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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited

BOB DYLAN: HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965)

1) Like A Rolling Stone; 2) Tombstone Blues; 3) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 4) From A Buick 6; 5) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 6) Queen Jane Approximately; 7) Highway 61 Revisited; 8) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; 9) Desolation Row.

By this time in Dylan's career, it is already best for everybody to refrain from asking questions (if only out of fear of losing one's sanity), but I still find it hard to resist from at least this short one — why «revisited»? The song itself, duly mentioning a «highway 61» in each verse, makes no mention of revisiting anything; and although the title does, perhaps, allude to Bob's cover of the ʽHighway 51ʼ blues on his self-titled debut album, well, that was 51, not 61, so he is not exactly revisiting that old place. The word «revisited» is really out of place on this album, considering how bent it is on breaking new ground rather than revisiting old one — but maybe that's what we think, after all, and in reality Bob was using this faint hint to let us know how little has changed ever since he entered the recording business?..

On the other hand, who could really tell what this guy wants and what he does not want to let us know when he keeps staring at us like that from the album cover. And it is not even the stare that produces the best impression: it is the kingly pose that he adopts on that chair, as Bobby Neu­wirth, the loyal courtier, stands right behind the throne, ready to whop any potential dissenters over the head with that camera at the slightest notice. (And now we know that this impression wasn't that far from the truth, what with the Dylan/Neuwirth couple practicing intellectual assas­sination on the weak, meek, and humble with brutal social-darwinist fervor throughout that en­tire period — be it Joan Baez or Donovan, no one was safe from their verbal wrath).

It worked both ways: on one hand, Dylan's definitive breakup with the folksie movement earned him plenty of scorn, flack, and derision — but on the other hand, most of it only went further to fuel the well-lit fire, and pushed him to new creative heights, most of them mean, lean, and vici­ous in nature. Highway 61 Revisited, heralded by ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ and the non-LP single ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ, showed the world what it really meant to be pissed off when you're Bob Dylan: next to these two songs — as well as about half of the other ones on the LP — ʽMaggie's Farmʼ is Sesame Street-level material.

Fortunately for us, Dylan's vitriolics can always be pushed aside from the listener, or, even better, empathized with — in need, one can always side with the protagonist, and then you can giddily rail at all the mistreated disillusioned young girls of ʽRolling Stoneʼ and all the dazed and con­fused Mr. Joneses of ʽThin Manʼ, borrowing the appropriate machine gun from the Zimmerman Industries, Hibbing, Minnesota. And just as fortunately, the unbeatable, incomparable sneer of Highway 61 Revisited is only one of its major attractions — had it been its only attraction, the album probably would never come to be regarded as one of the finest products of Western civi­lization in the 1960s by so many people (myself included, to make things clear right away).

The other attraction, of course, is the overall sound of the album, which is where the gist of Bob's genius truly lies. The assembled musicians were neither renowned professionals (although many of them did have plenty of session experience behind them, like Paul Griffin on piano or Bobby Gregg on drums) nor immediate unmistakable geniuses (even though Mike Bloomfield did, on occasion, earn the «guitar genius» tag) — nor did Bob spend any serious amount of time training and disciplining them. Instead, what usually happened during the sessions was that everybody just hammered away, in various styles, moods, and combinations, and every once in a while Dy­lan would signal — keep it right there. Every single time, that is, when his bloodhound instinct picked up a hint that there was finally something happening out there. It is this instinct, and this instinct only, that explains why Bob, when he was in a proper hunting spirit, was able to get so much out of almost any musician, no matter how well-trained, experienced, or innately talented. And he was never in a more proper hunting spirit than during these summer sessions of 1965.

Even if we take a relative «lowlight» from the album — say, ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ, a fast blues piece that is probably the least well-known track on here — it still got that sound. The guitar does not seem to be playing anything other than a standard ʽMilk Cow Bluesʼ-type pattern, but it does play it with an arrogant brutality and decisiveness that, for some reason, many a blues-rocker at the time was unable to achieve — and when you overlay it with Al Kooper's flashy, incessant organ swirls, the result is a thick, heavy sonic tempest. Most likely, the song title, which has nothing whatsoever to do with its lyrics (a beat-era-update of the traditional "praise for me woman" type of blues ode), could have been inspired by this drive — it is the sonic equivalent of landscape flashing past the windows of a speeding vehicle.

And that is just the lowlight, of course. In general, Dylan continues with the «proto-punk» aes­thetics here: once the band or a particular band member happens to fall upon a crude, simple, but working chord sequence, Bob locks it in place and makes him / them stick with it for three, four, six minutes — as long as it takes him to empty his lyrical inspiration pot. So is the deal with ʽTombstone Bluesʼ, for instance, which gallops at a crazy pace on the power of about three guitar notes and about as many organ ones — hello, Motörhead? (I could actually see Lemmy doing ʽTombstone Bluesʼ in a flash — as a matter of fact, ʽAce Of Spadesʼ does sound surprisingly similar) — and has Bob unfurling his acid dreams one by one until it all comes together in this hilariously sound conclusion: "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". Off-top piece of advice: always try to pay the most attention to the last verse of Dylan's songs, it is that one that usually — but, of course, not always — holds the key to the whole story.

