Before we dive into the whys and wherefores of Bob Dylan’s problem with The Rolling Stones covering his track, it has to be said that he, nevertheless, has tremendous respect for the band. In fact, he once lauded them with the highest praise of all, proclaiming: “The Rolling Stones are truly the greatest rock and roll band in the world and always will be. The last too.”
Even adding: “Everything that came after them, metal, rap, punk, new wave, pop-rock, you name it… you can trace it all back to The Rolling Stones. They were the first and the last and no one’s ever done it better.” However, immense respect is one thing, crediting the care of your own creations is quite another. You may well love your best friend, but that doesn’t mean you’d trust them behind the wheel of your new car.
The legacy of Dylan’s gripe with the Stones tackling his songs starts before either of them even came to fruition. As Dylan was growing up the bluesy seeds of rock ‘n’ roll were the mainstay on American radio. One of the greatest proponents of this was the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. While his rollicking ways might have proved spiritually reverberating merely coming through the radio waves, seeing him live was another experience altogether.
As Dylan once told Rolling Stone, “Howlin’ Wolf, to me, was the greatest live act, because he did not have to move a finger when he performed — if that’s what you’d call it, ‘performing.’” As fellow bluesman Cub Koda testified, “No one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.” And he did all this without barely moving a muscle.
Howlin’ Wolf might have had emerging rocky elements in the welter of his sound, but for the most part, he rattled the rafters while remaining true to the central tenets of the blues. Dylan did the same when he rallied against the British invasion, turned away from the near-Amish standards of folk and famously plugged in.
It wasn’t his first electric track, but ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was his most frenetically thrust middle finger as he unapologetically embraced charged particles. As musician and producer Paul Rothchild once said, the song challenged the supremacy of the British invasion: “What I realised when I was sitting there is that one of us – one of the so-called Village hipsters – was making music that could compete with them—The Beatles, and The Stones, and the Dave Clark Five—without sacrificing any of the integrity of folk music or the power of rock ‘n’ roll.”
However, when The Rolling Stones eventually went on to tackle the track, Dylan clearly thought that they sullied the integrity of the song’s folk core. “I love Mick Jagger. I mean, I go back a long ways with him, and I always wish him the best,” he said. “But to see him jumping around like he does — I don’t give a shit in what age, from Altamont to RFK Stadium — you don’t have to do that, man.”
Frenzied energy might go along great with the hoo-hoo’s of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ but the stock-still bludgeon of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is what makes it so beautifully disdainful. As Dylan opined: “It’s still hipper and cooler to be Ray Charles, sitting at the piano, not moving shit and still getting across, you know? Pushing rhythm and soul across. It’s got nothing to do with jumping around. I mean, what could it possibly have to do with jumping around?”
This all came to the fore one day when The Rolling Stones and Dylan happened to be on the same bill in Montpellier in the South of France. As Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson recalled on the Howard Stern show, the Stones asked Dylan to join them on stage, but things went awry. “They go around to the chorus and then they come up to Bob’s turn,” Robinson explained.
Continuing: “Bob goes to the mic and doesn’t sing anything. And you see them look around and they’re like, ‘Okay.’ Cos it’s like you missed a turn at a roundabout and you gotta go all the way back around. So, they go all the way around again…and he just leans into the mic and turns away.”
Dylan eventually sang a few words, before walking off stage. As he left, he offered them up the ultimate ‘You’ll go your way and I’ll go mine’ gesture. According to Robinson, as soon as he got to the side of the stage he looked back at The Stones, shouted “Fuck you!” and gave them the finger, that said in no uncertain terms ‘Now you don’t talk so loud’. “It was the best fucking concert I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s incredible. I can see Keith, he goes ‘Don’t be like that, Bob!’” Robinson concludes with a shit-eating grin.
You can check out the audio recording from the track below and the hymn sheets clearly belong to different religions. As Robinson explained it, “The Stones don’t jam; they don’t deviate […] they go around the chorus, and then they come up to Bob’s turn. So the band brings the [rhythm], and Bob goes to the mic and doesn’t sing it. And you see them looking around, and they’re like ‘Okay’, it’s kinda like you’ve missed the turn at a roundabout, and you got to go all the way around.” As seemingly with The Stones’ one-way track had Dylan thinking they were fittingly left with no direction home.