- Original working autograph manuscript of “Like A Rolling Stone” - the final draft lyrics as recorded [June, 1965].
The Present owner
This lot is accompanied by a letter from Dylan manager Jeff Rosen, detailing its provenance.
Doggett, Peter. Are You Ready for the Country. New York, 2001
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles Volume 1. New York, 2004.
Heylin, Clinton. Revolution in the Air the Songs of Bob Dylan. 1957-1973. New York, 2009.
Marcus, Greil. Like a Rolling Stone Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. New York, 2005.
Polizzotti, Mark. Highway 61 Revisited. New York, 2013. [No. 35 33 1/3 Series].
Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway The Life of Bob Dylan. New York, 2011.
"The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs" rollingstone.com
“I was in the car with my mother, listening to WMCA and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind.” (Bruce Springsteen).
“It’s a black eye of a pop song… [it] cracks open songwriting for a generation” (Bono)
The most significant rock manuscript to be offered at auction
Beginning with what cultural critic Greil Marcus called “a drum beat like a pistol shot,” Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was a colossal turning point, music that left the performer and his listeners changed in its aftermath. It took just six minutes of electric bravado to change the protest singer into a rock icon, six minutes to reclaim the record charts from the British Invasion and treacle sweet 2 minute pop songs focused on love. The lyrics were in fact somehow the opposite of romance, a personal vitriol that didn’t overtly address current events (much to the bewilderment of the folk crowd – though it could be argued that when he sang “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” Dylan reflected what was really going on more so than his “The Times they are a Changing” did just a few years before). Elvis Costello recalled the impact of hearing Dylan’s new direction when he was just a lad, “What a shocking thing to live in a world where there was Manfred Mann and the Supremes and Engelbert Humperdinck and here comes ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”
Where it came from was an artist that felt at a creative dead end, tired of repeating the same songs for like crowds that expected the familiar voice of protest each time. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England on his last purely acoustic tour. The performer on that tour, captured by documentarian DA Pennebaker in the film Dont Look Back, was bored, nastily unhappy to be going through the motions again. “I was very drained. I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing…. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”
The present song, perhaps even begun on the return flight from that depressing tour of England, provided a musical reinvigoration. Dylan recalled in 1966, “If you’re talking about what breakthrough is for me, I would have to say, speaking totally, ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”
“I wrote that after I had quit. I’d literally quit singing and playing, and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.” This twenty page creative outpouring suggests getting closer to the new style he had alluded to in early 1965, “songs which are… a long continuation of verses.” It also suggests the deep and acknowledged impact of the Beats on the author - the influence of Kerouac’s uninterrupted scroll of prose for On the Road and Ginsberg’s Howl. (You can buy copies of Kerouac’s novel from Dylan’s website today, alongside Rimbaud’s poetry).
Of course the twenty pages wasn’t yet a song. Dylan has talked about “boiling it down” while trying it out on the piano. He also remarked that he “always heard it with a band” (and not a folk acoustic group either, he too was listening to the Stones and Beatles and had played in garage bands as a kid). In an interview from 1966, and after the guesses had begun about to just who all this ire with a fairytale opening (“once upon a time”) was directed, he recalled its composition and subject:
“…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…. I 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… It was like… in your eyesight you see your victim swimming in lava… in the pain they were bound to meet up with. I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight.”
That it took considerable work to get it “straight,” is evident from the heavily edited manuscript offered here. Chicago blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield was summoned to Dylan’s Woodstock home in early June so that Dylan could teach him the song. But what Dylan had in mind was not just a song, but a statement of intent. “Like a Rolling Stone” was to be a single and not an album track. This was music for radios and jukeboxes and the widest possible audience at a time when the 45 record was the medium.
The early work with Bloomfield aside, Dylan had a fluid method of capturing the sound he had in mind, a style that continued for much of his incredibly fertile mid to late Sixties period. In describing the Nashville Skyline sessions, journalist Peter Doggett noted “…Dylan was spewing out screeds of words on to hotel notepaper. Then he’d seclude himself in a back room….translating his visions into the skeleton of songs.” Whereas Dylan was capable of getting what he wanted from a song in a one or two takes, as the studio logs for Highway 61 attest, “Like a Rolling Stone” took 15 attempts over June 15-16. Discarded takes include Dylan at the piano and with the backing musicians playing it in waltz time. It wasn’t until the second day that it finally really worked, the music having been transformed by the backing musicians in unforeseen ways.
