When it first came out in 1965, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ moved, shocked and inspired people all over the world. It stirred Dylan’s career in a new direction at a time when it was most needed, after he’d grown disillusioned with the expectations of his fans and the music business. And it’s even said to have broadened the idea of what rock ‘n’ roll is.
The song marks Dylan’s departure from acoustic folk music and his move towards a more electric sound, which many of his fans didn’t welcome at the time. When he performed ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ live for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, some in the audience famously booed and demanded he got rid of his electric guitar.
Lyrically, it was also considered unusual. In the mid-60s, most big hits were lighthearted love songs – a tradition ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ broke with its cynical tone and themes of resentment and contempt. Although it’s unlikely that Dylan addresses a specific person, “Miss Lonely” is often regarded to be Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, with whom he had a brief relationship. However, it’s more likely that it references all the young people of the 60s who rejected their bourgeois upbringing and chose a hippy lifestyle instead. It could also be interpreted as Dylan’s conversation with himself.
Musicians of several generations have cited the single as an influence. One of the most notable praises came from Bruce Springsteen, who heard it for the first time at the age of 15. When he inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, he talked about the importance of the song to him and its significance in music history: “Dylan was a revolutionary – the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve.”
According to music journalist Paul Williams, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ helped Dylan become “a public symbol of the vast cultural, political, generational changes taking place in the United States and Europe. He was perceived as, and in many ways functioned as, a leader.”
Although the record company expressed concerns about the track’s excessive 6-minute length, it became Dylan’s most commercially successful single. It stayed on the US charts for 12 weeks and peaked at number two on Billboard’s Hot 100. Rolling Stone magazine, which itself is named party after the song, has placed it as number one on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
On 24th June 2014, the original hand-written lyrics were sold for $2 million at an auction at Sotheby’s in New York. When Dylan penned those words at the age of 24, he probably wouldn’t have thought in his wildest dreams that someone would one day pay that kind of sum for the work of his hands. But he probably wouldn’t even have allowed it to be sold back then, having rebelled against the status quo and the rule of capitalism.