Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Going Once, Going Twice, Sold! Two Million Dollars for Handwritten Draft of Dylan's Original Lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone

Greil Marcus devoted a whole book to it. Rolling Stone named itself after it. Tuesday it became the highest selling song manuscript in rock n roll history, surpassing John Lennon’s "A Day in the Life" by $800,000.

Earlier this spring I wrote that the lyrics might fetch a million or two, but close friends "in the know" said they would be surprised if it got eight hundred thousand. Well, it just goes to show you that sometimes even experts are wrong.

The Rolling Stone announcement today ended with mentioning that "Like a Rolling Stone" is ranked Number One on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. That's pretty high praise. And even though an argument can be made that the magazine has a built-in bias to most things Dylan, the argument still holds up for Dylan's significance and the significance of this song.

Newark, NJ, Nov. 2 1965 (Photo: Thom Cronin)
Before Dylan, rock ‘n roll was about making music you could dance to. When Dylan emerged from the constraints of folk, where he was unquestionably a star, he welded a new sensibility to this established music form. Here’s how Lee Marshall, in his book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, explains it: “Dylan is the foundational figure in rock culture. Dylan’s shift to electric music brought to the mainstream the political authority and communal links of his folk past while his song-writing skills offered the exemplar of what could be achieved artistically within the new form.”

And it wasn't "going electric" that was the significant thing in and of itself. Elvis, Chuck Berry and a host of others had been there for some time, obviously. What's different is that rock ‘n roll was previously something fun; Dylan brought to it a new seriousness, a new sensibility.

As Marshall explains: “Rock emerged in the mid-sixties as a way of stratifying mainstream musical consumption, as a means of creating higher and lower levels of popular music.... Rather than merely assuming a difference in quality between serious/classical music and light/popular music, rock functions to differentiate between serious, worthwhile popular music (rock) and trivial, lightweight popular music (pop).”

When Dylan went electric he served as catalyst for the formation of this new type of music.

53rd Grammy Awards, Staples Ctr., L.A. (Photo: Kevin Mazur) 
The natural rebuttal to this argument would be that it was the Beatles or the British Invasion that changed rock and roll. But what was it that transformed the Beatles from cheery-faced mop-top boppers into the young men who really did, for a while, rule the world? And when? When you lay their careers side by side in a timeline, Dylan's achievements in 1965 reverberated everywhere. Bringing It All Back Home was released in March. In June he wrote and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone". In July he plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and in August released Highway 61 Revisited. These latter events have been considered by some to be the pivot point of rock history.

In 1965 the Beatles were still making love songs and foot-tappers. Everything they did climbed the pop charts like monkeys. Even in late fall they were still churning out songs like “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey”, “Boys” and “Roll Over Beethoven”. That year the movie Help, as a follow up to Hard Day's Night, placed them squarely in the center of a well-established Hollywood pattern to capitalize on youth heroes for commercial gain, as it had done previously with Elvis, who became only a pawn in their machine. The Fab Four were definitely a sensation, but in a manner wholly other than Dylan. The Beatles were commercially hot. Dylan was cool.  

Hence, Marshall declares, "My argument is that Dylan was the first real Rock Star. His razor-sharp hipness in 1965 and the strung out excesses of 1966 laid down the prototype for his new social role. Some of the substance of Dylan’s new star-image was rooted in his public persona developed as a folk star but his image in 1965-6 is a clearly different type of star-image."  A prototype of things to come.

There will likely come a time when other manuscripts obtain even more stellar prices at the auction house, but for now, "Like A Rolling Stone" has produced yet another milestone for the record books.

And for Dylan, who has already achieved so much in the past half century, it's probably just another day in the life. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't know if I am considered "in the know"…but I thought at least $2,000,000 made perfect sense. How could it not?