That famous organ line slightly behind the beat? It was unplanned, the result of Al Kooper sheepishly switching from guitar to an instrument he was unfamiliar with after hearing Bloomfield’s virtuoso telecaster playing. Dylan famously overruled producer Tom Wilson in order to leave in Kooper’s “fumbling” (“Don’t tell me who’s an organ player, man.”) and one now can’t imagine the song without it. Dylan was certainly searching for something, he had the band play the song through a few times even after the take that was eventually used was recorded. It wasn’t until listening to all the playbacks in the control room that it was realized on which one they had nailed it. (In one take, Dylan sings “threw the dumbs a dime” rather than “bums” and likely more mistake than lyric edit, but then again the offered manuscript does suggest the possibility of last minute changes).
Perhaps the lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” were largely finished before Dylan walked into Columbia studio A , but just as he changed the music in the studio setting, it is likely he did so with some of the words too, until eventually what emerged were the final lyrics as drafted here and recorded.
Dylan biographer and music historian Clinton Heylin, has made a careful review of the lyric edits, as well the extensive marginalia in the offered manuscript. Some of his insights are below:
“In the first verse, he almost goes with ‘Everybody that was down and out’, before scratching it out and writing (and underlining) ‘hanging out’. Likewise, he toys with rhyming ‘talk so loud’ with ‘head in the cloud’, but goes with ‘seem so proud’ instead… he brackets ‘(road back home)’ after ‘direction’, still not sure he wants to go with ‘no direction home’.
The first page also has its fair share of (unmistakeably Dylanesque) doodles – a pair of goggles, a chicken, a hat, a deer’s head(?) – as well as three unrelated song-titles: ‘False Knight On The Road’, otherwise known as Child Ballad #3, a 16th century Scottish ballad; ‘Pony Blues’, a Charley Patton track Dylan later took as a template for the 1978 song, ‘New Pony’; and ‘Midnight Special’, the traditional song most famously covered by Lead Belly…
The second page – and the second verse (each page being devoted to a single verse) – continues with the doodles and the song-titles in the margin, ‘Butcher Boy’ being a song that Dylan and Baez used to sing together (sometimes known as ‘Died For Love’). Another ‘song title’, ‘Little Mary & The Little Green Man’ smacks more of a possible Dylan song-title (a la ‘Queen Jane’) than some other songwriter’s work. It certainly has no equivalent in the folk pantheon.
Altogether more interesting is an alternate to part of the second verse, again written at 90 degrees, in the margin, and therefore perhaps an afterthought, one he ultimately rejected: ‘You never listened to the man who could jump jive and wail/ Never believed him when he told you he had love for sale ... now he looks into your eyes and says, do you want to make a deal?’
The third page/verse has perhaps the most crossing outs and the least amount of doodles, though again many of the little interjections seem to be there for amusement, not as seriously-considered alternatives. Thus, at the top of the page he writes, ‘How Does It Feel/ Behind The Wheel’ but does nothing more with the idea – at least not right away. But then at the bottom of the page, he riffs on the idea, ‘How Does It Feel/ It Feels Real/ Does It Feel Real/ Shut up And Deal/ Get Down and Kneel.’ Also in the margin, but not side on, are lines that again hint of another lost song: ‘Stranded on the shore/ A hundred or more/ You crossed over the ???? mountains...’, which is then crossed out, and beneath them is the line, ‘Have you seen that Vigilante Man?’, the opening line of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Vigilante Man’.
Despite the many crossings-out, though, the third verse is pretty much intact on the third page. He toys with an alternate image to ‘and did tricks for you’, the slightly odd ‘and shake the money tree’, but struggles to find a rhyme and ends up repeating the original rhyme (‘kicks for you’),…
Finally, comes page four, the final verse of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and in keeping with a number of important Dylan songs (like ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Chimes of Freedom’), it is this verse that has more changes than any of the preceding ones, as if he doesn’t feel he has quite got it down. The doodles and the marginilia are largely gone save for a ref. to ‘Lomax 161 West 4th’, presumably the folklorist Alan Lomax was having a party there…
Some of the changes are also left uncorrected/crossed out. Thus, in the final chorus, Dylan goes with, ‘Baby, you got a lot to lose,’ then beneath it writes, ‘When you got nothing you got nothing to lose.’ However, he does not delete the former. Likewise, he has the disjointed line, ‘You used to clown around with Jackhoman[?] John in Lonesome Town’ which he drops entirely, going with, ‘You used to be so amused at Napoleon in Rags,’ but again leaving the former line alone. (The rejected line appears to reference to two r&b standards, ‘Lonesome Town’ and ‘Brother John’, and may again be put there for his own amusement.) The additional line in the chorus, ‘Like a dog without a bone’ also goes unchallenged, though it is used twice, only to be replaced first with ‘Now you’re unknown’ and then ‘complete unknown’.
