Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited

1965 - having tested the waters earlier on in the year with the release of the half electric, half acoustic Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan discovered that a lot of people were pissed off with him for leaving his solo acoustic troubadour/folk/protest singer roots. So, obviously, the only thing he could do was pick up his strat, hire a band and hit the studio to record what was possibly the loudest, most raucous Bob Dylan long player ever.

It's hard to imagine what Highway 61 Revisited sounded like to Dylan's core fans back in '65. Granted, the raucous Maggie's Farm and the stream-of-conciousness assault of Subterranean Homesick Blues were a warning shot - and accusing Dylan of selling out to crass rock 'n' roll, they probably hoped it was just a phase he would grow out of. But Dylan had long grown out of protest song rhetoric; and although his voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica would remain the nucleus of most of his songs, Dylan decided to get some backing to colour his work.

Track Listing

  1. Like A Rolling Stone
  2. Tombstone Blues
  3. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry
  4. From A Buick 6
  5. Ballad Of a Thin Man
  6. Queen Jane Approximately
  7. Highway 61 Revisited
  8. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
  9. Desolation Row
Personnel: Produced by Bob Johnston, except track 1 produced by Tom Wilson. All songs written by Bob Dylan.

Highway 61 Revisited, his sixth album, has long been held up as one of Bob Dylan's greatest works. It was recorded fairly quickly, after a tour of the UK, and released in August 1965. Apparently, the tour hadn't gone too well - many Dylan fans were none too enamoured of his new electric band - and living on coffee, speed, cigarettes and not much sleep had taken its toll on Dylan. He was on the verge of quitting altogether when he came up with the epic, six minute long Like A Rolling Stone on the flight home. This was to become a hit single in the days when the vast majority of chart singles were three minutes or under.

Highway 61 runs south from Minnesota through the Mississippi Delta, the home of the blues; throughout the album, Dylan mixes the blues with garage rock and his own acoustic style to produce the first real rock album that could be taken seriously in a literary context. Sure, there were some light-hearted moments (the police car siren punctuating the title track, as well as the liberties he takes with the biblical tale of Abraham), and Dylan has never attempted to explicate Ballad Of A Thin Man ("is it about Rolling Stone Brian Jones?" is the question everybody asks), but overall Dylan blends his own style of lyricism well with whatever genre he chooses to molest.

The opener, Like A Rolling Stone, is a supremely effective, stream of conciousness rant against...well, it seems to be against groupies, or socialites...kinda like 19th Nervous Breakdown by the Stones. It's a lot more coherent than its predecessor, Subterranean Homesick Blues, both lyrically and musically, fuelled by a great organ riff and Dylan's venomnous delivery. Track two, Tombstone Blues, is a somewhat madcap adventure, set to a garage rock backing, involving Beethoven, Paul Revere, Jezebel... it's a bit like Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, the deconstruction of the Pilgrim story from his previous album, really - only this time without the giggling false start.

Next comes the easy-going piano blues of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, one of the more oddly titled songs in the Dylan canon. Lyrically, it's a pretty simple, traditional, blues song about a guy on a train. But this being Dylan, the phrasing, the words and the music are exquisitely done. From A Buick 6 is another lighter track, another piece of garage rock with a great organ riff - Al Kooper is on superb form throughout the entire album.

The next tune, Ballad Of A Thin Man, is an altogether more serious and sombre affair. Coloured by melancholy organ and slightly out-of-tune piano, the music sounds like walking home, alone, in the rain. The lyric has been debated intensely - the leading theories are that it's either about Brian Jones, or it's a composite caricature of all the journalists and interviewers who pissed Dylan off.

Queen Jane Approximately is probably the *nicest* song on the album; it's quite gentle, and features slightly-delayed, slightly out-of-tune guitar and piano riffs. dannye's writeup explicates the song nicely, so I'll direct you to that. The title track comes next; musically it's kind of intense and driving, but with comedy police siren and a funny piano riff; lyrically, it's another off-kilter story-song with biblical references ("God said to Abraham 'Kill me a son'") that Dylan would take more seriously in his later work.

Track eight is Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - I once convinced an ex-girlfriend that the U.S. Government had passed legislation to make it illegal for Dylan to release an album without a song with the word "blues" in the title on it. Don't ask me how - she probably just wasn't listening to me properly. Anyway, it's another fairly mellow tune, with gentle guitar work and piano, lacking the organ that dominates most of the album. Lyrically, it is pretty similar to Simon and Garfunkel's The Boxer, the tale of a poor and lonely boy, down and out in the city.

The last tune is another Dylan epic - Desolation Row. It abandons the electric instrumentation of the rest of the album for two acoustic guitars, one gently strummed, the other expertly plucked. It's yet another fine Dylan story-song, telling the melancholy stories of the inhabitants of Desolation Row. Stark and beautiful, Desolation Row is the album's sole throwback to the "old style" Dylan, and highlights one of his great strengths; at eleven minutes long, it could be quite a cumbersome and boring song in the hands of others, but Dylan's phrasing and lyrical poetry make the minutes fly by.

To sum up, this is one of Dylan's greatest albums; although it's often overshadowed by the excellent Blonde On Blonde, and lacking in the more sensitive acoustic moments of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited has a unique vitality and spontaneity to it. While Dylan would go on to play with greater musicians (most notably The Hawks, whom he re-christsned The Band), the group he assembled for Highway 61 Revisited all brought strengths to the album.

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