Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

(There's a short version here.)

I have to start with basically facts from my life—this album and especially the breakthrough hit that opens it, "Like a Rolling Stone," have grown so deeply ingrained into my mode of being it is as if they have been ground down to liquefaction. Now it's a matter of saturation, leached in profoundly, which I understand among other things makes me cliché on certain obvious levels, as it is also leached in profoundly to a good many, who never want to stop talking about it. Love him or hate him, as they say. So I also want to attempt to be short.

In 1965, "Like a Rolling Stone" was all over the top 40 AM radio when I started listening close to top 40 radio that summer. Our babysitter brought her own radio with her, tuned to the stations that mattered (in the Twin Cities, in 1965, that was WDGY and KDWB). I recall the rapid-speaking DJs were all pretty excited about the song, and about Bob Dylan more generally, hyping it and all the Dylan covers making it big around that time (by the Byrds, Cher, Turtles, etc.). But I did not care for "Like a Rolling Stone"—it seemed to me too long, whiny, aimless, sour, and already I resented external pressure to like something. As I recall, my own first purchases of 45s that summer were "Save Your Heart for Me" by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher, and "Help!" by the Beatles (as much for "I'm Down" on the flip as anything).

In 1970, on a garage sale outing with my father, I found a reel-to-reel tape recorder in perfect condition for cheap. My best friend in high school, Peter, had a hip older brother in college and Peter seized the opportunity to make tapes for me of things he thought I should hear. The first batch included albums by Miles Davis and the Mothers of Invention (Peter would also steer me to great shows by Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis in 1971 at the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, my first concerts). One tape had Highway 61 Revisited on one side and Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the other. That was the one I could not stop playing.

In 1985, I moved from Minneapolis to Seattle, selling most of what I owned until I could get the rest to fit into a U-Haul trailer (which as it was barely made it over the third mountain range I had to get over, the Cascades). I knew I would need furniture, a kitchen, clothes, and other essentials, but I allowed myself the extravagance of a crate of albums. Half the fun there was the agony of picking and choosing, one of the ultimate lists I have ever made, and a welcome distraction from the ongoing upheaval in my life. It's exciting to move but also stressful, as you may know. I was just numbly going through it, one step at a time.

Highway 61 Revisited still mattered a lot to me, so its inclusion in the crate was a basic no-brainer. What surprised me, at the other end, sitting in my tiny studio, with a view of the Puget Sound harbor, and the Olympics, and the spectacular sunsets of that September, was how the tremendous dimensions of the album somehow unfolded even further for me at that point. This wasn't just something I used to like in high school. Now it sounded more fresh and vital and alive than I had ever heard it. My days were spent wandering my strange new city, worrying about money and finding work and what I was doing (30 years old, ironic adult with so-called responsibilities, etc.). In the late afternoon I shopped for food and beer and went home and played this album loud, baying at the sunset and half-drunk or better by the time it was dark.

OK, so fair question, what's the connection among these events? What is the appeal of Bob Dylan? And/or Highway 61 Revisited. From my biased view, first, it seems as good as any litmus for one of the very longest musical recording careers in all history (not least because the history of musical recording careers is not that long. But even so, no one has made more albums). If your opinion of Highway 61 Revisited is that you only tolerate it, I can see how some other Dylan album might seem better or even much better, Blonde on Blonde or Freewheeling or whatever. But if you don't like it at all, I have to think you don't like Bob Dylan at all. Interestingly, I understand that too, as (more clichés) I was deeply alienated from him for several years in the late '70s and early '80s, and mistrustful for many years beyond that. He really can be so fucking annoying when you're on the other side of it.

But that's part of his game, isn't it? He has made a career of setting up polarities—in case anyone wonders how he got tagged as a protest singer, for example, there is "Masters of War." Then he implies his support of one extreme ("Masters of War" again, on the potentates controlling the military/industrial complex: "And I hope that you die / And your death'll come soon"). And then he elaborately rejects those who follow him there, and on to the next crisis—folk, protest, rock, country, divorce, makeup, Sam Peckinpah, Jesus, Daniel Lanois, death itself, on and on it goes.

That dynamic is core to Highway 61 Revisited. It's heard perhaps most explicitly in "Ballad of a Thin Man," which is a good deal more severely cutting than most of the loopy word salad and inspired punch lines of the rest. That dynamic is also the main winning feature of "Like a Rolling Stone"—which, yes, of course I changed my mind about in time. In fact, it now seems to me compelling and irresistible (do not miss it in Martin Scorsese's 2005 No Direction Home documentary). It's totally of a piece with the core Dylan dynamic I'm talking about and one of the most interesting and strangest hits in all of U.S. top 40 history, with way too much of everything—too long at six minutes, too smug and insular and wordy, and definitely too mean.

I'm pretty sure half the appeal of Bob Dylan is something about flattering oneself. I say this truly with all due humility (and I have so many reasons for humility). There is something you like about yourself in being able to get it—whatever "get" means exactly and whatever "it" means exactly. But a smug feeling of complacence, of course, is no reason for anything, much less a persuasive basis for taste. It is, in fact, a deplorable state of affairs, tribal and primitive. But I suggest that it happens anyway and we all do it on some level. And that it's arguable Bob Dylan is perfectly well aware of this—whether or not that is consciously is another question entirely, one I'm not going to touch—because it explains the practically slapstick dimensions of his ever-hopscotching career, which has now lasted more than 50 years. He cannot escape it and frankly neither can his followers.

So here we are. I realize I have probably explained nothing. But I can talk about the album if you want, as this is such a natural point to pivot into it. So much is so well known (again, see No Direction Home). It does not hurt that it is yet another amazing band among the many, many such that Dylan has assembled for the studio, this one led by Mike Bloomfield, and with Al Kooper famously faking it for all time playing an organ. But the main point for me about all nine of these songs, always, is how crackling alive and funny they are. It's word salad, it often doesn't add up, the lampoonish assertions within the songs continually negating one another. But the images can be so stark and so swift, continually swimming up and flashing by, for example in "Tombstone Blues," which happens to be playing at the moment: the famous "sun's not yellow, it's chicken," one of the early surprises, a turn to King James with "death to all those who would whimper and cry," and the eloquent complexity (complete with punch line) of "Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain / That could hold you dear lady from going insane / That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain / Of your useless and pointless knowledge." I would not even necessarily call "Tombstone Blues" one of the "better" tracks, but it's hard to judge when everything here is as good as everything here is. The first side of the album has the greater contrasts in highs and lows, with both "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." But somehow the four-song suite of side 2 has always opened me more to the extraordinary purities here, notably in "Queen Jane Approximately" and especially the epic "Desolation Row," which lasts nearly 12 minutes, going verse after verse after verse, and continually taking the chorus from new angles, and featuring tremendous, amazing harmonica playing. Maybe now I'm just remembering the ends of those half-drunken nights new to Seattle, but "Desolation Row" seems to me still one of the greatest and most signal of Bob Dylan's many achievements, a song one simply lays back into, that has tremendous resilience and appeal and depths. As I say elsewhere, it's "at least 75% joy," title notwithstanding.

Well, I could go on (and have), I'm sure you know. But you also had to know I would probably say things like that sooner or later in a piece like this. Highway 61 Revisited is nearly 50 years old now, so everyone has had fair opportunity to know what this artist, career, and album are all about, and, as always, in all things, YMMV. As for me, it's my favorite.


  1. It's certainly got the coolest cover!