Or take the case of ʽIt Takes A Lot To Laughʼ. Is it the slow, almost lethargic tempo that makes the song? Is it the harmonica soloing? Is it the completely generic, thoroughly uncreative blues shuffle melody? Is it the lyrics? Well, I don't know about you, but the first thing I remember and cherish about the song is that ridiculously loud, «primitive», archaic-feel barrelhouse piano part from Paul Griffin. Most likely, had he been recording this stuff with a different artist, he would have played it differently: less flash, more technique, less power, more notes. Under Dylan, he is guided to «deconstruct» that part, dropping the complexity and emphasizing only the «key» moments, and goddammit if it doesn't work, even if, after all these years, I am still not able to verbally express how exactly it makes the song so unique. Leave it to me deathbed.

Or take ʽQueen Jane Approximatelyʼ, which I remember as the very last song on Highway 61 that I learned to love, but now I probably love it more than anything else on the album — perhaps because it is the only genuinely friendly and compassionate song on here, created in a rare fit of sympathy, I believe, for those few people whom Bob did not overtly dismiss as phonies upon first sight and who have been merged together in this single collective «Queen Jane» image. The ly­rics are great, the invitation to "come see me, Queen Jane" is delivered in a great tone that is fifty percent irony and fifty percent empathy, but none of that would work if it weren't for that four-note descending bass line and Bloomfield's conclusive arpeggiated chord before the final lines of the chorus — marking the transition from the critical "you're in one hell of a mess, girl" stage to the con­soling "but hey, no prob, I got the cure!" one. Like everywhere else, the non-stop crushing waves of the lyrical onslaught may initially prevent one from seeing this — but ʽQueen Jane Ap­proximatelyʼ could have worked almost as well in completely instrumental mode.

And, of course, there is always ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ to prove my point better than anything else. That somber four-note piano bit — it was not invented by Dylan, it was taken directly from Ray Charles' ʽI Believe To My Soulʼ, but it's almost as if Bob listened to the song and said, "hey, that's a great four-note piano bit! How come there's so much more piano playing on here — doesn't it only detract attention away from that great sequence? Why don't we just zoom in on that?" So they did — and somehow it acquired this additional meaning, one of a musical sword of doom hanging over the head of poor Mr. Jones, walking around and minding his business while the naked people, the geeks and the freaks, arming themselves with creepy horror movie organ parts and this relentless «piano bell toll», make fun of him. It must have took some balls to record something like that — of everyone I know, only Procol Harum tried that trick with similar suc­cess two years later on ʽA Christmas Camelʼ (funny enough, this here song does have the word ʽcamelʼ in its lyrics, too), although it was already nowhere near as effective.

Considering how much of a «garage» spirit there is here on Highway 61, it is not surprising that the chosen guitar player was Mike Bloomfield, probably the «dirtiest» blues guitar player on the American scene at the time, the one who might have had the best balance between blues-rock guitar technique and the overall «nastiness» of effect: his frantic leads on ʽTombstone Bluesʼ here must have inspired everyone from Lou Reed to Marc Bolan. What actually is surprising is that most of the time, this garage spirit is being enforced through decidedly unorthodox means for a garage album — usually, the electric guitar is actually subdued by the keyboards, providing a thick supportive sonic mat for their pounding and swirling. This kind of wall of sound, technical­ly speaking, was not at all typical for the far more minimalistic garage-rock bands of the day — and yet, at the same time, Highway 61 Revisited sounds much more raw, crude, visceral, in-yer-face, slam-dunk than almost any randomly picked garage single from 1965.

I guess, like George Harrison said, «it's all in the mind» — perhaps you could make garage rock with an unplugged mandolin if you really put your spirit to it. And Dylan, by getting additional musical help from his friends and gaining the right to direct and channel that help, was more than qualified in terms of spirit. If anything, though, Highway 61 Revisited transcends «garage rock» — «hangar rock» would be more like it, adding vast, sprawling musical space to the raw power, leanness and meanness of the message. The title track alone is like a bunch of warheads blasting into a thousand directions, each one guided by its personal Al Kooper whistle.

