It's official, I guess. Forty years after he recorded it, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was just named the greatest rock'n'roll song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, a tribute it had previously been given by New Musical Express. Quite an honour, considering that the single was almost never released.
"Like a Rolling Stone" was recorded on 15 June 1965, in Studio A at 799 Seventh Avenue, then the New York headquarters of Columbia Records, where I worked as the coordinator of new releases, scheduling every step of a record's production. (On the top floor of the building, the modest studio had been used by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand.) When the edited tape was played a few days later for Mr Dylan and his manager, the reaction was unanimous: it should be released immediately.
But before that could happen, the song had to be presented at Columbia's weekly singles meeting, and that's where the trouble began. Though just about everyone from the A&R (artists and repertoire) and promotion departments loved it, the sales and marketing people had a rather different opinion. And their opinion mattered, for sales and marketing was the engine behind the label's success.
Their objection to the song came on two levels. The unstated reason was that they just didn't like raucous rock'n'roll. The sales and marketing people had made Columbia a winner by selling mainstream American music: pop, jazz, country, gospel, the best of Broadway. But rock? No way. It was this thinking that had led the label to turn down Elvis Presley in 1955 and the first American album by the Beatles in 1963.
Of course, none of this was raised at the meeting about "Like a Rolling Stone". What did come up was the length of the song. In 1965, three minutes was the average time for singles played on national radio. "Like a Rolling Stone" clocked in at one second under six minutes. The solution? Cut the baby in half, the wise Solomon of Sales decreed.
When presented with this edict, Bob Dylan refused, fully prepared to engage in yet another fight with the label. (In 1963, Mr Dylan had failed to persuade Columbia to release "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues".) Except that there was no one to fight with. The big guys were engaged in a more important drama.
Columbia Records, which had always remained autonomous from its parent, CBS, was moving into the corporation's new building on Sixth Avenue (soon to be known as Black Rock), where our vice-president of sales and marketing was taking over the A&R department, and soon, it was rumoured, the second-in-command position, under our beloved president, Goddard Lieberson. That vice-president and his staff had never expressed any great fondness for or attached any future importance to Mr Dylan - who performed at one of their mammoth sales conventions but never "mingled". With all the distraction over the move to CBS headquarters and the intrigue of the executive power play, the matter of Mr Dylan's epic rock song was quickly taken care of. A memo was sent out saying that the single was to be moved from an "immediate special" to an "unassigned release". Translated, it was in limbo, soon to be dropped, no doubt, into the graveyard of cancelled releases.
After that, the tumult of the move to Black Rock filled our days. Decades of memorabilia from 799 had to be discarded because the welcoming notice from CBS clearly stated that clutter would not be allowed in the new building.
During my last trek through what remained of the A&R department, I was invited to sort through a stack of records and demos that were to be junked. Among them I discovered a gem: a studio-cut acetate of "Like a Rolling Stone". Carefully packing it into an empty LP jacket, I carried it home and that weekend played it more than once in my apartment. The effect was the same as it had been the first time I had experienced it. Exhilaration. Heart pounding. Body rolling. Then, on Sunday evening, it came to me. I knew exactly where the song could be fully appreciated.
At the time, the hottest new disco in Manhattan was a place called Arthur, on East 54th Street. Sybil Burton, whose husband had run off with Elizabeth Taylor a few years before, was the creator of the uniquely egalitarian club, which was on the site of the old El Morocco. Some of Arthur's owners were famous - Mike Nichols, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein - and some weren't (me). When it opened in May, no one except the fabulous Sybil expected that Arthur would cause such a sensation, and that everyone would want to go there - including Bob Dylan. Late in June, dressed in wine-stained Army-Navy store couture, he and some of his rowdy male friends had tried to get in. They were turned away.
His rejected single had better luck. Perhaps because I was a "club member", the DJ was very polite when asked if he would kindly play the acetate during a free moment. Deliberately neglecting to mention the name of the singer, I did say that the song was rather long and that he should feel free to stop it if the dancers got bored or tired.
At around 11pm, after a break, he played the acetate. The effect was seismic. People jumped to their feet and took to the floor, dancing the entire six minutes. Those who were seated stopped talking and began to listen. "Who is it?" the DJ yelled at one point, running toward me. "Bob Dylan!" I shouted back. The name spread through the room, which only encouraged the sceptics to insist that it be played again, straight through. Sometime past midnight, as the grooves on the temporary dub wore out, the needle began to skip.
But not before the song had been heard by two important guests. One was a DJ at WABC, then the leading Top 40 radio station in Manhattan. The other was a music programmer at the equally powerful WMCA. The next morning both called Columbia Records and demanded to know where their copy of the new Bob Dylan record was. Staff meetings were hastily called. Goddard Lieberson was brought into the dispute over the length of the song. Standards and rules were dandy, said "God", but they should never interfere with the evolution of an artist.
The release memo came shortly thereafter. On 15 July, a month after it had been recorded, "Like a Rolling Stone" was shipped to stores and DJs. The latter were put on alert that this was a hot Columbia single, because it was pressed on red vinyl. On side one of the red promotional disc, the label read: "Like a Rolling Stone (Part 1). Timing 3:02." Side two said: "Part 2. Timing 3:02." The song had been cut down the middle. Sales and marketing had struck again. But they didn't win. Some DJs simply recorded both sides of the disc on tape and spliced the whole thing together and - voilà! - came up with the complete song.
The following week "Like a Rolling Stone", full version, entered the Billboard charts. By August it was in the Top 10, rising to number two. Bob Dylan performed it live at the Newport Folk Festival (they booed the rock'n'roll half of the show) and at a concert in Forest Hills, Queens (loud cheers).
The electronic folk-rock revolution spread quickly after that, and Bob Dylan soon began to dress accordingly - he was no longer the prince of folk, but a rock'n'roll star. Arriving at Arthur with the model Sara Lownds (whom he would marry that November), the stylish and polite Bob Dylan was promptly admitted.
"Like a Rolling Stone" remained on the charts for three months, carrying Columbia into what was then called "the New Rock" (the music, not the building). Our omnipotent vice-president of sales, however, did not lead that transition. Instead, a lawyer with no A&R training and no claim to having "ears" was given the job of administrative vice-president under Goddard. His first task was to renew Bob Dylan's contract with Columbia. The artist's demands exceeded those of the top Columbia stars, Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand. His requests were met.
© 'The New York Times', 2004. Shaun Considine is writing a book about New York and the creative revolutions of the 1960sReuse content