Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
Released August, 1965

This album is the first of many transitions in the long career of Bob Dylan. His songs and albums have been woven into pop culture over the decades, and love him or loathe him you don’t have to look far to see his influence on popular music. Up until this point, Dylan had been making albums that were very sparsely produced; often just his voice, a guitar and a harmonica. He had been hailed as the saviour of the folk scene and found himself the unwilling spokesperson for a generation. He had brought out “Bringing It All Back Home” five months earlier, which featured a full electric rock band arrangement on all the songs on the first side. Although the second half of the album appeared to be his trademark acoustic folk/pop fare, he had moved away from the protest songs he had become synonymous with, favouring introspective and emotional themes. Shortly after that album’s release, Dylan performed a set at the Newport Folk Festival that saw several audience members boo him for playing an electric guitar, and having a full band. Many members of the folk scene mourned that he’d lost his way and betrayed them. Dylan just wanted to sing his songs, and not go out on stage by himself for the rest of his career.

‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is probably the most famous song on “Highway 61 Revisited”, regularly sitting at high positions on Greatest Song polls around the world. When Bruce Springsteen inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 he said that the song’s opening snare shot “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”. What a fitting way to start this album, and to finally signal the end of his time as a protest singer. The song also changed the blueprint of the radio hit single by exceeding the hallowed three minutes and coming in at over six. To call the song a classic is an understatement; most people upon hearing the first line will chime in with “didn’t you?”.

There are so many great moments here. The seedy sounding piano that opens ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ makes the listener feel like they’ve stepped into the wrong saloon, especially when the ominous chorus line comes: “Because something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?” In the ramshackle rush of ‘Tombstone Blues’ Dylan threatens to leave the other musicians behind as several cues are nearly missed throughout the track. The wonderful ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ just might be my favourite Dylan song title and the rock chug of ‘From a Buick 6’ will get any foot tapping. The last song on the album is the only one without drums or an electric guitar, the beautiful eleven minute epic ‘Desolation Row’. What the song means is anyone’s guess, but the imagery is astounding. Dylan peppers the lyrics with many characters – fictional, biblical and historical – that drop in and out like tourists. The constant flourishes from Nashville’s Charlie McCoy on flamenco guitar adds to the beauty of this exceptional song. Arguably one of the best closing tracks ever recorded.

What Dylan did with this record was challenge his fans. Some turned their back, some came through the door kicking and screaming; others more willingly. I believe he showed other artists they could reinvent themselves, and acts like the Beatles, Bowie, U2 and Madonna took note. I saw Dylan at the Blues n Roots Festival in Fremantle last year and he performed three songs off this album. For an artist who doesn’t often look back, that’s a testament to his opinion of the record, and its enduring legacy.

Bob Dylan was, and still is, quite a prolific writer. In the 60s he released nine albums alone, of which a handful could have been included in this project. “Highway 61 Revisited” was recorded around the time the Dylan ‘went electric’, thus upsetting the folk kids. Those with an open mind saw it for the brilliance that it was. It is with good reason that two of Dylan’s albums feature in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of all Time’, with “Highway 61 Revisited” coming in at #4. For those playing at home the song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ came in at #1 on their ‘500 Greatest Songs of all Time‘ list. Now, I want to talk a little bit about poetry. The term ‘high school poetry’ is one I’ve bandied around a bit. I use it to describe lyrics that whilst have good intentions come across a little forced and, dare I say it, pretentious. They are lyrics that try hard to be meaningful or clever but tend to be intellectualised rather than emotionally realised. Real poetry, to me, doesn’t need to be understood. It transcends the words and it’s something you connect to or don’t. It’s like good art or music. You don’t know why you like it, you just do. Do I understand the lyric “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”? No. Do I care? Not at all, because whilst I don’t understand it, I believe Dylan does. And this is where Bob Dylan, like so many of the great writers and poets, excels for me. This an album I’m very familiar with, so it was an absolute pleasure to revisit it all week long. I’m hard pressed to pick a favourite song as the album is so solid, but at a push I’d say ‘Queen Jane Approximately’.
Fun fact: one of my favourite things in the world to do is sing crappy pop songs in the style of Bob Dylan. Try it!

This is not the first time I’ve listened to this album. I’ve enjoyed it before. It kicks off with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which is a timeless classic. The song that was written after Dylan completed a long slog of a tour of England. It was never meant to even be a song, it was just Dylan channelling his anger on paper, until he read it at the piano. It changes the song a bit for me, thinking of it in its context. After that though, the whole album is a bit of a blur to me. Perhaps I’m the only one, but every song seems very similar. I did take particular notice of ‘Tombstone Blues’ though. It’s a pretty fun song, even if I had no idea what it was about. That brings up my next point: does anyone have a clue what Bob Dylan was on about? At all? Ever? Maybe it’s just too deep for me. ‘From a Buick 6’ is the track I think is the best musically, with a rock solid bass line, that typically jangly guitar sound, and a blazing harmonica solo. And why not, when you play blues harmonica like that! ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. What an odd song. Wikipedia says that it’s the story of a normal bloke walking in to a room of “intentionally bizarre circus freaks”. Whatever it’s really about, there’s an awful lot of “and he said, and you said”. Also, points for using the words “one-eyed midget” in a song. If you’re a folk/blues fan, you probably dug this album. This time around, though, I just couldn’t get in to it.

Ok so if you’re like me and think that Bob Dylan is not for you, you’ll soon see the error in your ways, because, truth be told, Bob Dylan has something for everyone. Dylan’s style traverses many musical genres, including folk, rock and roll, blues, gospel, country and rockabilly. This album was quite revolutionary; it pioneered the blending of folk and rock, by utilizing a mixture of acoustic and electric instrumentation. I think that this gives the songs a really rich depth of sound and it makes it easier to distinguish the different timbres of the instruments, which I really like.  I was transfixed by Dylan’s distinctive staccato vocal and vividly descriptive lyrics. He really is a bloody fantastic story teller and you find yourself waiting for the next verse, just to find out what happens next in the tale he’s recounting to you. I also found myself trying to figure out the hidden meanings behind what he was saying, particularly in tracks ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Tombstone Blues’, which feature highly loaded lyrics. At times I felt as though the whole thing was about to fall over; on several of the tracks the lead guitar seems to drop out of sync with the percussion. And on others, the lead guitar is really out of tune (‘Queen Jane approximately’). Somehow it still works a treat! My stand out favourite track is ‘Desolution Row’, which is thought to tell the tale of the lynching of 3 rapists in Dylan’s home town. This song cleverly juxtaposes the unspeakable; a pretty ballad accented with a south-western style counter-melody, and is the only fully-acoustic song on the album. In fact this track epitomises everything that Highway 61 represents; beautiful and understated musicianship, poetry, and social commentary. A perfect conclusion to a truly iconic album that I can honestly say I wholeheartedly loved.

Every week we’d like to hear your thoughts on the album. Just click on one of the links below, or leave a comment here to have your say.

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