Many consider Like a Rolling Stone the most influential song in rock history. Although its main theme is obviously a sneer to someone who has fallen into poverty, apparently a woman, there are parts of the song that seem to be more obscure than that, and it’s my intention to write in this article what I think they mean.
Although there is a chance that some parts of the song are addressed to both men and women, to be clearer in my statements I will suppose that the main character is a woman. The opening lines of the song establish the woman’s initial condition:
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
And the first verse ends with lines in which the singer shows to be enjoying this woman’s current tragic situation:
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
The second verse is an attack on formal education, which resulted to be completely useless to prevent the main character of this song from falling into poverty:
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're going to have to get used to it
Here is when a new character appears: “The mystery tramp”. The only person I can think of that fits that description is Jesus Christ. Let’s see the lyrics:
You said you'd never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him, "Do you want to make a deal?"
Although I must confess that I still don’t fully understand the previous lines, I do understand that the woman had always rejected religion, and now she looks at an image of Jesus (the vacuum of his eyes refers to the fact that she is looking just an image), and while doing this, she starts thinking that religion could be useful for her, which is represented by her asking the image of Jesus to make a deal, after having said in the past that she’d never compromise.
The following verse is epic. It starts with:
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
This means that the main character never took a time to think that the clowns and the jugglers that entertained her when she was a kid were just struggling to survive, and that they didn’t necessarily like what they were doing, but they had to do it. To be more precise, by the label “clowns and jugglers” the singer is making reference to any worker that has ever provided a service to her. He is stating that never before she grasped the importance of working to earn a living.
Then it follows with:
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
When we are kids our parents do everything for us, and this ends up damaging our ability to deal with the world, specially if we still let them do it when we are not kids anymore. That’s what the previous lines describe.
Then it follows with:
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
I think the chrome horse is the family car; the person that the singer calls "your diplomat" is the woman’s father, who did all the talk for her, as fathers usually do when they travel with their kids, and I would bet that the Siamese cat on the shoulder of the diplomat is her mother.
Finally, the last verse seems to be a look on the bright side of the woman’s situation: she’s invisible and she has nothing to lose or to conceal. Although again I find this whole verse confusing, rather than obscure, the only thing that I can add is that I think that there’s again a reference to Jesus, this time called “Napoleon in rags”:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinking, thinking that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it, babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
That’s my take on it. Only Bob Dylan knows, and maybe also Green Day and The Rolling Stones, the bands that made the two cover versions that I most enjoy listening.