Robert: Rolling Stone magazine named Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) the greatest song of all time in 2004. It certainly contains the best Rolling Stone product placement of all time — it predates the magazine’s existence, making it a truly impressive example of forward-thinking marketing — but is it really the best song ever? For the purposes of this edition of Song-Off, you bet your ass it is! Some say this immaculate kiss-off to a privileged bohemian girl who wants to be a starving artist (but without all that icky starvation) was blown in the direction of Edie Sedgwick or Joan Baez. But others say it’s Dylan turning his poison pen on himself, that he’s the one “with no direction home” after embracing electric guitars and alienating his folk-music fans. But as he says in the song, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Dylan goes for broke in “Like a Rolling Stone” and comes up with a song for the ages.
Mojo: Bob Dylan’s overrated. There, I said it. He’s no poet like Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, or that dude who wrote the Broadway play about furry felines. He’s simply not. To be fair, it isn’t Dylan’s fault that cultural scholars compare his work to theirs. I put this one on the scholars who, in their comparative research, have deigned to elevate him so. (This is not to disparage his civil-rights protests that exhibited, at times, balls of steel for a little guitar-wielding pipsqueak. For that, he should be commended and elevated on a pedestal.)
Mojo: Unlike the vastly overrated Dylan, the Temptations have been vastly underrated. In fact, half of you reading this now are muttering to yourselves, “Temptations and Dylan in the same sentence? WTF?” I’ll tell you what — they told it like it was. Some people might call “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” a black story. Others might call it a general lower-class story. But being an irresponsible jackass is a truly American art form that knows no class or racial boundaries. In this song, The Temptations call out every single male who can’t keep it zipped, whoever they are, wherever they are, and no matter how fat their wallet is. Originally written by Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the Undisputed Truth originally recorded the song and it went to #63 on the pop charts in 1971. The Temptations were the perfect group to record the following year’s definitive version, however, giving discrete voice to the mother-and-son dialogue of the lyrics as well as dramatic harmonies that helped “tell it like it is.” No way does one single folk singer trump the mighty ensemble that is The (with a capital T) Temptations.
Robert: The Temptations came up with a hell of a song themselves when they recorded “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” but how much credit should the group be given for it? Norman Whitfield produced it and cowrote it with Barrett Strong. They’re the heroes who came up with the sleek, atmospheric instrumental opening, which lasts nearly four minutes on the full-length album version before Dennis Edwards’s voice makes an appearance. As legend has it, the Temptations didn’t want to record “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” but after watching David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams leave the group one by one starting in 1968, I can’t really blame the remaining members for lacking confidence. Unfortunately, their identity crisis comes through loud and clear, and it’s Whitfield and Strong who deserve the credit for pushing “Papa” across the finish line.
Last episode, Zack Dennis narrowly won his battle with schizophrenia, as They Might Be Giants and Zack’s lighter side prevailed by just a single vote. Join us again in two weeks as we throw on a pair of Derelicte jeans and debate a pair of songs about Vagrancy.