how does it feel?

                 “I’ll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours.”
                                                                                 ~ Bob Dylan

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen . . . 

If you were banished to a desert island and could take along only one song to hear over and over again, what would it be?

My choice: “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan.

It’s a work of pure genius, which revolutionized popular music and officially marked the end of Dylan’s folk period. Even after more than forty years, the power and significance of this song have not diminished. “Like a Rolling Stone” affects me, perplexes me, challenges me. By its very nature, it gives me something new each time I hear it. The song feeds my intellect, and satisfies my craving for narrative structure, striking images, and intrinsic rhythm. Most important, this song makes me feel. And it goes deep.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?

Though the invective seems to be directed at an unnamed young woman, Dylan’s continued use of “you” throughout the song engages the listener directly. The feelings of bitterness, regret, disillusionment, betrayal and pain are transferred to us whether we like it or not.

You said you’d never compromise 
You stare into the vacuum of his eyes . . .

After he took from you, everything he could steal . . .

We come of age in this song — the specific details contained therein matter less than our own memories of foolish pride, hypocrisy, being misled by false ideologies, or having a belief system destroyed. We’ve all taken things for granted, taken something at face value, or trusted our superiors, i.e., our government, only to discover, quite painfully, it really “wasn’t where it’s at.” 

Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine, said in 1967, that the song is not necessarily about a rich person, but a “comfortable individual, or a comfortable society, suddenly discovering what’s going on. Vietnam — the society we’re talking about, and you realize, as you become aware, drug aware, socially aware, the disaster of the commercial society.”

Billboard once described Dylan’s songs as revealing a “painful awareness of the tragedy that underlies the contemporary human condition.” “Like a Rolling Stone” may just be the most telling portrait of our society ever created by an American artist. Who else has challenged the existing order in such a grand fashion?

Yet Dylan offers us hope, because ultimately this song is about liberation — freedom from past hang-ups, outworn beliefs, narrow thinking, lifelong fears. It is in this state of being invisible, stripped of all preconceived notions, with no secrets to conceal, that all of us, finally seeing clear, have everything to gain.

As John Hinchley states in Like a Complete Unknown (Stealing Home Press, 2002), “to be a rolling stone is to reclaim a sense of shame — of the boundaries of your own being — as the mark of your common humanity.”

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

The song also marked an apocalytic point in Dylan’s career. In an interview with Marvin Bronstein (1966), he said:

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 — I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that is what I should do.

“Like a Rolling Stone” was Dylan’s reaction to the pressures of fame, and frustration over being misunderstood, labeled, and peddled as the spokesperson for the social unrest of the 60’s. The socialite Dylan addresses in the song is really himself. As he examines his own conscience, he awakens ours.

A word about the sound of this song. Certainly the opening shot! of the drum beat, followed by the soaring notes of the Hammond organ, commands our attention instantly, but when we hear Dylan’s voice — of accusation, gloating, taunting, blaming, and sympathy, it sears unlike any other voice that preceded it. 

I am reminded that poetry began with voice, and remained an oral tradition for centuries, the only means people had of recording history, praising their creators, expressing their wonder, and entertaining themselves. The breath was considered sacred, as it represented the soul and spirit of humanity. 

In “No Direction Home,” the movie directed by Martin Scorsese, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a longtime Dylan friend, talks about how Dylan became at one, or identical with his breath, like a Shaman with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on a column of air. Part of Dylan’s genius is his ability to assimilate and reinvent, and his voice is part of his poetry, magical and primal.

Each song is rewritten with every performance. Dylan brings to the moment  whatever it needs — a different inflection, drawing out a note, switching the phrasing, changing the tempo. As it was in ancient times, with bards reciting epics, a Dylan lyric is dynamic by nature, sometimes ethereal and elusive. 

“Like a Rolling Stone” almost didn’t get recorded. For two days, Dylan, his studio musicians, and producer, Tom Wilson, struggled to tame the resistant beast. Dylan was after a “full” sound and went through take after take with no success. Finally, after 15 takes, “Like a Rolling Stone” was captured on tape, once and only once. Listening to the playback, they all knew, instantly, that something extraordinary had just happened. 

          June 1965, “Rolling Stone” recording session

I last heard Bob Dylan perform “Like a Rolling Stone” live about three years ago. He was wearing green, and standing at the organ (he hasn’t played guitar at his concerts for awhile now). His voice was ragged, but the college students who filled the arena clearly worshipped him. When the sharp drum beat that sounds like a gun shot signalled the last song, everyone rushed to the stage. I had waited for this song all night. There was the organ, and then that perfectly flawed voice. 

Once upon a time you dressed so fine . . .  

Tears filled my eyes. There’s just something about this song. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine named it the greatest song of all time.

Click here for the full lyrics and to hear an excerpt from “Like a Rolling Stone.”

What’s your desert island song?

P.S. Don’t forget I’m hosting Poetry Friday this week, in honor of Bob Dylan. Hope you’ll join us! 


