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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Like a rolling flow

Bob Dylan’s handwritten drafts of the lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” are being put up for auction by Sotheby’s. They may go for $2 million, or more. But the best part (unless you have $2 million to spare) is that we can look at these drafts right here, on the New York Times's ArtsBeat blog. “Rolling Stone” is scribbled on stationary from the Roger Smith Hotel (“One block from the White House”) in Washington, D.C. — and these pages offer a fascinating window into, or a sketch of, the creative process.

The first thing I notice is: they’re written in pencil. That’s worth thinking about.

Sure, this was 1965. If Dylan were a budding songwriter today, he’d no doubt be an early adopter of some DoodleMoodleBrainWaveMindMapThoughtCruncher 4.0. Or would he?

If you look at page one of the “Rolling Stone” draft, it’s plain that the pencil gives the man’s mind freedom on the page. He doesn’t have to figure out or enter anything but his thoughts, and his thoughts are not linear. That’s another thing to notice: along with the words, and his various crossouts and instant revisions of the words, he’s penciled in lines that connect, lines that separate, and notes in the margins (“Pony Blues,” “Mavis,” “Midnight Special,” “Capone”) that snatch at connections his mind is making. He’s done doodles, which may or may not be images that mean something, along with ... a chicken. And a hat. Yes, hipsters will be happy. It’s a soft fedora, the hat.

I don’t know if you could do all that as readily and as flexibly with DoodleMoodleBrainWaveMindMapThoughtCruncher 4.0. Even if you could, you’d need a laptop, the software, some understanding of how to work it, plus (if you were cooking on this for a while; we can picture Dylan up all night in the Roger Smith, smoking one cigarette after another) someplace to plug in. Dylan didn’t even have paper; he snatched a couple sheets from a drawer in his room. He just had the pencil. Oh, and a way to sharpen it.

But, of course, it’s not really about the pencil. What you see on the page is the working out, building up, and fooling with the flow of the man’s budding ideas for his song. He’s searching for phrases he can set down phrases that rhyme with “How does it feel?”, and that build on his basic idea. You can see when he hits it: the line “About having to be scrounging your next meal” stretches clean and perfect across the center of the first manuscript page, just the way it does in the song he went on to record.

“Like a Rolling Stone” changed popular music. It broke through the conventions of the three-minute love song, and opened the way for all the music of the late 60s. But Dylan labored over the song for two days in the studio. He tried to make it work in 3/4 time, but it didn’t; then things clicked when he shifted to a rock four-beat. Al Kooper came up with the opening organ riff, though Kooper claims he didn’t even play organ at the time and was only trying to work his way into the session. When the song was released, deejays didn’t want to play it because it was long. But it became more than a hit.

“‘Like a Rolling Stone’ transformed Dylan's career,” says the Wikipedia piece on the song, “and is today considered one of the most influential compositions in post-war popular music.”

Take a look at these pages, if you’re interested, and see what you notice. What comes through mainly for me is the potential in simplicity. This boundary-breaking work, whose rough draft is now worth a million dollars or more, began with the plainest of tools, a pencil and a few sheets of borrowed paper. And with the most potent and flexible software of all: a mind that was opening up to an idea.

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The treasure box
The bigots are aging. Kids give me hope.
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