I have to admit, there was a period in my life where I just didn’t get Bob Dylan. I don’t want to categorize Dylan as an “acquired” taste, either. It’s not like getting used to beer or coffee growing up. Nor is it like reading Kerouac or Bukowski, as some have put it. I enjoy both writers, but Dylan is in a field all his own. I grew up in an era—the ’80s—that somewhat ridiculed the man. Just look at Dana Carvey portraying him in Saturday Night Live talking with David Spade’s Tom Petty. While it was funny, and actually done after the ’80s, it was typical of the “me generation” during Reagan’s tenure where ’60s radicalism became the butt of jokes. Then in the ’90s, I had a roommate in college who only had Dylan and Zeppelin in his collection of cassettes. While he had numerous actual Zep albums, he only had Dylan greatest hits collections. And he would listen to them over and over again. Could I have risen above all of this and still appreciated the musician? Sure, but I was too busy trying to figure out how to get girls to notice me.
So, eventually, the ice began to thaw and I decided to give the man once called Robert Zimmerman another shot. The question was, where to start? There were more than 40 albums to choose from! I could have started from the very beginning with his self-titled album. After all, I started my Costello collection with My Aim Is True. Then again, I started my Bowie collection with Ziggy Stardust. So what was Dylan’s equivalent of that gem? There are still a great many revered albums, so I didn’t end up whittling the number down all that much. I ended up taking a shot in the dark and bought his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited. Having been released just five months after his half-electric / half-acoustic breakthrough Bringing It All Back Home, this album was full-on electric and somewhat a response to the crowd reaction to his first “plugged in” show.
Much has been said about the first snare or rim shot that starts the record. Whatever the comment may be, it has since been often imitated, never truly duplicated in importance. If nothing else, it is the starter pistol to the marathon of lyrics, organ, harmonica, and guitar that is about to begin. Organist Al Kooper and guitarist Michael Bloomfield are the two gifted musicians who bring Dylan such a full rock sound and they should be given credit for filling out such a rapturous landscape of sound.
It’s difficult to estimate the weight and magnitude of “Like a Rolling Stone.” For one, in the age of two- to three-minute songs being the norm, a song that clocked in at over six minutes was unheard of. Throw in the fact that the world was still getting used to Dylan’s new electric rock ‘n roll sound and you end up with a groundbreaking record. And like other album openers “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the song was laden with sing-along choruses that were easy to remember and hard to forget. Let’s face it, everybody knows:
“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”
“Tombstone Blues” is another song that lasts six minutes and has even more lyrics involved than the opener. Although most of the words strung together here are hard to interpret, Dylan himself calling his style “vomitific,” the choruses at least make some sense, speaking of people down on their luck. What else is a blues song going to be about? “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is another bluesy number that was similar to the Beatles’ experiments with the genre, including “One After 909.” The same is true for “From a Buick 6.” Both songs are shorter than the first two, but then we take another trip back to six-minute land with the brilliant “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The song is a portrait of a man who is out of touch with what a lot of people felt the ’60s were all about.
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
The character of the song, Mr. Jones, goes through his day seeing strange circus figures giving him odd answers to open-ended questions, causing him to wonder what is going on around him. This album’s best songs are definitely the longer ones. “Queen Jane Approximately” is another example. The organ, piano, and harmonica are exquisitely interwoven with another memorable chorus. One can’t help but think that Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” was a direct descendant.
The title track, starting out with a crazy toy whistle sound which immediately adds a touch of levity, takes on the form of a string of short stories tied together by the Highway from Dylan’s home state of Minnesota down to Mississippi. Both in theory and in imagery, Dylan ties his electric-folk music to the down and dirty Delta Blues. This theme runs throughout the album, the idea of Highway 61 being the link between his earlier albums and the electric blues he was adopting. All we can do at this point is thank the U.S. Highway System for paving the darn thing. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is famous to a different generation for being a Beastie Boys sample, but this tale of a man lost among deceptive women and men in Juarez, Mexico is timeless. He becomes so disillusioned he says the famous sample line, “I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough.”
Well, if a six-minute song was unheard of, imagine what Dylan fans thought of a song that lasted almost eleven and a half! Referencing Cinderella, Bette Davis, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Einstein, Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, Nero, the Titanic, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, “Desolation Row” is actually what a lot of people feel represents Bob Dylan, a poem set to music. The poetry is actually closer to name dropped Eliot than to poets more linked with the era such as Allen Ginsberg. In fact, I’m somewhat surprised he didn’t sing the lines “In the room the women come and go / Speaking of Michelangelo” before singing “On Desolation Row.” The song is the one acoustic track on the entire album, which can be seen as either a prize for the fans of his previous work who hung in there, or as a spit in the eye to those who thought he shouldn’t have gone electric in the first place. Think of it, making the one acoustic song on the album the last song and a near 12-minute song at that! Many believe that “Desolation Row” was a prophetic look at the end of the ’60s, the civil rights struggles, escalating war in Vietnam, and the devastating assassinations that were to come.
Whether you consider Bob Dylan either a prophet or a poet is unimportant. What is important is that Highway 61 Revisited is a landmark leap for a brilliant artist, and is still as powerful now as it was then. I’m glad I started my collection with this album. It cemented a fact that I was earlier afraid to admit, that I was a big fan of Bob Dylan.