“Like A Rolling Stone” (1965)


Dylan asks many questions in his songs, the interrogative mood pervades but sometimes is used as a disguise for flat out interrogation.  Even when he tells us where the answer is, as in “blowin in the wind,” we’re implicated as accomplices for the answer always being out of reach.  But sometimes the question is aimed more specifically at a person, a character in the song; isn’t that right Mr. Jones? (Do you, Mr. Jones), or to the women in “Is Your Love in Vain” and “What Was It You Wanted,” or the male in “Positively Fourth Street” who is asked several  questions that could make anyone’s skin crawl, one being “Do you take me for such a fool?” But no song asks as penetrating a question as the one that dominates the chorus in “Like A Rolling Stone,” “How does it feel?”

Christopher Ricks has added up the “you’s” used in the song, almost 30, and in the last verse, 8.  The attack on the recipient of abuse (deserved or not) is unrelenting.  I used to think this was a song with Dylan playing his pronoun shifting game, the “you” being “I”; in other words, he was asking these questions of himself.  But I see it now as a story of a former prima donna whose world of privilege, affluence, and entitlement has collapsed, and the speaker is thrilled to mock her new found rock bottom status and see it as deserved and an opportunity to revenge her treatment of him and/or others in the form of song.

But, in the 1960’s, the question burst out of the context of the song.  “How does it feel?” is a question for a generation, maybe everyone’s since; it is a question with so much visceral power in it that it forces self-examination, exploration, and reflection.  And the answer may not be a negative one.  In Dylan’s Vision of Sin, Ricks studies the evolution of the “a rolling stone gathers no  moss” parable.  In agrarian societies, the answer to “how does it feel to be on your own,” should be negative; moss implies roots, staying put meant one keeping to responsibility and remaining dependable. It’s also where the money was earned and available.  In the 60’s, however, the answer may be positive; to be on one’s own was a goal …a dream; forging out on one’s own meant releasing the shackles of others’ expectations, striking out against social norms, and breaking toxic ties that bind with dehumanizing impact.  The auditor in this song may not feel that way now, but perhaps in time being on her own and far away from the life she knew might be reaffirming, as in the Willa Cather phrase, “the road is all, the end is nothing.”

How does any of this interpreting relate to the rhymes in the song? Well, I see stones with moss and others with none; in other words I see patterns that maintain a certain structure, no departures, no striking out against the rhyming  norms and even expectations of the song.  Each 9 line (no changes in that) verse’s rhyming pattern is a/b/c/b/d/d/d/d/e.  And each of the “b” rhymes are echo rhymes, merely repeated words, except for the last verse where “made” rhymes with “babe,” making the verse, on its own, so to speak (sing?).  Likewise the famous bridge with the “How does it feel question, remains the same, sung 4 times,

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

but with one exception.  The first time Dylan sings it the “With no direction home” is absent. That version of the bridge is on its own.

Finally, the 4 verses are united by the “e” rhymes that end each one; the rhyming words are “meal,” “deal,” “steal,” and “conceal.”  The ending of every verse has its own “e” sound, unique to each, but not exactly when each part of the whole is taken into account.  Dylan’s use of melisma to stretch out the syllable “eeeeeeeee” sound forces the listener to hear the reverberating power of the each verse’s contribution to the ultimate question, “How does it feeeeeeeeeel?” Each verse feels like a rolling stone with no moss, but together, the moss, for good or bad, has taken root through the whole song.

Here’s Dylan sing it with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during their Australian tour in 1986.




Project 359