The song: 'Like a Rolling Stone'
The album: 'Highway 61 Revisited,' (1965)
1. Who is "Napoleon in rags"? Who is the figure behind this perfect image? Ah, it's Andy Warhol, the guru, the friend and also Dylan's bitter rival, his nemesis. Dylan ruled her heart and her body, Warhol had the run of her soul, her thoughts and her medicine cabinet. It was no more than a business competition between two instinctual megalomaniacs, extremely brilliant and decisive, to control the career of a blonde young woman. A bewildered bohemian princess who was a bit of an actor, a bit of a model, a bit of an artist and a bit of a great deal of everything you can't stuff into conventional molds. It was no more than a spectacular clash between two huge egos. It ended with one of the great hate songs of all time.
2. Just a minute, let's start from the beginning. Her name was Edie Sedgwick and she was the most beautiful woman in SoHo. Scion of one of the richest families in Massachusetts, daughter of a son-of-a-bitch ill-tempered father, but a multimillionaire. Her mother was a passing shadow in her life, a present-absent woman, a person who shelters in the shadow of others from the day she learns to walk. That's what Edie told Andy Warhol. Naturally, she was daddy's girl, but he declined the role of a mother substitute, and certainly of a father. So she left and went to New York. To SoHo. She frequented Warhol's studio, The Factory, and met everyone who was anyone. Dylan was there, too. It was 1965. He was 24 and about to release his best and most famous album, "Highway 61 Revisited." He was starting to forge the greatest American folk-rock myth of all, and at the same time, in his Dylanesque way, was wondering if music was the thing for him. Warhol had started to write - wordlessly - the great manifesto of pop culture, to mark icons on the road to eternity and take the opportunity to insert a place for himself on that road. And in the middle was Edie. In the 2006 film "Factory Girl" she was played by Sienna Miller, and in the film "I'm Not There" (2007 ) she was played by Michelle Williams. She was the truest "It-Girl" of the bohemians. She flirted with an acting career in the pretentious experimental films Warhol made in The Factory and strutted like a peacock that's unaware of its wild plumage. Her greatest talent was to cause an explosion in every room from the moment she stepped into it, and at the same time to feel that the air she breathed was more present than she was. She died of an overdose of medicinal drugs and alcohol - an amount that a woman of 28 should not need to consume. A highly popular cocktail among many in that loopy bohemian period.
3. Dylan was in love with her. Or not. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that he made her pregnant? No one disputes this fact, but Dylan's and Warhol's biographers squabble over a different question: whether or not Edie found out that Dylan intended to marry Shirley Marlin Novoletsky (aka Sara Lownds ) when she was already pregnant. One way or the other, she heard from a friend that Dylan was going to be married and understood that the words he spoke to her, the songs he wrote for her, were all a facade. He slept with her but loved another woman. They were not destined to be together, otherwise they surely would have been. They had a "thing." In that bohemian scene - which today seems almost unreal - Dylan had a thing with almost everyone.
When you look at pictures of Dylan from 1965, you see that he was the most beautiful kid in the world. It's easy to understand how a girl like Edie Sedgwick - who was enchanted by Warhol's genius but enamored of the rough-hewn but very calculated naivete of Bob Dylan - was torn between them. True, Warhol was into men, but he used her in a different way: He promised her the moon. He promised her a career in the entertainment industry. Sienna Miller gave her best screen performance in 2006 when she took on the character of the distant cousin of Kyra Sedgwick - the actress who is further from Andy Warhol than any you will find in Hollywood, even if you hire a detective agency.
4. "Vomit." This was how Dylan himself viewed the short story he wrote under the inspiration of his relationship with Sedgwick. (Some say it was the opening of the Great American Novel he planned to write. It's laughable to think about it: Dylan truly believed that his role was not to create a catchy alternative to Allen Ginsberg, but to be a modern competitor to Herman Melville. His love-hate relations with his calling in life had already started to give him complexes. ) It started out as 20 pages of prose that Dylan later edited, rewrote, abridged, tightened and tore to shreds until it became the masterpiece titled "Like a Rolling Stone," perhaps the most perfect and distilled image of pop ever written. And the thing is that it seems to have been stolen from Hank Williams. Williams' classic "Lost Highway" opens with the line: "I'm a rollin' stone, all alone and lost." Dylan a plagiarist? God, it's inspiration.
5. The "thing" with Edie. Dylan took it harder than he was prepared to admit. After all, he had a cool image to preserve. The image of a new American prophet, of the guy who would one day give John, Paul, George and Ringo the first drag from their first joint. Look at Robert Allen Zimmerman, the troubadour from Minnesota. Who'da believed he would get this far? Dylan wrote "Just Like a Woman" about Edie. Years later, Billy Joel wrote a song inspired by that song. Sorry, but has anyone not written a song inspired by a Dylan song?
