#4 – Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
April 30, 2015
God, it really is almost absurd how great this record is. I enjoyed hearing Blonde on Blonde so much a few weeks ago that I briefly entertained the possibility that it might be Dylan’s finest album. And it is very close. But no, it’s gotta be this one. While Bringing it All Back Home feels a little tentative and uneven (though brilliant at its high points) and Blonde on Blonde feels almost like an extended victory lap of folk rock supremacy, on this album we hear Dylan just arriving at the peak of his powers, confident, but still hungry to prove himself and the unprecedented music he is creating. It’s almost fearsomely great, even these many decades later.
That said, it’s not an album that I have listened to all that regularly in my adult life, nor is it one I necessarily will ever again play more than a few times a year. The fault is not the album’s, but my own. I tell myself it’s because I played it out in my youth. I was exposed to this album when I was twelve or thirteen, and I fell in love with it with an intensity that is probably exclusive to that general age range. It did for me what punk rock seems to for many people–it was something that really excited me and seemed to speak (albeit in a very abstract way) to my existential condition. And certainly it can happen that something loved that intensely can lose its luster and never feel all that inviting again. But I don’t think that’s entirely it. Frankly–and pathetically–I think it’s just slightly more raw and aggressive than my milquetoast adult tastes naturally gravitate toward. When I do listen to it, it’s not difficult for me to hear. I still love it. But it’s not one I have found myself naturally reaching for in a long time, nor one that I felt the absence of these past few years as a painful lack.
If Blonde on Blonde does have one (arguable) advantage over this one (aside from being twice as long), it is that its sound is more refined. It’s still hard and bluesy in places, but the tone feels more cogent and balanced. More professional. On this one, Dylan was still working out what his electric music would sound like, and while there’s a thrilling sense of discovery in that, it also feels a bit overwhelming (and even occasionally overwhelmed). Between the sharp, chaotic energy of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar lines, Al Kooper’s effective amateurism on the organ, and the general hint of uncertainty about just exactly how music this fast and loud was supposed to fit with words this articulate and strange, there’s a restless, unsettled quality to many of these tracks. That is part of their excitement and their virtue, but it also makes it not an album I can listen to over and over and over again the way I could when I was a kid.
In particular, I must confess to long ago having sort of lost interest in the album’s opening track, single and biggest deal, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Don’t get me wrong–it’s an amazingly great song, and probably one of the most significant, landscape altering singles ever released. That a song that long and smart and angry and loud could even have been released as a single in 1965, and then could have become such a huge hit, is a bit of a miracle unto itself, though no more so than the torrent of brilliant, vituperative verbiage that spills from Dylan’s mouth, against the backdrop of a powerful, all-encompassing cacophony. One hears reports from people who were there of hearing this song on the radio for the first time, and recognizing in that instant that everything had changed forever. It’s that’s big a song, and I would never dream of calling it anything less than a masterpiece. And yet, to my discredit, it’s a song I found myself skipping over after awhile, since I grew up with this album on CD, which makes such abominations far too easy. It’s almost as though my own many listenings to it in the first few years got somehow appended on to its ubiquity back before I was born, so that I was disposed to get sick of it far sooner than a song of this calibre ought to wear itself out.
What is more, while I was skipping that track, I also found myself increasingly skipping track two as well, the superbly surreal “Tombstone Blues.” Listening this time, I was reminded of what a great song it is, and how some of my early favorite moments from the album are in it, such as the loveliness of the phrase “the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone,” and the preposterous vehemence with which Dylan sings “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!” It’s just that it’s got that lightning fast, blues boogie kind of feel which has never been quite my speed, and so I got in the habit of passing it by. It’s a mistake (and a disservice to the album’s integrity) I won’t be making any more, especially in that I’ll hence forth probably only listen to this album on vinyl.