26 thoughts on “how does it feel?

  1. Great post!
    Great song choice! But it I was stuck on deserted island for possibly forever I think I’d need something a little less angry….
    Some silly Bob to go mad with…
    Rainy Day Women…? or Bob Dylan’s 115th dream….
    “I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land…Ha Ha Ha (He He He…Ok Ha Ha Take Two….)


  2. Wonderful post, Jama–and I’m not even a Dylan fan (I know! I don’t like chocolate cake or ice cream, and now Dylan. You probably hate me!). But I enjoyed your thoughts (and his) about this song.
    Anyway, my very favorite song, if I HAD to pick one, is 100 Years, by Five for Fighting. But it breaks my heart, so I don’t know that it would be my desert island song. It’s too hard to choose! Like choosing one back. Ack!


  3. This could be shocking, but I’ve never heard “100 Years.” I’d better google it.
    Ahem, I could excuse you for not liking chocolate cake or ice cream. But, um, Dylan . . . I admit I don’t outright love everything he’s done — it’s more a respect for his oeuvre of 600+ songs, and how he’s redefined songwriting and poetry. Okay, you can make it up to me by writing a poem inspired by a photo containing a musical instrument or something.
    Hey, wait a minute — aren’t you from/living in Minnesota — Dylan’s birth state?


  4. Oh, I was just staying in the Dylan theme….
    But I have thought about this question before. And many people I think just write off the “desert island” thing like a three week vacation…
    But what IF it was FOREVER????
    Something makes me think I’d want something really stupid like “Louie, Louie” or “Wooly, Bully” so, I can just be happy dancing around like an insane monkey!
    I can’t imagine being stuck with something heavy like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” forever….


  5. Nope, not shocking. It was an adult contemporary hit, but not something everyone knows or anything. But it’s gorgeous. Watch it on YouTube at
    Dylan–I know! I think it’s just because I really can’t stand his voice. The lyrics–the ones I’m familiar with–are amazing. But I don’t know many of them because I just can’t stand to listen to him, so I don’t listen to his music and hear the lyrics.
    Sheepish yes. I’m a Minnesotan.
    And ok, I’m going to think about making it up to you with a Dylan reference in my 15 Words or Less poem this week.


  6. It really is a hard question to answer. I only thought of Rolling Stone because on a desert island I would probably miss civilization after awhile — and this song would remind me of what it was like to be part of 20th-21st century America — the good and bad parts of it.
    And it would inspire me to write something — a song, poem, whatever. Gotta have something to do, right?


  7. Gotta have something to do, right?
    So, dancing naked like a maniac fool in the hot sun seemed like “something to do!”
    But if I felt I should do some good for my gray matter, I would probably chose “…115th Dream”. It’s cast of characters and adventures could keep me entertained for sometime. And if I felt i wanted/needed to be creative, I could take on “that illustration assignment” that I had been meaning to do for so many years in my “non-stranded” days….


  8. OMG! Thanks for the link. I LOVE that song, and had heard it before, but never knew the title. Grey’s Anatomy played it a lot, right?
    It WOULD be a good desert island song — so reflective and lyrical.
    Lots of people hate Dylan’s voice. I’ve been to concerts where I couldn’t understand a word he was singing. Yet — it’s so HUMAN, not pretty, not canned, not necessarily melodic, just a real voice — and some of his songs are more like chants. It’s a shame that his voice has prevented many from looking more closely at the lyrics themselves. They really are a mini history lesson, about what America is, was, and could be.


  9. I don’t think I could choose a desert island song… although I’d have to have music (probably Mozart – who captured the full spectrum of emotion, sans words.)
    I love this post about LaRS – it is probably one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs… I do love Lay, Lady, Lay, too… and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door… sigh… I think I need a Dylan fix.


  10. Just too hard, Jama. Just too hard to pick. Hmmm. I adore Lyle Lovett, so it might have to be “If I had a Boat.” (Appropriate for a desert island, right?) I’m also fond of the loveliness that is Bonnie Raitt singing Angel from Montgomery. And if I were all lonely and sad on that island, I’d need Paul Simon’s “Graceland” or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Not to mention a big dose of Aretha singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T every now and then.


  11. Oh, Mozart. Yes,I can imagine that. Glad you like LaRS. His voice is so different on Lay Lady Lay. Still can’t figure out how he did that. And Knockin’on Heaven’s Door is another masterpiece. Now I want to listen to those songs, too. . .


  12. Lyle Lovett is so quirky and unique — always surprising. Aretha would certainly get you up in the morning. And who could live without Bunny Boy? Okay. You’re right. It’s an impossible question. Pass me some diamonds for my shoes.


