Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bob Dylan 6: Highway 61 Revisited

Once upon a time, recording artists were expected to put out two albums within a calendar year, along with a couple of unrelated singles. So it’s astonishing to consider that something as solid as Highway 61 Revisited arrived within months of his first “electric” album, helped along by a hit single at the unprecedented length of six minutes.
Our favorite story about “Like A Rolling Stone” is from John Hiatt, who said he heard the song for the first time on the car radio while his mother was in the store. It was such an experience, he says, that he was afraid she wouldn’t recognize him when she got back to the car. The intro remains unparalleled, starting from that dangerous snare crack. But if you’re tired of that, “Tombstone Blues” is a fantastic driving song with an insistent F# chord and stinging lead line all the way through. The lyrics make no sense, but his snotty vocal is infectious. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is a deceptive title for a sleepy song. While it started life as a driving rocker, here it’s got a loping beat that makes good use of those long-held notes. “From A Buick 6” fits the same useless task as “Outlaw Blues” on the previous album, and the side ends with “Ballad Of A Thin Man” (better known as “you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”), a nasty putdown built on a tack piano. Obviously this was a man you did not want to annoy.
Side two gets off to a shaky start with “Queen Jane Approximately”, which would have a lot more to recommend if he’d bothered to tune the guitars first. It’s too bad, as the performance doesn’t go justice to the words and chords. The title track is a scream, and gets points for replacing the harmonica with a police whistle right out of Looney Tunes. Truly hysterical. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is not as entrenched in the theater of the absurd as the rest of the album, but fills the slower verses with some pretty impenetrable imagery. Then it’s time for the grand finale, the litany of “Desolation Row”. Its Mexican guitar part gives no hint how long it will go on, and there’s only a harmonica break before the very last verse. (Another favorite story: Dylan gave an “interview” to Playboy in 1966 where he conspired with the writer to come up with incredibly obscure and outlandish answers to the questions. One of the gems involved his desire to change the national anthem from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “Desolation Row”. We have a wonderful mental image of people rising for eleven minutes to sing it at the start of every baseball game: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…”)
We will be lambasted for not giving this album five stars; it was decided to downgrade it because of “Buick” and “Queen Jane”. But they do fit in the bigger picture, and all together Highway 61 Revisited gives you an idea how this 24-year-old kid changed the face of pop music. He was clearly on a roll.

Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited (1965)—

6 comments:

  1. Are you nuts? I LOVE Queen Jane. One of my favorites. Maybe his best vocal ever. Gorgeous tune. The rest of your review is spot on though. Go listen to QJA again and give Bob the 5 he deserves!!!

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  2. It is a great song. It's the recording itself I can't take.

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  3. Dylan's first Playboy interview was with reknowned critic Nat Hentoff, hardly the type to concoct answers in cahoots with a source. Dylan needed no help spinning outlandish tales about his background, nor did he hold any love for those who interviewed him. Hence the surrealistic responses, even with a straight shooter like Hentoff.

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  4. This album deserves five stars, it's just perfect !

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  5. Here's a link to the aforementioned 1966 interview with Bob Dylan: Playboy

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  6. Thanks! I've put it in the main text.

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