I haven’t done this since May! I hereby pledge to pick up the pace, and publish at least two more before the end of the year. In the mean time, thus far in my sequential overview of my favorite Bob Dylan albums we’ve had Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A’ Changin, Another Side of Bob Dylan</em>, and Bringing It All Back Home. Which leads us to Highway 61 Revisited…
I’d like to start this review with a confession: my whole life I’ve heard music critics fawning about how rocking “Like a Rolling Stone” is, and I just don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great song, one of the exemplars of Dylan’s “bitter and snarky telling off of a woman” vein of song writing. And I understand the historical significance of his going electric here and what that did to rock and folk from that point forward. But to say it flat out rocks? Compared to other things from the same time period by the Who, the Kinks and the Stones? Or even Dylan himself in many places on the previous album Bringing It All Back Home or here in songs like “Tombstone Blues”?
Regardless, in terms of being a vessel for free-floating resentment, serving dual purpose as an attack on a person and a personification of mainstream society due for a richly deserved fall, and prominently featuring the cheesy rock organ, it’s a strong way to open an album, and a pretty incendiary thing to have reach number 2 on the pop charts in 1965. “Tombstone Blues” then knocks it up to a whole other level. The take on this era of Dylan is that he’s moved from the political to the personal, and is now expressing things in absurdist poetry. Listen to this song though, and see if amidst all the joking references to John the Baptist, Galileo and Cecil B. DeMille it isn’t serving as the ultimate protest, a deconstruction of the society itself that results in: Mama’s in the fact’ry/ She ain’t got no shoes/ Daddy’s in the alley/ He’s lookin’ for food/ I’m in the kitchen/ With the tombstone blues
Dylan is also aces in track arrangement here, slowing us down after the initial one-two punch of the opening with the down tempo of “It Takes a Train to Cry” bringing us back up with rocking electric blues on “From a Buick 6” and then just weirding everything out with “Ballad of a Thin Man”. On the surface, he’s telling off a critic, and it’s enough of a joke that he actually cracks up at the beginning. Underneath, though, the weird whistling of the organ and slow building tempo of each lyrical turn charges you up and disorients you, the perfect compliment to a song that point-blank tells you it’s attacking your imagination. So personal, yes, but it lends itself to social critique as well, and not for nothing did the Black Panthers listen to this song repeatedly while drafting their manifesto.
Being so firmly tied to an era by these kinds of associations, “Thin Man” can sound dated. The next track, “Queen Jane Approximately” sounds perennially contemporary with its perfect pop song pitch and balance of angry snide that dismisses the subject and weary compassion that invites them back. If this song sound contemporary, then the track that follows, “Highway 61 Revisited” enters the realm of timeless. Listening to it, it’s possible to make a case that it’s poetic horsing around with archetypes of the road, an indictment of the angry tribal gods and cynical commercialism that are pushing society toward a next world war, or both at once. That is what playing in mythic space can do for you, and he goes even further into it on “Desolation Row” where Cinderella, Bettie Davis, Einstein and Robin Hood all have their identities scrambled together in a land where everybody’s making love or else expecting rain.
The other thing that I can’t help but hear in this album is Dylan the person struggling with Dylan the myth (in which wise it’s mind-blowing to realize that he was only 24 when this was recorded). “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” makes clear the weariness and disillusionment that would have him dropping out of the game, and coming back forever altered, after his next album, Blonde on Blonde:
I cannot move/ My fingers are all in a knot/ I don’t have the strength, To get up and take another shot
It’s either fortune or fame/ You must pick up one or the other/ Though neither of them are to be what they claim
Everybody said they’d stand behind me/ When the game got rough
But the joke was on me/ There was nobody even there to call my bluff/ I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough