Sunday, April 8, 2012

Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (1965)

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jams!

--Walt Whitman

Ah, Bob Dylan--the most celebrated, questioned, analyzed, criticized, influential popular songwriter of the late twentieth century.  What more could I possibly add to the millions (if not billions) of words written and spoken about the man?  Nothing, probably.  But hey, it's my blog and I'll write what I want.  So there.

If you look at it a certain way, Highway 61 Revisited could seem like an awfully depressing album.  All of its songs involve confusion, alienation, dislocation, social chaos and humiliation.  As anybody with at least one functioning ear can tell, though, there's a big difference between this album and, say, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

That's partly because the songs' themes have their flipside in the album's overall spirit of exploration and discovery.  Bob Dylan was only 24 when he recorded and released Highway.  He'd already penned plenty of great songs, of course, but he was really firing on all cylinders on this album--there's the zany title track; the dissipated "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues;" the two-guitar, eleven-minute opus "Desolation Row;" and the opener, "Like a Rolling Stone," which would've proved revolutionary as a single on length alone.  Those are just my personal favorites.  Throughout the whole album, you get the sense of an artist reaching constantly and delighting in how much he can grasp.

The musicianship shows a similar advance.  While the backing is solid on the electric side of his previous album, Bringing It All Back Home, it really takes off on Highway.  There's a heedless, chaotic excitement to the playing, with Mike Bloomfield's guitar and Dylan's crude piano leading the charge and Al Kooper's organ heralding the approach.  It doesn't really generate much of a groove (not when compared to, say, the Rolling Stones, let alone James Brown).  Instead, it holds together while sounding as if it might fall apart at any second.  I find that punk-like tension energizing every time I listen to this album.

Highway's exuberance and tumult reflects not only Bob Dylan's artistic growth, I think, but his reaction to how the times they were a changin'.  Anybody reading this most likely knows already how tumultuous a time the 1960's were in America's history--the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the ascendance of Rock and Roll, assassinations, the Vietnam war, feminism's second wave, etc.  The uncertainty and exhilaration of those times seems to seep into Highway.  When you add that to the sense of Dylan feeling his oats, it makes sense that this album would resonate so strongly with me when I was eighteen and scared but eager to get out into the world.

Songs on the album:

"Like a Rolling Stone"--Possibly my favorite Dylan song.  A hoity-toity rich girl gets shoved out of her castle and into the big, ugly, boisterous, scary, exciting real world.  I love the way Alan Kooper's organ floats in the air over the jumble of the other instruments while Mike Bloomfield's guitar darts in here and there.  The album starts off with a bang.

"Tombstone Blues"--Mike Bloomfield's high-voltage guitar fills power a surreal, cartoonish portrait of 60's America.  There's still a certain relevance to the image of Jack the Ripper sitting on the Chamber of Commerce, I think.  I've even developed a certain fondness for those ever-so-slightly-off-beat drums; they just add to the excitement now.

"It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"--A simple, quietly ominous song that I've always really liked.  The acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums lay down a blues shuffle while Dylan sings spare, elliptical lyrics that stand out in effective contrast to those of the preceding two songs.

"Like a Buick 6"--After the relative calm of "Train," it's back into the firestorm.  A ramshackle rocker with acid-fried blues lyrics.  I've listened to this album for twelve years, gone through four years of literary study and poured over page upon page of rock criticism, and I still have no idea what "She walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch" means or looks like.  Incidentally, a line from this song inspired the name of this blog.

"Ballad of a Thin Man"--I had my light-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment with Bob Dylan when, at sixteen or seventeen, I heard this song on the car radio.  Beforehand, I'd thought that he was so-so--I liked "All Along the Watchtower" and Nashville Skyline but hadn't really warmed to Blonde On Blonde (part of me never has, but that's for another post).  When I heard this song, I said to myself, "Wow!  This guy's amazing!"  In fairly short order, I joined the ranks of the Dylanologists (my membership's still active, but I don't go to nearly as many meetings as I used to).

You could consider "Thin Man" a kind of companion piece to "Rolling Stone."  This time, a well-schooled guy finds himself in a carnivalesque series of situations that go far beyond the scope of his narrow education and experience.  Dylan's stomping, dirge-like piano and Al Kooper's ghostly organ guide the confused Mr. Jones on his journey through this netherworld.  I remember reading an interpretation of this song as the story of someone slowly recognizing his latent homosexuality.  Considering the sword-swallower who borrows the protagonist's throat and the one-eyed midget screaming for milk, that doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility.  It's certainly not the craziest interpretation of a Dylan song that I've read (trust me: there are some real doozies).

"Queen Jane Approximately"--This warm, mellow, jangly folk-rock number provides the listener some respite after the first five tracks.  You could think of this song as "Rolling Stone" down the road apiece--the singer's telling the girl that she can look him up on her way down.

"Highway 61 Revisited"--It's worth noting that, back in the 60's, U.S. Highway 61 (a.k.a. the "Blues Highway") ran though Bob Dylan's birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota and down into such famed musical hotbeds as Memphis and New Orleans.  Indeed, he writes a bit about that in his autobiography Chronicles:

Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I came from... Duluth to be exact.  I always felt like I'd started on it, always been on it and could go anywhere from it, even down into the deep Delta country.  It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors.  The Mississippi river, the bloodstream of the blues, also starts up from my neck of the woods.  I was never too far away from any of it.  It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.  (p.240-1)

From God and Abraham to ground zero for World War III, you can find it all on Dylan's Highway 61.  It's appropriate that this track features the most locked-in playing on the album: the galloping rhythm into which Dylan and his band settle makes it feel as if we're speeding down the road and looking at all this stuff through the windows as it zips by.  "Highway" makes me think of what Eddie Muller wrote about Sam Fuller's movies: "The world is a madhouse, but goddamn it's a thrilling ride."

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"--After zooming down the highway, we head south of the border for a little hell-raising.  The band downshifts into a nice, steady groove so we can take in the street-corner girls, the dealers, the crooked officials and the fresh-meat tourists.  This track's disoriented, drugged-out vibe points toward Dylan's next album Blonde On Blonde.

"Desolation Row"--About a year or so before I started listening to Highway 61 Revisited, I picked up the book Meditation In Action by Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungpa.  In the book's second chapter, Trungpa writes about the "manure of experience" out of which enlightenment can grow.  That's pretty much what Desolation Row is for Bob Dylan: a rubbish heap from which we can observe and meditate upon the self-destructive absurdity of Western civilization.  It ain't glamorous or comforting, but it's where you can go for the truth.  If you look at it that way, "Desolation Row" becomes emblematic of the album as a whole.  The perfect closer.

Bob Dylan: A man way ahead of his time