Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

"Like a Rolling Stone,"  the sweeping, majestic cut that opens Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album, stings with Al Kooper's piercing organ and biting guitars, its authoritative and critical tone, and its swirling lyrical imagery of social dilettantes and devious scoundrels.  It's all carried by that voice - that wild, nasal, devastating voice which is as key to Bob Dylan's legacy as his words.   It remains one of the greatest songs ever, if only for having freed songwriting from its time-honored conventions and clichés.
"Like a Rolling Stone" is only the beginning of the journey Dylan takes us on through the grooves of this, his sixth studio album.  In fact, it may be the most straightforward song on Highway 61 Revisited; the remaining eight songs present pictures of an America on the verge of chaos and images of relationships - romantic and otherwise - as complex as the most surreal visions in Beat poetry.  The music is even more sparse and biting than on Bringing It All Back Home, perfectly mirroring the tone of Dylan's words, thanks to generous support from musicians such as drummers Bobby Gregg and Sam Lay  and the legendary Michael Bloomfield on guitar.  "Tombstone Blues" is a hilarious but chilling satire of American small-town provincialism. ("The town has no need to be nervous," Dylan declares.  Ha.)  The title track, meanwhile, places Biblical dramas, personal redemption, and the possibility of a third world war along the legendary highway connecting storied cities and landscapes along the Mississippi River, set to a blues-rock beat; Chuck Berry and B.B. King are as responsible for this song as Dylan himself.  
The more personal songs, such as "It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry" and "From Buick 6" imagine women as life-givers and wise shamans, with his greatest fears and desires at their disposal for validation or mitigation.  Both are steeped in the blues, each with some astonishing keyboard work.  "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," with a mournful piano of its own played by Paul Griffin, takes the listener to a Mexican border down, where even the promise of redemption at Easter time can't save the lost souls and wrecked lives that Dylan documents.  Dylan's characters are adrift in a more revealing way than John Lennon was in many of his early personal statements.  While Lennon was singing about how you have to hide your love away, Dylan went further by showing us what he hides his love away in . . . and pretty it ain't.  In "Queen Jane Approximately," Dylan's promises of companionship to a bereft woman are more condescending than comforting.         
Highway 61 Revisited is best explained by the songs that close sides one and two, respectively.  "Ballad of  Thin Man," about at a freak show covered by a reporter only known as "Mr. Jones," is a pointed satire of a media establishment utterly clueless to what's going on in front of them, while "Desolation Row," the album's closing cut, is a sprawling  account of a waste land of back alleys and dark streets along a dilapidated waterfront from which the doomed Titanic is set to sail.   Even the fortune teller has given up on the future, and with heroes, poets, and prophets succumbing to doomed fates, who could blame her?  It's a portrait of anarchy and destiny, and Dylan navigates through it for us like Orpheus through the underworld, but with a nod and wink; after all, he's just renamed these people and rearranged their faces, if only to protect the innocent.  It's this element of danger and delusion that make this album so thrilling and so frightening at the same time.  Highway 61 is the road not taken by many, but Dylan makes it clear that if we Americans want to understand ourselves, we'd better do so.  We'll see something happening there, and we'll know what it is.  Even if Mr. Jones won't acknowledge it at all.    

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