6. When he sat down to write "Like a Rolling Stone," he was already married to Sara. A decade later, she would slaughter him in particularly vicious divorce proceedings. But in the meantime, Edie. Something touched Dylan in the relationship with her, an American princess of provocative beauty, who turned heads despite, or maybe because, she was ahead of her time in the way she maintained her fragile facon. He cheated on her with Sara and probably with other women. After all, he was Bob Dylan. At the start of his road, at the height of his power, an uncut diamond, the kryptonite that was an alter ego to everything America feared; the prophecy of everything through which America would one day define itself. The Dylan of 1965 was not ahead of his time. He existed in a time of his own. He and Edie. She is the forgotten heroine of this story. The chief character in a song in which her name does not appear. He was angry at her for being Warhol's girl and under his control, and Dylan wanted full control of her. All or nothing at all. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
7. Warhol was a no-less-significant genius than Dylan. Two of the most important geniuses of America, among the greatest artists of their time, among the most complex figures of the 20th century - and they hated each other with a flaming passion. It's all about marking groove-territories, about exclamation marks at the end of sentences that begin with penis envy. Whose was bigger? Who had Edie? Both of them. And no one.
8. And in the middle, between these two instrumental maniacs: Edie. Torn between her powerful sexual attraction to Dylan and Warhol's magic power ("Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse," and "As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes." That's Warhol. The diplomat with the Siamese cat, Napoleon in rags, the man who sells no alibis but will take from you everything he can steal. That man is Warhol. Think about those lines the next time you're at MoMA looking at one of his giant prints ); torn between the ability of the young Dylan to make every woman surrender to him and the incomprehensible talent of Warhol to take the deepest human component and distill it into an image that a 3-year-old child will understand, out of the understanding that he understands nothing about this insane world. The Chelsea Hotel is no more than a place to live for payment. But Edie turned it into a benchmark in the mythology of modernism. She moved into the Chelsea after being kicked out of Warhol's entourage. But by then there was already no Dylan either. Bob's vituperative prophecy had come true. Who has magic powers now, Andy dear?
9. When you hear the song for the first time, it's hard to imagine that it was written about a woman. It sounds like a text of reproach of a man to himself. As though its moral lesson is hubris. But, just a minute, it's more complex than that. The song opens with the words "Once upon a time," like every fairy tale. This is a song of reproach to a woman who broke Dylan's neurotic heart, but it's also an alter-text to a fairy tale.
10. They waged a battle for control of Edie's consciousness, heart and career. It ended in the only way it could have ended: the men are left standing, the woman paying the full price. And Dylan knows this. "Like a Rolling Stone" is a very unmerry song of prophecy that is steeped in weltanschauung. When it undertakes to become a rhymed, angry prophecy, it is weaker, but when it looks the image in the eye and asks simply, "How does it feel? To be a complete unknown? To be a rolling stone?", it evokes the nihilism of Franz Kafka and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and also the future - the postmodern void of which Dylan is one of the beacons that signal its darkness. The devouring darkness of the vacuous present, which is here and now and today.
11. At the end of the day, no one won. Warhol went too soon, Dylan matured and grew old and turned a little raggedy, and Edie became a character. "Character" - there's a word for you that encapsulates all the failed attempts to mediate reality. "Reality" - there's a word for you that is of no use. We won't find three other people better suited for us to try to define, but in vain. Who would remember Edie Sedgwick were it not for Dylan, were it not for Warhol? Were it not for the contemporary culture that is relentlessly occupied with desperate efforts to define itself without the aid of perspective? Ah, the inexplicable talent of a word artist to take a 20-page prose text - "Vomit" - and distill it into a song. Six minutes, which more than anything else marked Dylan's transition from folk to folk-rock. The text you are now reading is not about an artist caught in a crisis of genres. Edie Sedgwick was a tool. She was a metaphor for something far greater. She was the pawn on the metaphysical chessboard in a game being played by two geniuses. Who won? Was it the Jew who got her pregnant and broke her heart and became the world's biggest grumbler? Or was it the mad theoretician, more important as a culture prophet than all those who preceded him? Now read the words of the song. Be attentive to the tragic and heartrending life story of the lost blonde princess Edie Sedgwick, and then factor into the equation Dylan's madness and the simplistic genius of Warhol; and then synchronize your iPhone 4 to iTunes and know that in large measure we cannot be called civilized without having decoded a masterwork like "Like a Rolling Stone." Without having immersed ourselves in the deconstruction of this text, which was born in a prolonged act of carnage in the tormented mind of an artist at the height of his creative libido.
12. In 2004, the magazine Rolling Stone (which happens to have taken its name from a Muddy Waters song ) listed the most important and most influential songs of the 20th century. This song headed the list. Add an exclamation mark to that sentence. Oh, how much drama resides in the life of a surfeit of talent!
13. Inside this burning song of hate, driven by a violent energy, lurks a love song. Unrequited love. For a man and for a woman. Is it any wonder that he abandoned her and married another woman? Only a man who truly loves a woman is capable of inflicting that kind of punishment on her. And what of Warhol? That tempestuous duel will be decided by history. Each of the males will do his thing. One will write, play an instrument and sing; one will produce art with a crooked eye, which is unexampled for seeing the world refract. The woman, as in every American pop myth, will die young, beautiful and perfect, like Norma Jean, while the men wage their cock wars over blood, ego and eternal glory. And the stone will keep on rolling. Until Dylan dies. Or until his songs are no longer played.
14. In the famous myth, the wretched Sisyphus tries to roll a boulder up a mountain to the top, but time after time the boulder rolls down the slope and forces him to start over. In Albert Camus' interpretation of this myth, the only serious dilemma facing modern man is: Why not commit suicide? Dylan's rolling stone is propelled by a completely different force: not by the force of frustration, but by the force of scattershot. Scattershot which, by the end of a text, coalesces into a broken whole. A broken whole of rolling splinters of gravel, jumpy little stones.
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