Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan
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"...perhaps it's a reference to the stagnation in rock and roll..."
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Now for ten years we've been on our own
McLean was writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years after the crash.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
It's unclear who the "rolling stone" is supposed to be. It could be Dylan, since "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) was his first major hit; and since he was busy writing songs extolling the virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying at home (he didn't tour from '66 to '74) and raking in the royalties. This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier Dylan.
The "rolling stone" could also be Elvis, although I don't think he'd started to pork out by the late sixties.
It could refer to rock and rollers in general, and the changes that had taken place in the business in the 60's, especially the huge amounts of cash some of them were beginning to make, and the relative stagnation that entered the music at the same time.
Or, perhaps it's a reference to the stagnation in rock and roll.
Or, finally, it could refer to the Rolling Stones themselves; a lot of musicians were angry at the Stones for "selling out". Howard Landman points out that John Foxx of Ultravox was sufficiently miffed to write a song titled "Life At Rainbow's End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)". The Stones at one point became citizens of some other country merely to save taxes.
|The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later.||
But that's not how it used to be
The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later. There are several interpretations of king and queen: some think that Elvis Presley is the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen is said to be either Connie Francis or Little Richard. But see the next note.
An alternate interpretation is that this refers to the Kennedys -- the king and queen of "Camelot" -- who were present at a Washington DC civil rights rally featuring Martin Luther King. (There's a recording of Dylan performing at this rally.)
On the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan is wearing
just such as red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar
to one shown in a well-known picture of James Dean.
....This could be a reference to Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his place.)
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In the movie "Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film (see note at end).
In one particularly intense scene, Dean lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean's father arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it's Dean, and loses it.
On the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan is wearing just such as red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to one shown in a well-known picture of James Dean.
Bob Dylan played a command performance for the Queen of England. He was *not* properly attired, so perhaps this is a reference to his apparel.
And a voice that came from you and me
Bob Dylan's roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the music of the masses, hence the "...came from you and me".
Oh, and while the King was looking down
This could be a reference to Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his place.)
The thorny crown might be a reference to the price of fame. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols.
The courtroom was adjourned,
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven, but McLean seems to be talking about music, not politics at this point in the song.
With that in mind, perhaps he meant that the arguments between Dylan and Elvis fans over who was better just couldn't be settled.
...the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles
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And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. (Of course, he could be referring to Groucho Marx, but that doesn't seem quite consistent with McLean's overall tone. On the other hand, some of the wordplay in Lennon's lyrics and books is reminiscint of Groucho.) The "Marx-Lennon" wordplay has also been used by others, most notably the Firesign Theatre on the cover of their album "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?". Also, a famous French witticism was "Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho."; "I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety".
It's also a pun on "Lenin".
|"...in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point...."||
The quartet practiced in the park
There are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is the Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but note that the previous line has John Lennon *doing something else at the same time*. This tends to support the theory that this is a reference to the Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early 60's while performing in coffeehouses and clubs in upstate New York and New York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete Seeger; in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point. Seeger's LP "God Bless the Grass" contains many of these songs.
And we sang dirges in the dark
A "dirge" is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps this is meant literally...or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the new "art rock" groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.
The day the music died.
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