Once upon a time, Bob Dylan turned his career on a dime and threw all the jugglers and the clowns – and popular music fans – for a loop with the release of "Like a Rolling Stone."
Driven by Al Kooper's pulsing organ riff and Dylan's fierce harmonica tooting, the song melded folk, gospel and rock like no previous pop tune. “Like a Rolling Stone” debuted just days before Dylan famously "went electric" at the Newport Jazz Festival, jolting the folk world and charging into new musical frontiers.
The song that’s most defined Dylan in the popular consciousness and helped redefine popular music could soon make new history, nearly 49 year later: The original handwritten lyrics of "Like a Rolling Stone" are set to be auctioned Tuesday at Sotheby's and are expected to fetch as much as a record $2 million.
No one’s asked Dylan “How does it feel?” that his scrawl seems likely to bring in big bucks. But it’s probably a good bet he’d get a chuckle over his song about a fall from grace becoming an object of high commerce in its middle age.
The auction marks a new verse in the tale of an unlikely and influential hit. “Like a Rolling Stone” helped herald a shift toward edgy and erudite lyrics in pop (“You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat”), arriving the week the Rolling Stones’ breakthrough rant “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” topped the Billboard charts. Dylan’s signature song also broke the 2 ½-minute single barrier, surpassing six minutes, three years before "Hey Jude" became the Beatles’ longest and most successful song.
Dylan is going up against the Beatles, in another sense, Tuesday at Sotheby’s. The current rock lyrics auction record is the $1.2 million paid in 2010 for John Lennon’s manuscript for “A Day in the Life.”
That’s a song Paul McCartney has faithfully recreated in concert in recent years. Dylan, meanwhile, takes apart his compositions frequently on stage – sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what he's playing, between new arrangements and his increasingly croaky voice.
But his original “Like a Rolling Stone” has withstood the years: A decade ago, the recording headed Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. Last year, the tune found new audiences via a clever interactive video that put images to his priceless words.
Check out the video here as high rollers line up for a piece of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.