  13. I’m glad you like it, Jama! He has SO many great songs. Actually, I don’t care for John Ondrasik’s (he’s Five for Fighting) actual voice all that much (too high for me), but his lyrics and melodies let me ignore that, and he’s one of my absolute favorites (unbelievably good in concert). I think what you said about Dylan–not even being able to understand what he says. *That’s* the thing that really kills me. Still, I think I’ll look for a book of his lyrics. Thanks for the nudge.


  14. I actually like John’s voice — the pitch doesn’t bother me at all — at least not on this particular song — it’s full of pathos and yearning. has a comprehensive list of his lyrics, plus you can click on audio files to listen, if you like.


  15. Thanks, I’ll check it out. John’s voice doesn’t actually grate on me (like Dylan’s), it’s just not the low, deep voice I prefer. But I can live with it:>)


  16. Great post! Music is as much a part of my life as writing is, so this would be a really difficult decision. However, I think I would chose “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce. My seventh grade teacher played this for us in class and he was the only person who ever took interest in my writing which inspired me to go for it. So I think I’d pick this song and listen over and over while I was inspired to write forever.
    Though, the Beatles are my favorite!
    Time in Bottle
    If I could save Time in a bottle
    The first thing that I’d like to do
    Is to save every day
    ’til Eternity passes away
    Just to spend them with you
    If I could make days last forever
    If words could make wishes come true
    I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
    Again, I would spend them with you
    But there never seems to be enough time
    To do the things you want to do
    Once you find them
    I’ve looked around enough to know
    That you’re the one I want to go
    Through time with
    If I had a box just for wishes
    And dreams that had never come true
    The box would be empty
    Except for the memory
    Of how they were answered by you
    But there never seems to be enough time
    To do the things you want to do
    Once you find them
    I’ve looked around enough to know
    That you’re the one I want to go
    Through time with


  17. If you wikipedia Lay Lady Lay they have Dylan’s take on the different sound of his voice. I always thought it was related to his motorcycle accident – but then again – what do I know? lol


  18. What a beautiful choice! The image is perfect, too — all those messages in a bottle that get washed up on the beach. If only such a bottle could contain intangibles like time, or good memories — we wouldn’t really need any other material things. I went through a serious Jim Croce phase, and still have his vinyl album in the basement somewhere. Kudos to your 7th grade teacher for recognizing your talent and potential!


  19. What a great post! Looking forward to Friday!
    I’ve done that desert island game(actually it was a post by Slatts about a year ago about an Endless Highway song), and…the best I could come up with was California Dreamin’, with its haunting melody and harmony potential. But I think I’d really want something happier. So I’m still thinking. 🙂


  20. This is easy
    My desert island song would be Ghost, by the Indigo Girls. It is one of my favorite songs, I think it is a lyrical masterpiece and if I was deserted on an island I know I would be completely love sick, and I’m a sucker for lost loves anyway.
    Theres a letter on the desktop
    That I dug out of a drawer
    The last truce we ever came to
    In our adolescent war
    And I start to feel the fever
    From the warm air through the screen
    You come regular like seasons
    Shadowing my dreams
    And the mississippis mighty
    But it starts in minnesota
    At a place that you could walk across
    With five steps down
    And I guess thats how you started
    Like a pinprick to my heart
    But at this point you rush right through me
    And I start to drown
    And theres not enough room
    In this world for my pain
    Signals cross and love gets lost
    And time passed makes it plain
    Of all my demon spirits
    I need you the most
    Im in love with your ghost
    Im in love with your ghost
    Dark and dangerous like a secret
    That gets whispered in a hush
    (dont tell a soul)
    When I wake the things I dreamt about you
    Last night make me blush
    (dont tell a soul)
    And you kiss me like a lover
    Then you sting me like a viper
    I go follow to the river
    Play your memory like a piper
    And I feel it like a sickness
    How this love is killing me
    Id walk into the fingers
    Of your fire willingly
    And dance the edge of sanity
    Ive never been this close
    Im in love with your ghost
    Unknowing captor
    You never know how much you
    Pierce my spirit
    But I cant touch you
    Can you hear it
    A cry to be free
    Oh Im forever under lock and key
    As you pass through me
    Now I see your face before me
    I would launch a thousand ships
    To bring your heart back to my island
    As the sand beneath me slips
    As I burn up in your presence
    And I know now how it feels
    To be weakened like achilles
    With you always at my heels
    This bitter pill I swallow
    Is the silence that I keep
    It poisons me I cant swim free
    The river is too deep
    Though Im baptized by your touch
    I am no worse than most
    In love with your ghost
    You are shadowing my dreams
    (in love with your ghost)
    (in love with your ghost)
    (in love with your ghost)


  21. My favorite song is “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith, but if I had to listen to only one song over and over again, I’d pick something longer and more complex, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
    I know your chocolate month is over, but I thought of you when I read this blog post:
    Gotta love those names for chocolate, “intense” and “absolu.”


  22. Beethoven would indeed keep you engaged for longer periods of time!
    And thanks for the link — warning labels on chocolate. Very interesting. I do like thinking in terms like “absolute” and “intense!”


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