All the more interesting, then, how the album quietly settles down towards the end, gradually cooling its rockets instead of trying to pick up even more steam. First, ʽJust Like Tom Thumb's Bluesʼ, though still thick on sonic stuffing, gives us a sort of «post-acid» Dylan, in a somewhat stupefied and a little «transcendental» state — the only number on here that has quite an explicit­ly druggy atmosphere, particularly when it comes to Bob's vocal delivery: his "I cannot move, my fingers are all in a knot / I don't have the strength to get up and take another shot / And my best friend, my doctor, won't even say what it is I've got" sounds so totally authentic, I have this con­stant urge to get up and take his temperature every time I hear it. Where the first seven songs, with the partial exception of ʽTrainʼ, all show us a «Dylan on speed», this one is definitely «co­ming down», and it ain't too pretty, but it sure as hell is quite mesmerizing.

Then, of course, there is always ʽDesolation Rowʼ. Now my opinion on that song hasn't changed through the years: I still tend to think of it as a «preview», an early, not-100%-successful attempt at tapping into the visionary-transcendental style of Blonde On Blonde. Its lyrics drop just a tad too many name references to not come across as «show-off» stuff; its arrangement, despite the brilliant folky acoustic flourishes from Charlie McCoy, is a little too minimalistic to warrant 11 minutes of repetitiveness; and its overall atmosphere does not gel full well with the word ʽDeso­lationʼ in the title — plenty of surrealist stuff is happening out there, but very little of it has anything to do with «desolation». But an epic, towering album did need an epic, towering con­clusion, and ʽDesolation Rowʼ suits that function perfectly — here is Dylan as Unbiased Neutral Observer rather than the «character-assassin» on the bulk of the album, just to prevent any poten­tial outcry of «so, all that guy is able to do nowadays is sneer and jeer and criticize and complain» from the verbose critics. All that I really hold against this song is that it has always worked much better for me in its specific «Highway 61-closer» function, rather than on its own merits, Charlie McCoy be blessed and all.

And as much as I seem to be gushing here, no, I go with the minority that does not regard High­way 61 Revisited as the highest peak of the curve. For me, above all, Dylan is the world's great­est master of subtlety and understatement, for both of which Highway 61, in its raging garage fervor, has only limited space. Likewise, I certainly do not consider Dylan a «rock'n'roll artist», and this also helps to get detached from the majority that might simply prefer Highway 61 to Blonde On Blonde because the first one «kicks ass all the way through» where the second one can be «kinda boring, at least in some spots» — this may be true, but I genuinely do not need «my Dylan» to kick ass in order to achieve unparalleled greatness.

Nevertheless, there is no question whatsoever in my mind that an album like Highway 61 could only have been done by this one person at this particular time; that it captures and personifies the incomparable «Zeitgeist» of 1965 more intelligently and with more complexity than any other album; that all of its moods and sentiments are as vital and relevant today as they were half a century ago; and that quibbling over pizza toppings is a great way to take some pressure off one's brain, but hardly deserves even a single permanent byte of Internet space. Consequently, let's just top this one off with an enthusiastic thumbs up-de luxe — and move on up.

P.S. Curiously enough, already after signing off, I found out that I forgot to say even a single thing about the album's top song. But on second thought, let's keep it this way — it is sort of tempting to ensure the uniqueness of this here review through a thing it fails to mention, rather than the opposite. Besides, what else new can there be said about that opening snare shot that hasn't already been said by that eloquent preacher of post-industrial existentialism, Mr. Spruce Bringsteen? "He showed us that just because the music was innately physical, did not mean it was anti-intel­lect" — well, leave it to Mr. Bringsteen to once again dangerously toy with the balance in favor of extra «physicality» as his own time would arrive a decade from then on, but at least there is no questioning his judgement on this one.

Check "Highway 61 Revisited" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Highway 61 Revisited" (MP3) on Amazon

7 comments:

  1. The significance of U.S. Highway 61? Well, let me give it a shot. It's the Highway that runs parallel to the Mississippi River from New Orleans, up through Minneapolis and Duluth (relatively close to Hibbing -- not a coincedence) to the Canadian border.

    A lot of African-Americans used it to get to Chicago from the South in order to find work. Supposedly, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the "Crossroads" of US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale, MS.

    SO, there's quite a mythology about the road in blues circles. But I think you are misinterpreting what Bob means by "revisited". Not a nostalgic return, but a revision or reconsideration.

    Which is an understatement. Dylan's "revisit", at this point, was like entering an alternate universe..

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  2. The absolute peak of his career (along with parts of BIABH and BOB) as far as I'm concerned. He would never again shine with this much brilliance. The motorcycle accident definitely took something out of him that he never quite recaptured.

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    1. The motorcycle accident was a fluke, I'd instead go with the Benzedrine burnout.

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    2. I think you're onto something there, lol.

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    3. NB In some quarters the severity of the motorcycle accident is thought to be greatly exaggerated.

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  3. I actually prefer Al Kooper's version of It Takes a Lot...

    I think my attention span must be shot, I can barely watch movies without fast forwarding through them these days, but I like that they do the song twice as fast. It's a catchy song with lots of potential.

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  4. "..like George Harrison said, «it's all in the mind» "

    NB George Harrison by way of Spike Milligan.

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