Is it Still Genius if We Can See the Bits that Were Scratched Out?

Is it Still Genius if We Can See the Bits that Were Scratched Out?
Image: Sotheby's Catalog

Last week a draft of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for more than $2 million at a Sotheby’s auction. Handwritten in pencil on hotel stationary, the draft includes the songwriter’s scribbles, scratched out bits, doodles and seemingly random marginalia — a chicken, a hat, a reindeer and Mavis (Staples, of course). Mind you, these are the original lyrics for what Rolling Stone magazine has dubbed the Number 1 Greatest Song of All Time. What’s with the re-work? The unfinished refrains? Is this really the work of lyrical genius or is the great and powerful Oz rock & roll legend just a man behind a curtain after all?

Both, I think.

The lyrics themselves are painterly and impressionistic, dreamlike and awash in vivid imagery, even as they build a stinging litany of charges against “Miss Lonely.”1 Dylan’s performance feels like a stream-of-consciousness rant, a syncopated tumble of insult and invective…

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal?

Me, I’d like to think the scribbles and the scratched-out bits and the false starts and couplets that just trail off on the page reveal where the artist’s true genius lies — in the editing.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?


Notes and Links

  1. By most accounts, they’re also thinly-velied references to the subjects of Dylan’s most famous taunt. “How does it feel?”