And with the single snare drum stroke, Bob Dylan finished his metamorphosis and released one of two flawless masterpieces. He also managed to change the face of rock and roll.
Highway 61 Revisited is another example of how history and reputation can get in the way of just how brilliant a song or album really is. It’s easy to take a song like “Like a Rolling Stone” for granted, knowing now how important it is viewed in the history of contemporary music. It’s one of those songs and moments in times that I truly envy those buying the record upon its release, dropping the needle, and getting blown away by the eruption of organ and drums for the first time.
Enough has been said about “Like a Rolling Stone” to warrant further dissection. It should be noted however, that while this remains one of those immortal anthems that most people know the lyrics to by heart, few take the time to realize how scathing a song it really is. To this end it’s also brilliant. Dylan unleashes his usual piercing lyrics set this time to uplifting, guitar and organ heavy rock and roll. Gone are the straightforward, spoon-fed lyrics of his folk messiah days. Enter Dylan, the rock and roll messiah.
While Dylan belts out the song as if trying to bring down the house, the story being told is very much a nasty commentary on the privileged, the spoiled, and the ignorant, basically yet another wagging of the finger at society. From riches to rags, top of the world to scum of the earth, Dylan projects. It’s the kind of anger the punks would later embrace, the kind of anger to open your eyes.
Written during or right after Dylan’s soirée with Andy Warhol’s muse/socialite Edie Sedgwick, the song has also been viewed as an unrelenting jab at his former fling. That this troubled starlit would eventually succumb to drug addiction and later die an intoxicated death only adds to the song’s darker side.
Opening an album with a song as audacious “Like a Rolling Stone” sets the bar high for what follows. With Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan delivers.
“Tombstone Blues” is a hodgepodge of nonsensical images set to the kind of hard-hitting blues Dylan had been working towards. Written from a surrealist’s point of view, Dylan takes a simple blues formula, deconstructs it, adds a dose of wild west iconography and creates something completely his own, a world “where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll” and “the sun is not yellow it’s chicken.”
“Ballad of a Thin Man” has garnered a wide-range of interpretations, each holding merit. In the broadest sense the song is yet another chapter in Dylan’s anti-establishment catalogue. It may be the finest scolding of elitist know-it-alls of the world. Possibly aimed at a journalist, easily suited towards crooked politicians, the song alludes to the capitalist machine Dylan lamented about previously on “It’s Alright Ma.” Others view the song as a comment on a closeted homosexual coming to grips with his own identity and society’s intolerance–“one eyed midget,” “sword swallower,” and “give me some milk” all back this analysis. Whatever one infers, the song remains one of his most puzzling.
On the album’s title track, a rip-roaring piece of Americana blues-rock, Dylan makes quite possibly the best use of the slide, penny whistle, while at the same time name dropping biblical passages, alluding to incest (“But the second mother was with the seventh son”), and a final verse that is a frighteningly similar story to the former Bush administration’s “selling of the war,” not to mention the financial gamble of certain timely banks.
“Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues” is a return to the more whimsical side of Dylan. Featuring a funky electric Pianet, a bit more of the honky-tonk last found on “Black Crow Blues,” and Dylan’s first Southwest themed offerings.
At over 11 minutes, “Desolation Row” tends to stand out like a sore thumb in Dylan’s repertoire. It’s also the perfect closer to a flawless record, matching the intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone” with some of the finest lyrical storytelling he’s ever crafted.
For starters the acoustic guitar work on “Desolation Row” is a welcomed departure from the record’s previous electric compositions. And musically the classical guitar picking chops featured on the song (played by country-blues guitarist Charlie McCoy) are breathtaking, in many ways setting the stage for the more refined songs on Blonde on Blonde and the country exercises soon to come on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.
Lyrically “Desolation Row” is a pastiche of little stories and character studies that is at times surreal but also is on point when referencing a number of Dylan’s literary idols (“Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower”). Of all of Dylan’s songs this remains one of the few truly puzzling pieces, making it all the more intriguing to close your eyes and get whisked away to.
Highway 61 Revisited is one of the great records in the pantheon of rock and roll. The hype surrounding songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” is warranted and this album’s notoriety is safe. Like all truly complete LPs, it should be listened to in one sitting either through a vintage pair of ear muff size headphones or blaring from the speakers of a fast car driving through the back roads of America, this album’s proper setting.
Essential Tracks: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Desolation Row”