In any event, the track I skipped to, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” has always been among my very favorite tracks on the album, and in some ways, one of my favorite Dylan songs period. It’s far from the most virtuosic or clever or innovative he’s ever been, but there’s something just perfect about this track to me. It brings everything down a notch–the slow, loping tempo, led off by a loose snare drum hit that lacks the shotgun blast power of the one that kicks off “Like a Rolling Stone,” but which eases the listener into its welcoming trainlike groove. The lyrics ease back too on the torrential, surreal brilliance of much of the album, offering instead a stunningly mature modern take on the blues, dipping freely into that wellspring of images and phrases, but adding something distinctively personal to them. But above all, I love it for the way Dylan sings it–the perfect, precocious soulfulness of his phrasing, that, again, embodies the blues tradition without devolving into mere pastiche. I think it’s my single favorite vocal he ever recorded, and also just about the most convincing white blues singing I have ever heard.
“From a Buick 6” is another one I feel I’ve somewhat grown out of. It represents a return to the more frenetic blues style that predominates on this side, and while it has a lot of great lines in, it seems somewhat of a minor effort compared to some of the album’s true highlights. Anywhere else, it would be a highlight itself, but on an album this densely packed with brilliance, it feels like a bit of a second tier song. Closing the side, however, we’re given one of the album’s highlights in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It sounds different from everything else on the album–more spooky and plodding and strange–and its piling on of surreal, hilarious imagery gives Dylan a chance to ham it up a little–to enjoy his own brilliant sort of ridiculousness in a way that I think he does a lot more of on Blonde of Blonde. Thematically, it’s perhaps a bit heavy handed–even kind of smug–and yet in its own time, I get the sense that it really threw down the gauntlet in terms of fortifying the reach of the emerging counter culture. It presents a kind of “which side are you on?” fault line between what is young and cool and imaginative and what is old and stodgy and complacent in its comfortable certainty, and anyone even remotely young in spirit couldn’t help but come over to his side. In a way, it could be the song that really invented hippies as a broad cultural construct. I’ve heard Donald Fagen (who named Steely Dan’s first album after a line from “It Takes a Lot to Laugh…”) recounting the experience of being driven to college by his father, hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio and feeling quite starkly the enormous cultural and cognitive gulf between his father’s generation and his own. But if it were this song that was getting radio play instead, you could almost imagine them not even being able to sit in the same car together.
Side two opens up with “Queen Jane Approximately,” which is another of my very favorite songs on the album. It’s got a cleaner, almost poppier sound, which some people interpret as making it less interesting, but I think it’s just great. It’s propelled by a piano part that provides a nice respite from the ominous organ sounds elsewhere, and the guitar tone is clean and unhurried. Thematically, it mirrors the side one opener, “Like a Rolling Stone,” but is a good deal less confrontational. I think it’s a beautifully put together song, and another one of his finest vocal performances on the album–more measured in its rage, and thus more subtly expressive. It’s one of the few songs from the album that made it into regular iPod rotation for me, and thus has remained more a part of my life than others.
The title track is another masterpiece that I think of as sort of played out for me, but which I almost always still enjoy when I actually hear it. Starting with the coolest, deftest precis of a biblical story you could ever ask for, it becomes a cavalcade of absurd characters and vignettes, all centered around the image of one the great, central American highways–one whose musical and cultural significance lies in it being the most common route between the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, and which continues on up through Dylan’s home town in Northern Minnesota. While I try to avoid the fool’s errand of interpreting Dylan’s music, I’ll say that this one feels like some kind of racing, fever dream portrait of America–its hucksters, its showmen and its politicians, who all wind up being facets of more or less the same Barnumesque spirit. And yet its cultural critique feels so mixed in with the song’s willful obscurity and humor and the fun Dylan is having singing it (bolstered by that joyously silly police siren whistle), that it never gets anywhere close feeling heavy-handed. Even if that whistling sound has worn a little thin after decades of hearing it, the song is still a joy to hear.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” always feels like the lost song on the album for me–one I tend to forget about or dismiss, until I actually hear it again and remember how much I love it. It’s another of the quieter, more easily approachable songs, and one that seems to have more of a semi-consistent narrative running through it–one still flecked with absurdity and humor, but with a decidedly quieter, sadder tone. It shares with the later song “Goin’ to Acapulco” a vision of Mexico as like a North American backwater, a place where people burned out on making it in America might try to escape to, only to find a whole new set of dispiriting complications. Except that in this one, the singer resolves in the end to make it back to New York City, while the singer of “Goin’ to Acapulco” sounds as though he’ll be settling in for the long haul. This one is another great vocal performance from Dylan–in the plaintiveness of his tone, and in the way his phrasing grooves in an almost proto-rap-like way along over the bar line in lines like “and negativity don’t pull you through.” Listening this time, it occurred to me that it is only the grinding repetition of the bass ostinato that has made the song feel a little long in the tooth. Otherwise, it’s really quite great.
