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.”
The session began with many run-throughs of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (then called “Phantom Engineer”) and “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence,” though they didn’t get a single usable take of the first song and ultimately scrapped the second one. Near the end of the day Dylan played a rough, slow version of “Like a Rolling Stone” for the band, which you can hear on the first volume of The Bootleg Series. The session ended just as the the band was beginning to wrap their heads around the tune. (This same exact day, Wilson and some of the musicians from the Dylan session took Simon and Garfunkel’s acoustic rendition of “The Sound of Silence” and added electric instrumentation, giving them their first big hit.)
Tom Wilson invited Al Kooper to stop by the next day’s session simply to watch, but he had far bigger plans. “Taking no chances, I arrived an hour early and well enough ahead of the crowd to establish my cover,” he wrote in his 1998 book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. “I walked into the studio with my guitar case, unpacked, tuned up, plugged in, and sat there trying my hardest to look like I belonged.” Soon enough, Bloomfield walked in and began practicing. “[He] commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I’d ever heard,” Kooper wrote. “And he was just warming up! I was in over my head. I embarrassedly unplugged, packed up, went into the control room, and sat there pretending to be a reporter from Sing Out! magazine.”
With Kooper in the control room, the same group from the previous day launched into “Like a Rolling Stone,” though with Paul Griffin moving from organ to piano. Kooper knew so little about the organ that he didn’t even know how to turn it on, but he was desperate to play on a Dylan song and when a distracted Wilson didn’t give him a firm “no” he walked into the studio, sat down at the instrument and was delighted to see Griffin hadn’t turned it off. “Imagine this,” Kooper wrote in his book. “There is no music to read. The song is over five minutes long, the band is so loud I can’t even hear the organ, and I’m not familiar with the instrument to begin with. But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something.”
Wilson may have been shocked when he saw what was happening, but Dylan dug Kooper’s sound and asked for the organ to be turned up. “You can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band before committing myself to play in the verses,” Kooper wrote. “I’m always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys.” The unique style of playing not only gave the song a signature component, but it also introduced Dylan to a musical collaborator he would return to time and time again in the coming years.
The fourth take of the song on June 16th is the version that was ultimately released, but the group played it another 11 times. “They were all unusable because they were too fast,” Kooper told Rolling Stone in an unpublished 2012 interview. “I don’t even know how he could sing that fast. There’s a lot of words to put in. I have a copy of the complete session, and no take comes near the [master] take.”
The song hit shelves on July 20th, just days before the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan played the song live as part of his first-ever electric set, which is a well-worn story that’s been the subject of entire books. At the end of the month Dylan returned to Studio A to finish Highway 61 Revisited, though he dumped Tom Wilson for new producer Bob Johnston. They wrapped it up on August 6th, which marked the final time that Dylan recorded with Mike Bloomfield, though in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone Dylan picked him as the best guitarist he’d ever worked with. “The guy that I always miss, and I think he’d still be around if he stayed with me, actually, was Mike Bloomfield,” he said. “He could just flat-out play. He had so much soul. And he knew all the styles, and he could play them so incredibly well.”
Columbia didn’t have high hopes for “Like a Rolling Stone” since it was six minutes long and so unlike Dylan’s previous work, but it became the single biggest hit of his career. It upset a lot of traditional folkies in the process, but it turned Dylan into a rock star at the exact moment that the folk music scene was fading. He ended every single show on his legendary 1965/66 world tour with the Hawks with the song, and he’s now done it a total of 2,024 times, second only to “All Along the Watchtower.” (Oddly enough, he hasn’t played it a single time since late 2013.) Last year, the handwritten lyrics sold for over $2 million, nearly double the original estimate.