here to help her. It’s just a fun time for him. He obviously has emotionless-eyes, why? because his wife is at home. This girls is just a steam blower. Even still, Dylan’s ex-gf wants to trap that man. She is asking if he wants to make a deal-probably sex for drugs. It was well known that Bob Dylan’s ex suffered a severe drug problem.
Chorus 2 has slightly varied lyrics from chorus 1.
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Bob Dylan asks the same question about being homeless in a different tune, just to keep things interesting in “Like A Rolling Stone” track.
Verse 4 of “Like A Rolling Stone” has a much less offensive lyric line-up.
Aw, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns
When they all did tricks for you
Never understood that it ain’t no good
People threw themselves at her. And the sad part is she accepted them as well. Bob Dylan refers to these men as ‘juggler and clowns’ who are people who perform to entertain other people. They trick you as a profession and Dylan perfectly relates this to her situation. She got tricked by people showing her fame and fortune. But they had frowns on their faces, if she had cared to take a second look at them.
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
The tricksters won her heart by buying her things. And she believed that was the world. But looks and interests fade and only then the reality hits.
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
If you want a name for this woman “Like A Rolling Stone” had been describing about, Bob Dylan offers you some hints.
A chrome horse is a subtle reference to silver coloured car of the man she ran away with. And Siamese cat is really a Siamese cat. Look at the famous picture of Andy Warhol below and link the dots.
And it is also a well known fact that Andy Warhol dated Edie Palmer-a former girlfriend of Bob Dyaln’s. Edie Palmer died a drug addict and a beggar.
Let’s go back to calling this person ‘she’.
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal?
Bob Dylan gives a slap across this woman saying that it must have been hard to discover that the guy whom she left Bob Dylan for, was not really into her in a loving way. He was in it for the thrill as well. He stole everything she could lose-her youth and her beauty. After that she was scrap and the ‘boyfriend’ upped and left.
The chorus 2 repeats and we enter to the final verse of “Like A Rolling Stone”.
Aw, princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re all drinking, thinking that they’ve got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
She was the crown of the high class society. Everybody of her class admired her and worshiped her. All the time these people were drinking wine and enjoying their luxuries, thinking that they are set for life. Often they exchanged gifts as well-probably gems and silks and precious wines.
But you’d better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it, babe
But now, the things have changed. Those high class friends are no more and she has to pawn the jewelry she is wearing to buy food for her next meal on the streets.
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
‘Napoleon in rags’ is yet another undercut made at Andy Warhol, who built his image as a struggling painter/artist. But in contrast he was wealthy and powerful-the qualities that attracted Edie Palmer.
Bob Dylan chases her away to the man she left him for. What good is she now? Also Dylan says that the ‘qualities’ of a man she can’t turn down are ‘wealth and power’. However, Bob Dylan became the biggest hit of the era and Andy disappeared into nothingness. Now that Bob Dylan has fame and fortune, there is no place for the ex at his side.
When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
When she has nothing for herself, there’s nothing to lose. You are already lost. She and her lover are both less than specks of dust in the world of Bob Dylan’s.
Bob Dylan has basically told her entire story, so there’s nothing to be hidden anymore.
And so concludes that amazing piece of lyrical work by Bob Dylan. “Like A Rolling Stone” may be a ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ kinda song, but the artist has done it so artistically and enthusiastically that we can’t help but love it. Jammed in with rock music and high energy vocals by Bob Dylan, we almost don’t feel as if “Like A Rolling Stone” is a personal confession of a deep cut wound of the artist.
“Like A Rolling Stone” is not only a genre-defining timeless cultural sensation, but also a cleverly written personal memoir. We have to thank the great Bob Dylan for creating such masterpieces.
Like many great lyrical works “Like A Rolling Stone” can be interpreted in other ways as well. If you have any different ideas about this track means, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.