Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Two recollections this time. One, I am 99% sure I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” on the school bus (one of the drivers over the years was a fan of the classic rock station). And I swear to god I remember being struck by it, even as I strained to hear it over all the talking (needless to say, I did not talk to anyone on the schoolbus). I didn’t know who the artist was or what the song was called, of course, but I knew I liked it. Two, many many years later, I saw Robyn Hitchcock play a solo show at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He was excellent, and for the encore (possibly the only song – I am not sure) he played “Desolation Row” (claiming, I think incorrectly, that Dylan didn’t play it live anymore). It was among the most impressive 12 minute time spans of my life. Beyond the fact that he knew all the words, and apart from his own very skilled guitar playing, Hitchcock gave this song a reading that honored the original while deviating from it.

What I Think of This Album

Springsteen described the opening drum hit of “Like A Rolling Stone” as the sound of the door of his consciousness being kicked open. That’s a tough description to beat. Highway 61 Revisited was the sound of Dylan refining his considerable gifts, somehow surpassing his stellar work on Bringing It All Back Home. If Dylan had moved away from folk on his previous album, he all but rejected it on this one (“Desolation Row” being the only link remaining).

There is so much going on in “Like A Rolling Stone,” it’s frankly daunting. Dylan delivers the lyrics with such intensity, drawing out certain words (“make a deeeeeeaaaaaal”) and emphasizing some (“how does it FEEL?”) and underplaying others (“With no direction home / A complete unknown”) and communicating a palpable, vitriolic disgust. Or is it self-loathing? Because I have a hard time listening to the song and not rapidly coming to the conclusion that Dylan(‘s narrator) is lacerating himself. But maybe that’s because while I can’t imagine subjecting another person to this relentless stream of abuse, I sure can understand doing it to myself. Speaking of relentless, Dylan’s acidic observations and mocking questions fuel this song past the six minute mark, which allows it to accrue momentum and mass, like a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain, until it achieves this unstoppable power. Finally, there is the music itself. The instantly recognizable organ part was conceived and played by non-organist Al Kooper, a guest in the studio that day and not one of the musicians actually enlisted to record, who managed to come up with an unexpected contribution that Dylan insisted be highlighted by the mix. Mike Bloomfield played the guitar and Paul Griffin dances his fingers on the piano (Griffin also played the piano on “American Pie”), and of course that’s Dylan on the harmonica. Really, this is a perfect song.

Respite from the heavy emotion of the opening track arrives in an unusual guise, for “Tombstone Blues” is a deeply odd, essentially hallucinogenic, polemic in which Dylan verbally destroys symbols of authority and slaughters sacred cows. For all its unpredictable, evocative, surreal imagery, I find a great deal of humor in it:  from Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the Chamber of Commerce to the sun being chicken and not yellow to the civic effort to reincarnate Paul Revere’s horse to the fantastic collection of stamps employed to win friends and influence an uncle. All the while, the band sounds like they can barely hold it together for the requisite six minutes, never slowing down even as the speeding locomotive of the song loses nuts, bolts, and plates of metal as it careens into the horizon. Bloomfield spirals out blues licks and throws out a couple of solos, Kooper adds more of his savant-organ playing, and drummer Robert Gregg tries to keep everyone on the same page. The experience is at once exhilarating and exhausting.

After those two monumental tunes, the next two songs suffer in comparison. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (one of my favorite Dylan song titles, actually) is a lazy, loping blues song with saloon piano. Paul Westerberg has covered this song, which doesn’t surprise me that much. Meanwhile, “From a Buick 6” is an energetic, sloppy blues song with Kooper on the organ and an insistent bass from Harvey Brooks. This odd song title has inspired Yo La Tengo (“From a Motel 6”) and Billy Bragg (“From a Vauxhall Velox”). The mean-spirited taunting of “Ballad of a Thin Man” follows, and unlike “Rolling Stone,” here it is clear that Dylan is directing his disdain outwardly, cruelly reveling in his hapless listener’s bewilderment. All the while, Dylan plays a somber piano augmented by Kooper’s spooky organ. A great song, but not one I enjoy listening to.

One of my favorite Dylan songs (there are a lot of them) is “Queen Jane Approximately,” which has a warm and gentle melody with Latin flourishes. This track, too, is critical of its subject; it provides a detailed description of the subject’s diminished circumstances, victimized by her own foolishness and shortsightedness. But, there is a sense of compassion and comfort, as Dylan invites Queen Jane to cry on his shoulder once she has hit rock bottom and rid herself of her illusions. The piano is wonderful, the guitar leads are cool, and the harmonica part is excellent. Luna’s “I Want Everything” borrows from the melody of “Queen Jane.” Dylan follows this up with the comical, Judeo-Freudian (Dylan’s father was named Abram [Abraham], and Highway 61 goes to Dylan’s hometown of Duluth) fever dream of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Between the omnipresent slide whistle and the considerable wordplay, this is Dylan at his most exuberant. LA punks X have an excellent cover of “Highway 61 Revisited.”

The barrelhouse piano reappears on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” another bit of comedy, this time revolving around a series of physical and moral grotesqueries in Mexico. still, the feel of the song is laidback and easygoing. Wrapping things up is the epic, multi-hued “Desolation Row.” Lacking the ire of much of the rest of the classic songs on this album, Dylan adopts a plainspoken delivery and lets the imagery flow, incorporating references literary, biblical, and historical, all of it disturbingly pointing to decay and destruction. While Dylan’s lyrics are the understandable focus, the intricate guitar fills by Charlie McCoy are nothing short of beautiful. The Old 97’s borrowed the melody for “Champaign, Illinois.” It’s difficult to imagine surpassing Bringing It All Back Home, but Dylan accomplished that, a mere five months later, with this jaw-dropping work.

Bob Johnston produced.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Like a Rolling Stone,” but almost every track is stupendous.

Release Date

August, 1965

The Cover Art

Intentionally or not, the combination of the red and white horizontal stripes and the motorcycle graphic on Dylan’s shirt give this a mythical “American” feel (though I am guessing its a Triumph (and therefore British) motorcycle).

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