Frank Zappa was not a man who had many heroes. He was wary of the ways of the world and had the wherewithal to view his peers for what they were rather than celebrating them like idols and sinking into the past of their output. Zappa was all about pioneering the future and he felt hero-worship was a hurdle that got in the way of that.
Nevertheless, he was only human, and some tracks seem so heaven-sent that it would be a sin not to revere the ground that their sound resides over. This is the case with the defining American rock ‘n’ roll anthem of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan.
In the song, Dylan crucifies the crux of counterculture’s exposed Achilles heel—and he does it with such disdain that the world would never truly be the same when his cutting intellect, stirring poetry and the brilliance of the soaring melody all mingled into one pop culture opus.
Zappa’s appraisal of the track is pretty much that. “When I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’,” Zappa told the writer Clinton Heylin, “I wanted to quit the music business.” That is quite a statement considering that when it was released in July 1965 Zappa was yet to release an official studio album and he would go on to unleash 62 of his own.
He continued: “I felt [that] if this wins and it does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else.” The song heralded the same sort of iconoclasm and societal incision that Zappa would champion throughout his career, but much like the moustachioed guitar God, Dylan’s anthem is actually more cult than you might think.
While the track is revered as a masterpiece and is rightfully recognised as one of it not the greatest song of all time, it somehow only wound up only reaching 41 on the US Billboard end of year charts. As Zappa wearily continued, “But it didn’t do anything. It sold but nobody responded to it in the way that they should have.”
While the brilliance of the anthem might not have been fully reflected in its reception, it has a legacy as rich as any that proves befitting of the masterpiece itself. Commercially it might not have accrued great masses and the revolution hidden in the welter of the words might not have fully materialised, but as Paul McCartney once said, with the song “he showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.”
In truth, there is an unrelated quote from another iconoclast named Serge Gainsbourg that helps to define the legacy of the grisly, thistle-grabbing anthem. “Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty,” he once said, “because it lasts.” ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is still yet to gather any moss as it blazes a trail of just what rock ‘n’ roll music can be, and with that timeless intent in mind, Dylan went electric, embraced charged particles, and changed the world for a second time in a matter of years… Thankfully, it didn’t sell so many copies that Zappa hung up his hat before we had even seen it.