The Day Dylan Got It Right

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Bob Dylan's new compilation, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12, is out now. (Courtesy of the artist)
Bob Dylan's new compilation, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12, is out now. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ever have a great run of great ideas — one after another?

Bob Dylan did. In a span of 14 months — from January 1965 through March 1966 — Dylan created three classic albums in a row: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. As you might imagine in such a flurry of activity, a lot of ideas never made it out of the studio.

This week that stockpile of rehearsal audio, studio chatter and alternate versions of songs is being released for the first time. It fills six CDs (and an interactive website) in a set titled The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12. NPR's Don Gonyea is a big Dylan fan — and out of all that material, he zeroed in on one song and its surprising evolution.


I don't recall the first time I ever heard "Like a Rolling Stone." I was probably a kid in Michigan with my transistor tuned to AM radio powerhouse CKLW, not long after the song came out 50 years ago.

There's that opening drum beat. Then the organ. Then that voice. But this is no once-upon-a-time fairy tale: There's imagery and vitriol in the lyrics, a take-no-prisoners toughness to the sound. Now, with all of these previously unreleased tracks, we get to join Dylan and the studio musicians from his first fumbling attempts to nail the track. They worked on "Like a Rolling Stone" over two days in June of 1965 at Columbia Records' Studio A in a New York City.

They first attempted the song as a waltz. How does it feel? Well, it feels wrong: Dylan's voice breaks, and he's unsure of the words. Al Kooper was one of the musicians at that session — and when I invited him to come by NPR to listen through the alternate takes, he heard this one and immediately started shaking his head.

"The concept of a waltz — it's a ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, that I don't think suits the lyric he was trying to express," Kooper says.

After struggling to make the words fit a time signature that won't yield, the crew calls it a day. Overnight, a decision is made: Play it in 4/4.

They try it the next day, and it's immediately better – but it's still missing something. That's when Al Kooper, who was on hand to play guitar, slips over to the Hammond organ and starts noodling.

"I was flying by the seat of my pants," Kooper says. "And I was a lucky lad that day."

Clearly, Kooper says, there was pressure in the studio. Not only was Dylan was taking his craft to a new, noisier, more complex place, he was giving the musicians basically zero guidance about how to keep up. And yet, Kooper says first time they played the song all the way through with the new arrangement, there atmosphere in the room changed. Producer Tom Wilson called them into the control room to listen back to it.

"And about a minute into it," Kooper recalls, "Dylan said to Tom Wilson, 'Turn the organ up. Tom said, 'That guy's not an organ player.' And he said, 'I don't care. Turn the organ up.' And that was the moment that I became an organ player."

As we learn from hearing these newly released cuts, Dylan didn't yet know he'd nailed it. So he keeps going, playing it over and over, faster and faster. They did take after take, but nothing matched that first full version of the song. There's a looseness to it. Sure, it isn't perfect — but it's right.

All of the effort that went into this has been tucked away for 50 years. Now, we all get to hear how they got there: genius, craft, trial and error, dead ends, and the path to a piece of brilliant music history.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Have you ever had a run of really great ideas? Just, like, one after another? Bob Dylan did. In a span of 14 months in the mid-1960s, the singer and songwriter created three classic albums in a row - "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde." As you might imagine, there was a lot of music that never even made it out of the studio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week, that stockpile of rehearsal audio, studio chatter and alternate versions of songs is being released for the first time. It fills six CDs in a set titled, "Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Volume 12." NPR's Don Gonyea is a Dylan fan, and out of all the material, he zeroed-in on one song and its surprising evolution.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I can't recall the first time I ever heard "Like A Rolling Stone." I was probably a kid in Michigan with my transistor tuned to a.m. radio powerhouse CKLW, not long after the song came out, 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

GONYEA: There's that opening drum beat. Then the organ. Then that voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

GONYEA: But this is no once upon a time fairytale - lyrics with imagery and vitriol, a tough, take no prisoners sound. Now with all of these previously unreleased tracks, we get to join Dylan and the studio musicians from his first fumbling attempts to nail the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: Now get lost, man. It didn't get lost? It did get lost.

GONYEA: They worked on the song over two days in June of 1965 in a New York studio. The very first version was a waltz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM WILSON: Single 86446, "Like A Rolling Stone," one.

GONYEA: That's producer Tom Wilson in the control room. How does it feel? Well, it feels wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

GONYEA: Dylan's voice breaks and he's unsure of the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) People'd call, say, beware doll, you're bound to fall. You thought they were all kiddin' you.

GONYEA: Musician Al Kooper played the signature organ on the final version of the song. I invited him to come listen to this version. He did, and shakes his head as it plays.

AL KOOPER: So one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three I don't think suits the lyric he was trying to express.

GONYEA: Dylan struggles to make his words fit a time signature that doesn't yield.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

GONYEA: Eventually they call it a day. Then overnight, a decision...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: Let's just do one verse, man.

GONYEA: ...Try it in four-four.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

GONYEA: It's immediately better, but not there yet. The Hammond organ is still missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: OK, Bob, we've got everybody here. Let's do one, and then I'll play it back to you.

GONYEA: Then the next take, Al Kooper eager to find his place in the session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: What are you doing there?

GONYEA: He originally thought he might be playing guitar. Slips over to the organ. He starts noodling.

KOOPER: I was flying by the seat of my pants, and I was a lucky lad that day.

GONYEA: You were 21?

KOOPER: I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: Why can't we get that right, man?

GONYEA: Clearly there was pressure in the studio. Dylan was taking his craft to a new noisier, more complex place, but he wasn't giving much guidance to the musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: I'm afraid I screwed up.

GONYEA: How often did he say, do this or do that?

KOOPER: Zero.

GONYEA: Zero. But when you got it right, did he say, that's it?

KOOPER: Well, there was a moment - take four was the take that is the take of all time.

GONYEA: The keeper.

KOOPER: Yeah. And it was the first time we had played it all the way through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) How does it feel, how does it feel to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?

KOOPER: So when we finished, Tom Wilson said, we're going to play that back if you want to come in the booth and listen to it. And about a minute into it, Dylan said to Tom Wilson, turn the organ up. And Tom said, that guy's not an organ player. And he said, I don't care. Turn the organ up. And that was the moment that I became an organ player.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

GONYEA: As we learn from hearing these newly-released cuts, Dylan didn't know he'd nailed it. So he keeps going.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILSON: Fourteen.

GONYEA: Over and over, and faster and faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time, in your prime...

GONYEA: They did take after take, but nothing matched that first full version of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people, they're all drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made.

GONYEA: There's a looseness to it. Sure, it isn't perfect, but it's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Go to him now. He calls you. You can't refuse. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

GONYEA: All of the effort that went into this has been tucked away for 50 years. Now we all get hear how they got there - genius, craft, trial and error, dead ends and the path to a piece of brilliant music history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DYLAN: It's six minutes long, man.

MCEVERS: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.