It was exactly 50 years ago today that Bob Dylan walked into Studio A at Columbia Records in New York and recorded “Like a Rolling Stone,” which we have called the single greatest song of all time. The track was on store shelves just a month later, where it shot to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 (held back only by the Beatles’ “Help!”) and influenced an entire new generation of rock stars. “That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” Bruce Springsteen said when he inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. “When I was 15 and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ I heard a guy who had the guts to take on the whole world and who made me feel like I had to too.”
Just one month before before recording “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan was in Europe wrapping up the solo acoustic tour chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back. The electric “Subterranean Homesick Blues” had been out for three months and was all over the radio, but his concerts were completely unplugged affairs and protest songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Times They Are-A Changin'” were still sprinkled into his set list. But somewhere on the tour, he began penning a long, free-form piece of writing he compared to “vomit.” [It was] just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred,” he said, “directed at some point that was honest.”
He headed back to Woodstock when the tour wrapped and continued to work on the piece. “The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ and ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988, “and when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much.” It’s a venomous song, but he’s never public revealed the inspiration, assuming it was even a single person. People have guessed that “Miss Lonely” is everyone from Edie Sedgwick to Marianne Faithfull or even Joan Baez, but the answer is almost certainly not that simple.
The song began to take shape on June 15th, 1965 when Dylan started work on Highway 61 Revisited with producer Tom Wilson, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, pianist Paul Griffin, drummer Bobby Gregg and bassist Joseph Macho. “I saw him at a few parties and then out of the clear-blue sky, he called me on the phone to cut a record,” Bloomfield told Rolling Stone in 1968. “So I bought a Fender, a really good guitar for the first time in my life, without a case, a Telecaster. . .I had never been on a professional, big-time session with studio musicians. I didn’t know anything. I liked the songs. If you had been there, you would have seen it was a very disorganized, weird scene. Since then I’ve played on millions of sessions and I realize how really weird that Dylan session was.”