A drum beat like a pistol shot.
24 July 1965 was the day Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" hit the charts. It was on the radio all across the U.S.A. and heading straight up. When drummer Bobby Gregg brought his stick down for the opening noise of the six-minute single, the sound --a kind of announcement, then a void of silence, then a rising fanfare, then the song — fixed a moment when all those caught up in modern music found themselves engaged in a running battle for a prize no one bothered to name: the greatest record ever made, perhaps, or the greatest record that ever would be made. "Where are we going?" To the top?" the Beatles would ask themselves in the early 1960s, when no one but they knew. "To the toppermost of the poppermost," they promised.
But by 1965, everyone -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and whoever else could catch a ride on the train -- was topping each other month by month, as if carried by a flood. Was it the fear and possibility that had flooded much of the West since the assassination of President Kennedy less than two years before, a kind of nihilist freedom in which old certainties were swept away like trees and cars? Was it the utopian revolt of the civil rights movement, or the strange cultures appearing in college towns and cities across the nation, in England, in Germany? No one heard the music on the radio as part of a separate reality. Every new hit seemed full of novelty, as if its goal was not only to top the charts but to stop the world in its tracks and then start it up again.
What was the top? Fame and fortune, glamour and style, or something else? A sound that you could leave behind, to mark your presence on the Earth; something that would circulate in the ether of lost radio signals, somehow received by generations to come, or apprehended even by those who were already gone? The chance to make the times speak in your own voice, or the chance to discover the voice of the times?
Early in the year, the Beatles had kicked off the race with the shimmering thrill of the opening and closing chords of "Eight Days a Week." In March, the Rolling Stones put out the deathly, oddly quiet "Play with Fire," a single that seemed to call the whole pop equation of happiness, speed and excitement into question: to suspend the contest in a cul-de-sac of doubt. Three months later, they came back with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It erased the doubt, and the race was on again.
Dylan had not really come close with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in April, his first rock 'n' roll record after four albums-- four folk albums that had nevertheless redrawn the pop map -- and his first entry into the singles charts. The Beatles would dominate the second half of the year with "Yesterday." Barry McGuire would reach No. 1 with "Eve of Destruction," an imitation-Dylan big-beat protest song that was so formulaic, so plainly a jump on a trend, that the formula and the trend became hooks in themselves.
In the pop arena, it seemed anything could happen; it seemed that month by month everything did. The race was not only between the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones and everyone else. The pop world was in a race with the greater world, the world of wars and elections, work and leisure, poverty and riches, white people and black people, women and men, and in 1965 you could feel that pop was winning.
When people first heard about it, "Like a Rolling Stone" seemed less like a piece of music than a stroke of upmanship beyond pop ken. "Eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs," Dylan would remember years later, casting back to a day in Colorado, listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo soon after their arrival in the United States in 1964. "I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go." That was the moment that took Dylan out of his folk singer's clothes — and now here he was, outflanking the Rolling Stones with a song about them. That was the word.
The pop moment, in that season, really was that delirious. But when the song hit the radio, when people heard it, when they discovered that it wasn't about a band, they realized that the song did not explain itself at all, and that they didn't care. Few grasped that the pull of the past was as strong as the pull of the future. Few wondered how many dead or vanished voices the song contained, or realized that along with the song's own named characters -- Miss Lonely, the Mystery Tramp, the Diplomat -- also present were the likes of Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" from only a few months before, Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" from 1958, Son House, of Mississippi, with "My Black Mama" from 1930, Hank Williams with "Lost Highway" from 1949, or Muddy Waters in 1950 with "Rollin' Stone."
What people understood in the wash of words and instruments was that the song was a rewrite of the world itself. An old world was facing a dare it wasn't ready for; as the song traced its long arc across the radio, a world that was taking shape seemed altogether in flux.
Greil Marcus' newest book, "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads," was published this month by PublicAffairs.
© 2005 The LA Times