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Literate, complex, and totally unprecedented; one of rock's first great albums, June 4, 2004
on 2 October 2007
In 1965, Bob Dylan released HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, arguably the single most important record in 1960s rock. A total break with anything occurring in popular music before (save Dylan's own albums), HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED merged biting, sharp lyricism and great garage-rock and blues. When most other bands were singing about boy-girl topics and writing insubstantial lyrics (in 1965 The Beatles were singing "You're gonna lose that girl"), Dylan combined edgy, hip lyrics with garage rock, blues, and epic folk. His voice, rough hewn and very off-kilter technically, rewrites the rules for rock vocals. As Mark Prindle says, Dylan's voice turned off a lot of people, but influenced a whole lot more.
"Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan's most famous song, kickstarts HIGHWAY 61 with a sledge hammer. Significant as the single that broke the three minute barrier Dylan berates a woman, very much trying to be with the `in' movement. Filled with images never before conceived with in pop music, this song sets the tone of the rest of the album, and indeed this period of Dylan's life. "Ballad of a Thin Man," however, proves itself to be the really brutal put-down to all those to unwilling to open their minds and see where the counter-culture was headed. "Mr Jones," the acrimonious protagonist, finds himself thrown into a world of freaks, and he simply doesn't know what is happening. He is wealthy, well-read, and in all likelihood corporate - the very materialism and hypocrisy the youth of the 1960s were so ardent to overthrow. (Many 1960s' youth turned into 1980s' yuppies; that is neither here nor there.)
The very confrontational break with the folk community informs this entire work. The folk community were still idolizing Dylan, and Dylan, being Dylan, abandoned the role, much to their anger. Dylan was following his own muse, transforming himself from a protest singer into a cynical, avant-guard musician, very much a counter-cultural icon, exerting enormous influence over the rest of the fellow musicians as well as the growingly despondent youth culture. Ironically, Dylan would likewise abandon this role for a more mellow, country direction, and anger the counterculture just as much as he angered the folk fans, which is why I believe SELF PORTRAIT is the perfect capstone to Dylan's 1960s work. Because it's Dylan being contrary and inscrutable. That album's infamous for a reason folks.
This transformation, while occurring over the past two albums, comes to full fruition here, and with such offerings as the lead off track, "Tombstone Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Desolation Row," this is nothing short of essential listening. "Desolation Row," arriving a full year and a half ahead of the other great epic in classic rock, The Doors' "The End," feels like a journey down a twisted, malignant, decaying road through America, with surrealism abounding and one of the best (and most accessible) answers to T. S. Eliot's modernist masterpiece `The Waste Land." "Tombstone Blues," combining (like the rest of the album) complex, surrealistic imagery and characters given an almost mythological import with seemingly random juxtapositions, rewrote the rules of rock lyrics. It has quite the absurdist touch.
The remaining tracks are just as remarkable. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, a Train to Cry" musically turns to the blues for its inspiration, but the lyrics are a far cry from the classic blues motifs. "From a Buick Six," based partially on the 1930 Sleeping John Estes "Milk Calf Blues," shows Dylan reinventing the blues with a visceral fist. "Queen Jane Approximately," a dire warning directed to an obviously important woman in the narrator's life, chugs along at a loose, warm, garage frenzy. The narrator warns Queen Jane that she's about to fall apart. Wrapping the message in symbolism, the listener is left wondering if she's a real person in Dylan's life or not. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," one of my personal favorites (I wrote a story about New York City using these lyrics as inspiration), details a character's descent into a continually more startling and depressing lifestyle, filled with corrupt authorities, shady women, and a haze of drugs and alcohol. Rich with literary allusions, writing like this sets Dylan head and shoulders above any other lyricist. "Highway 61 Revisited," the very song that game the album its name, gives another example of Dylan's surrealistic, stream-of-conscious type of writing, part beat, part symbolist, and undeniably all Dylan. The opening stanza, with its 1960s' reinvention of God telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac, stands as a stroke of genius. Some commentators have pointed out there's Highway 61 in Minnesota, and that Dylan's father's name was Abe. Dylan populates the rest of the song with royalty, roving gamblers, and other colourful characters. One of Dylan's best songs, with a rollicking bit of music to go with the mind-bending lyrics.
Two tracks, recorded during the same sessions and cut very much of the same cloth, would have found a welcome home on this album. "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" a bizaare narrative about a guy trying to win back his love, broke the top 100 but wasn't very successful. Somewhat akin to "I Want You" in the bizaare pop department. "Positively Fourth Street," one of Dylan's biggest hits and one of the nastiest put downs ever committed to tape, shows Dylan totally demolishing a so-called friend. It's one of Dylan's best mid 1960s offerings (and that's saying something, let me tell you) and appears on the first GREATEST HITS album.
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED's most radical facet is it brought rock and popular music to a totally unprecedented level of sophisticated, artistic mastery. Dylan made music both deeply poetic and complex, redefining rock as we know it. Is it Dylan's best? Maybe. It is certainly one of his most important, not only for his career but for rock in generall. While many people point to The Beatles' SGT PEPPER as the seminal record of the 1960s, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED is where my money is at.