His finest hour? So, Bob, who was like a rolling stone?
It has been hailed as Dylan's greatest work - but mystery surrounds its inspiration. Now fans are being invited to appear in a video of his 1965 hit.
Published 01/11/2007 | 15:13
For a singer who once accused his contemporaries of "still living off the table scraps of the Sixties" by recycling the music and ideas of that freewheeling decade, it might seem a bit rich.
Some 42 years after Bob Dylan recorded "Like A Rolling Stone", the hero of counter-culture has announced that he wants to make a video of his classic song.
But the 66-year-old legend, whose fondness for upsetting musical convention has included switching to electric guitar and launching an internet radio show, can justifiably claim not to be going over old ground. Instead, he is harnessing the latest technology, in the form of the video sharing website YouTube, to alter the way the pop industry works.
Eschewing mainstream media, Dylan and his record label Sony BMG have launched a viral marketing campaign and a website urging his fans to submit to YouTube footage of themselves performing the poetic 1965 hit. The most innovative entries will then be edited together over the original soundtrack to produce the first video for "Like A Rolling Stone", which was voted the greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2004.
A spokesman for Sony BMG said: "We want the video to show his diverse range of fans all singing, reciting, reading and performing in inventive, 'out there' styles and locations. It can be a complete rendition of the song or just a bit of it. Why not recite the lyrics up a tree, in front of the Eiffel Tower, mime it underwater, duet with your grandparents. The opportunities are endless. Bob's fans cover the globe, encompassing every age, creed and social background."
The project is being billed as the latest innovation in pop video-making by the man who arguably helped to invent the art form. Another Dylan hit from 1965, "Subterranean Homesick Blues", was the subject of a short film by the documentary-maker Donn Pennebaker which became a template for music videos. It showed Dylan dropping hand-written cue cards of the lyrics in time with the soundtrack.
Visitors to the website for the new video – www.dylan07.com – are greeted by a digitally altered version of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" film, in which Dylan drops cue cards outlining the instructions for would-be contributors. A separate website allowing fans to generate their own version of the cue-card sequence has been visited by 600,000 people. Unfortunately, the same cannot yet be said for submissions to YouTube. By last night, just 24 videos had been uploaded to the site. However, fans have asked for the original deadline of 21 October to be extended.
Those who will compile the finished video may also be hoping for some better material. The entries submitted so far include a baby playing a harmonica and a man holding up a succession of signs reading "private". At the same time, such creative anarchy may appeal to Dylan himself.
"Like A Rolling Stone", which refers to the old saying rather than the British rock group, was recorded in June 1965 after the singer-songwriter spent part of a tour of Britain composing a poem about a debutante who falls out of high society. Speculation about the unnamed woman has raged since the song's release. Many believe it focuses on Edie Sedgwick, the model and socialite who had a relationship with Andy Warhol and later Dylan himself. Other theories are that the words refer to Dylan's folk contemporary, Joan Baez, or even Dylan himself.
The song was recorded for Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album in Nashville. At more than six minutes, it was twice as long as the longest song that US radio stations were prepared to play at the time. Al Kooper, who played Hammond organ on the single, recalled: "There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganised, totally punk. It just happened."
Despite its length and lyrics heavy with metaphor and imagery, the single became Dylan's biggest hit to date, staying in the US charts for nearly three months. It was only deprived of a No 1 slot by The Beatles' "Help! "
Despite his reluctance to accept adulation, Dylan was privately pleased with the song. Shortly after it was recorded, he said: "I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight." He went further in a 1988 interview, saying: " The first two lines, which rhymed 'kiddin' you' and 'didn't you', just about knocked me out. And later on, which I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much."
"Like A Rolling Stone" is a much-copied ballad, with cover versions by Cher, Jimi Hendrix and the Stones themselves, as well as performances in Swedish, Czech and Japanese. When Rolling Stone magazine declared it the greatest of all time after canvassing the opinions 172 music industry figures, it declared: "No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time."
For all his desire to break new artistic ground, it is nonetheless clear that Dylan is still very much in the business of selling records. The video project coincides with the release of a new greatest hits collection of pop music's permanent revolutionary, as well as a DVD of his controversial performance in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, where he performed " Like A Rolling Stone" live for the first time.