This lead us to the album’s final track, and one of its most enduring masterpieces, “Desolation Row.” It picks up on the dreamlike, road-as-metaphor theme of “Highway 61 Revisited,” expanding it greatly over a much more populous landscape of characters and events whose symbolic import feel miraculously apt and unannoying–and, not coincidentally, purposefully vague. But where “Highway 61” feels manic, almost jubilant in the scenes it surveys, this one borrows something from the enervated tone of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” It has some real gravity to it. It’s also the only acoustic song on the album. Where the acoustic moments on Bringing it All Back Home feel in places like concessions to Dylan’s folk base, this one feels like it stands more confidently on its own two feet as simply the best aesthetic choice for this song. The entire album that precedes it is as loud and in your face as it wants to be, and when it settles down into this quieter mode at the end, it feels like an appropriate and unforced winding down. More importantly, though, it is the track that shows Dylan at his most absurdly virtuosic (and virtuosically absurd) as a writer. Line after line, vignette upon vignette, are consistently vivid and brilliant, their hilarity mitigated by the quiet matter of factness with which they’re sung. The long train of dreamlike imagery resists point for point interpretation (not that many haven’t tried, I’m sure), but the sum total feels of a piece with Dylan’s tradition of cultural critique, from the more overt protest song era to the comparative uncanniness of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.” Here, he finally arrives at a supremely refined vision in which not a trace of didacticism is to be found–only a bottomlessly profound and delightful montage of poetic brilliance (or as close to it as one could ever hope to hear on a rock ‘n roll album). The song is eleven minutes long, and I have heard it so many times that I can sing along with it line for line, and yet it still feels remarkably fresh and bracing to me. While there’s no one track that could hope to best exemplify everything that makes Bob Dylan so important, if I could chose to play only one track to someone who wasn’t sure what the big deal was, I would go with this one, provided they had eleven minutes to spare.
This album is an important and great one in lots of different ways, and the irony is not lost on me that, though I want to hang on to calling this one of my very favorite albums, one of its central importances–its ferociously raucous, confrontational tone–is not among the qualities I find all that appealing these days. I guess I think of it as like a “to everything there is a season” situation. (The irony is also not lost on me that I have managed to quote two Pete Seeger song titles in a piece on Dylan’s most electric album.) The rawness and anger expressed on a lot of these tracks very much spoke to me when I was young and trying to figure the world out, just as it did in its own time, when the whole world was in some sense trying to figure itself out. Even Dylan himself gravitated back toward a generally quieter tone after this period of his output had drawn to a close–after he proved he could do it. But while those qualities are harder for me to feel drawn toward now, I continue to very actively love the album’s quieter, more musical moments, and the crackle of brilliance and world-altering idiosyncrasy that pervades the entire album, so that, all told, this remains very much an album I will love and admire all my life, even if it doesn’t get played every day of my life.
Source: LP – An early, possibly original, mono copy. I was thrilled to find it a few months ago at a reasonable price–super clean too. The only track that has any significant noise on it is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and while I’m not generally a “pops and ticks are part of what makes vinyl great” guy, in this case, that crackle added nicely to the ominous tone of the song. Overall, though, I must confess to having found the album as a whole a bit unexpectedly thin sounding, and I’m not sure right at that moment if that’s an inherent quality of the recording, or if my pressing just isn’t a great one. I’ll have to compare it to the recent mono reissue.