The art of covering should always both pay homage to the original while bringing a sprinkle of something new to the song, and Bob Marley & The Wailers’ version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is a divine lesson in how to successfully take on somebody else’s track.
Of course, there’s a comparison to be made between Dylan and Marley. Although there are seismic differences between the soundscapes they explored, undeniably, there’s an overlap between the essence of what they poured into their work.
In its purest essence, reggae is the Jamaican equivalent of folk music, and Marley was an expert at telling stories that needed to be heard, which he’d learnt from his surroundings. While Dylan was from a different area of the world, where the landscape was abruptly contrasting with Kingston, they both had an innate ability to tell the truth about what they saw around them.
Marley took on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in 1966, years before he’d grow to accumulate any sort of reputation, and reggae was still an extremely niche genre exclusive to Jamaica’s white sandy shores.
The Wailers’ cover is almost irrecognisable from Dylan’s, and the song’s structure is wholly reimagined by Marley, who cleverly sculpts his own identity onto the track.
“In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky,” Dylan once said about the song which began as a ten-page verse. “Revenge, that’s a better word. I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.”
While most covers of Dylan tracks pay almost too much respect to Dylan by keeping it aligned with his creative vision, Marley instead believed in his own abilities to refigure ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to make it sound like a Wailers song, rather than an impression of the freewheelin’ troubadour.
The only time that Marley ever spoke about Dylan was in 1980, just a year before his death when he got asked about the singer’s ascent into Christianity which had taken hold of his songwriting. As a fellow religious man, Marley could relate and said, “There comes a time when an artist just can’t follow the crowd. I mean, if you are an artist, you got to make the crowd follow you.”
Sadly, this cover of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is the only time their talent overlapped. Although Jimi Hendrix’s take on ‘All Along The Watchtower’ will always reign supreme as the best Dylan cover, this version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is undoubtedly one of the best of the rest.