So much is made these days when an artist puts out a supposedly secret album. There’s no apparent build up, and suddenly everyone is somehow surprised because Beyoncé releases an album a mere 2 years since her previous release. Meanwhile, in 1965, only six months after releasing the groundbreaking Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, somehow finding more ground to shake up. And all this without the benefit of any digital production techniques.
This is, to me, the ultimate Dylan album. It’s the first one I ever owned and I fell in love with it from the start. It’s the one I go to when someone tells me they’ve never been into Dylan and are somehow put off by his voice, claiming they can’t understand him or that he’s annoying. The truth is sometimes hard to separate from parody over the years, but the thing about Dylan’s voice is that it has been so many different things and it all gets turned up in the caricature of history. This Dylan is, in many ways, what that caricature is based on, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a surprise to most people to find that he actually is not only quite easy to understand but that his voice is not whiny at all, and actually fits perfectly with the music and lyrics. Like most people, before buying this album, I came to Dylan through covers so I was aware that his lyrical mastery was not being overhyped. But once you’ve heard the man express himself, especially on songs from this era, there just isn’t a better version to be found than the original.
When I think of the counterculture of the 60s and the possibilities of freedom along with the trappings of the partying, free love and bumming around, I picture a crowd dancing with abandon at a show. I get flashes of this same crowd when they were young, half naked and high at Woodstock or some other outdoor festival followed by flashes of the same crowd, older, still dancing with complete abandon but dressed now and maybe not as high. This image may be the result of the first time I saw Dylan live sometime in 95, I think, but the song the band is playing is almost always “Like a Rolling Stone.” There’s just something about this song that, no matter how much it gets played, never loses it’s power. The band is quite simply on fire on this track and it’s hard to not scream out “how does it feel” along with Dylan. Where Bringing it All Back Home was a taste of electric, this is all out. It’s just pure heat. And the lyrics paint a picture that twists and turns and stings at every corner. Dylan can be brutal.
A song like “Tombstone Blues” is basically the equivalent of a shaman telling stories to a tribe as a hypnotic drum beats by the fire. Only in this case the drums are accompanied by guitars and organs, amped up and faster and they might all be in a bar somewhere. It’s electric folk, but there’s more than a little bit of country honky tonk in here, which is even more apparent in the next song. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” gives us a bit of a rest after the frantic insanity of the first two songs. But that’s not to say it doesn’t still swing. Like most great songs about trains, this is about the rhythm, and when we get to “I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss” you can smell the smoke coming out of that locomotive. Or maybe it’s from Dylan’s pants?
It shouldn’t be shocking that an album containing the word “highway” in the title is a good road album. Maybe this will spark a list of top ten road albums for someone to throw together (you’re welcome). I can’t tell you how often I’ve completely lost the 51 minutes of this album while on a long trip, only to start it all over again and before I knew it, a four hour drive to Orlando would be over. Every song on this album carries us forward to the next and hands us off smoothly so that even the ballads aren’t jarring. That forward momentum is ironic, given that so many of the lyrics on this album are about the past, but it simply adds to the image of discarding everything on Highway 61. We move forward, but the baggage stays behind.
And speaking of ballads, there’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” a song that is twisted, surreal, biting and moody in ways that are almost shocking. For starters, this song, along with “Like a Rolling Stone” and others on this album and throughout Dylan’s career, address the way the counterculture is always infiltrated and commodified by exploiters and trend seekers. In the case of the Thin Man, it’s Mr. Jones, who is apparently a journalist who was following Dylan around at the time. But it could be anybody who knows “something is happening here,” but just doesn’t get it. This happens with every generation, from Dylan’s to the punks in the late 70s, to what was called “alternative” in the 90s. Dylan saw it happening and documented it, but of course it didn’t change anything in the cycles of what is considered underground and how it becomes mainstream by losing a lot of what made it credible in the first place. At the end of the day, though, the true artists and voices, like Dylan’s remain.
By the time we get the last song, “Desolation Row” we’re exhausted. But something about this little trip through Dylan’s version of the wasteland of history, is strangely comforting even with its disturbing imagery. Perhaps it’s the lullaby-like melody and the guitar, but as soon as it’s done, you’re ready to start all over from track one and I often do. It’s just one of those albums that you used to wear out back in the days of physical copies. Will that happen with some of today’s “surprise” albums in fifty years? Who knows? Get off my lawn!