He also seems to be struggling with the first half of the final verse, which he always did in concert, blowing the third line at the first live performance at Newport, forgetting part of it at the Isle of Wight in 1969 and changing lines 3-4 in Writings & Drawings (1973), so that they now read: ‘Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things/ But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe.’ What he sings in the studio, though, is ‘Exchanging all precious gifts/ You’d better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe.’ The present manuscript is different again: ‘All kinds of precious gifts and pretty things/ You better take your diamond rings, you better pawn ‘em, babe.’
Elegant kiss off, cautionary tale or ultimate liberation, the song was almost never released as a single. At six minutes, virtually unheard of for a 45, it provided headaches technical (how to get that much music into the grooves) financial (a two sided single meant less money in the juke box) and with marketing (this new sound was not Dylan as lone strummer).
Fortunately a Columbia exec tried out a test pressing in a nightclub. Once they heard it, the patrons requested it all night until the acetate broke, having simply been played to death. A disc jockey who heard it demanded copies from Columbia the next day, desperate to get it on the radio. The label relented and issued it on July 20. It hit the charts almost instantly, staying there for 3 months, smashing the previous 3 minute standard for hit songs and eventually climbing up to number 2. only The Beatles song “Help!” kept it from number 1.
Dylan’s biggest hit to that point didn’t please the folk crowd. Their prophet had fallen in the gutter. No longer was Dylan asking for “senators and congressmen to please heed the call” but rather, as Bloomfield called it, this was music for "greasers, heads, dancers, people who got drunk and boogied." The boos, catcalls and confused rage directed at its first live performance at Newport on July 25 has become legendary. (Pete Seeger famously remarked about wanting to cut the cord to Dylan’s guitar if he had an axe.)
But Dylan was far from backing down or apologizing for this new sound. His 1966 tour of England included an acoustic first set, but he closed electric, backed by most of The Hawks (later The Band), a group he had hand-picked for their deep skills with every strain of rock and roll and R&B. They had spent years in blood on the floor juke joints and tonks, folkies they were not. Each concert saw varying degrees of hostility to his new direction, but he closed with “Like a Rolling Stone” every time. It was the song he wanted to leave his audience with, determined to demonstrate he had “no direction home” to his safer folk past. His sneering delivery of “How does it feeel” only grew more intense as half the crowd sang along while the rest screamed abuse. It was a sneer it took the world ten years to catch up to, only to hear something like it again in 1976 when Johnny Rotten stretched out the “anarchy” on another single that changed everything. (And what was that song really, but another riff on “when you got nothing / you got nothing to lose?”)
While the manuscript provides remarkable insight into Dylan’s creative process, it leaves unanswered the question that has intrigued Dylanologists and casual listeners alike. Namely, who angered him enough to deserve this “black eye of a pop song?” Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick and Marianne Faithful and Bob Neuwirth have all been named as possibilities. Dylan of course helpfully mentioned that, “Sometimes the you in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else…. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who.”
Who “Miss Lonely” might be seems to matter less when one considers that many see the song as ultimately positive, a joyful breaking from the past, the freedom of having “no secrets to conceal.” In complete loss there can be exhilaration. As Jann Wenner remarked, “Everything has been stripped away. You’re on your own, you’re free now…. And you’re invisible – you’ve got no secrets – that’s so liberating. You’ve nothing to fear anymore.”
Other extant drafts:
An eight line early working draft lyric written on the back of an envelope resides in an important private collection
A five line quotation of the chorus, signed and dated backstage at Carnegie Hall for a fan on October 1, 1965, three months after the song’s release, is in the Morgan Library’s Bob Dylan archive collection.
A letter from Dylan manager Jeff Rosen accompanying this lot notes that that they are unaware of any other draft lyrics for the song.