Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited 50 years ago today

First posted 8/30/2013; updated 7/12/2020.

Highway 61 Revisited

Bob Dylan


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Released: August 30, 1965


Recorded: June – August, 1965


Peak: 3 US, 4 UK, -- CN, -- AU


Sales (in millions): 1.5 US, 0.1 UK, 10.0 world (includes US and UK)


Genre: folk rock


Tracks: (Click for codes to singles charts.)

  1. Like a Rolling Stone [6:13] (7/20/65, #2 US, #4 UK)
  2. Tombstone Blues [5:56]
  3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry [4:09]
  4. From a Buick 6 [3:19] (9/7/65)
  5. Ballad of a Thin Man [5:58]
  6. Queen Jane Approximately [5:31] (2/14/66)
  7. Highway 61 Revisited [3:30] (12/21/65)
  8. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues [5:32]
  9. Desolation Row [11:21]

All songs written by Bob Dylan.


Total Running Time: 51:26


The Players:

  • Bob Dylan (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, siren whistle)
  • Mike Bloomfield, Charlie McCoy (guitar)
  • Paul Griffin, Al Kooper, Frank Owens (piano/organ)
  • Harvey Brooks, Russ Savakus, Joe Macho Jr. (bass)
  • Bobby Gregg (drums)
  • Bruce Langhorne (tambourine)

Rating:

4.791 out of 5.00 (average of 21 ratings)


Quotable: “Dylan’s most relentless and flawless album.” – Josh Tyrangiel and Alan Light, Time magazine


Awards:

About the Album:

Highway 61 Revisited is “Bob Dylan’s most relentless and flawless album,” TL but also his “most accessible rock album and its historic importance cannot be understated. This record changed the face of popular music, and serves as proof of his legendary status as one of the true masters of both words and music.” NO

“Taking the first, electric side of Bringing It All Back Home to its logical conclusion, Bob Dylan hired a full rock & roll band” AMG for Highway 61 Revisited. The result? He “invents folk music from the future. Dylan didn’t abandon folk music; he just hauled it forward a few centuries. Out went acoustic hymns of protest, in came a whirlwind of images – mad, random, yet cruelly precise.” BL

The Recording Sessions:

While previous album, Bringing It All Back Home, “manages to sound essentially like electrified folk” MP-19 Highway 61 “uses the sidemen’s rich instrumentation to craft…a more full-bodied sound” MP-19 “powered by Mike Bloomfield’s slashing guitar lines and Al Kooper’s bracing, rudimentary organ.” TL Bloomfield was a blues guitarist from Chicago who Dylan met a few years earlier. Kooper was a guitarist invited by producer Tom Wilson to attend the June 16 recording session for “Like a Rolling Stone.” When Paul Griffin, the organ player, moved over to piano, Kooper – despite almost never having touched the instrument – suggested, “Why don’t you let me play the organ? I have a really great part for this.” MP-52 One of rock’s most identifiable organ riffs was born.

The album was recorded in two blocks of recording sessions. The June 15-16 “Rolling Stone” sessions were overseen Wilson. He’d produced Dylan’s previous three albums, overseeing Dylan’s switch to electric music and his development as a rock star. During the sessions, Wilson tried to minimize Kooper’s role, arguing that “that cat’s not an organ player,” MP-78 to which Dylan responded “Don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not.” MP-78 Dylan also sarcastically suggested bringing in Phil Spector, the famous producer known for the “wall of sound.” MP-78

Dylan later claimed ignorance over the change of producers when they resumed recording from July 29 to August 6. Those sessions wore overseen by Bob Johnston, who went on to produce Dylan’s albums for the next five years. Kooper said his “only quality as a producer” was knowing “how to pat the artist on the back.” MP-81 However, Johnny Cash – whose renowned live albums at Folsom and San Quentin prisons were produced by Johnston – called him “an artist’s dream.” MP-81

The Album Title:

“The music combines elements of Mississippi blues and Dylan’s Minnesotan roots, thus the title Highway 61 Revisited.” RV The highway winds from the Canadian border through Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, down to New Orleans. The route, which runs along the Mississippi River, famously passes through the Delta and near the birthplaces and homes of Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Charley Patton, and Son House. The intersection of highway 61 with Route 49 is allegedly the crossroads where blues singer Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil. WK

Dylan said, “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors ... It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.” BD: 240-1

Impact:

“Dylan had not only changed his sound, but his persona, trading the folk troubadour for a streetwise, cynical hipster” AMG and the “voice of a generation.” NO “Throughout the album, he embraces druggy, surreal imagery, which can either have a sense of menace or beauty, and the music reflects that, jumping between soothing melodies to hard, bluesy rock.” AMG This was “an existential album with some of the most vivid lyrics ever heard by the human ear,” RV “all psychic chaos and information overload.” BL

What remains astonishing is that “Dylan brought a level of intelligence to rock music that no one had previously thought possible” NO but simultaneously “it proved that rock & roll needn’t be collegiate and tame in order to be literate, poetic, and complex.” AMG “The next forty years of Dylan’s career would trace the routes mapped out on this album, and most of these songs remain part of his concert repertoire to this day.” TL

“Like a Rolling Stone”

Described as “revolutionary,” WK “Like a Rolling Stone” is “one of the greatest songs in rock ‘n’ roll history.” RV Marked by “its classic organ riff” NO and opening “pistol-crack snare,” TL it was “a rambling epic that redefined the pop song.” RV

At six minutes, it “crushed the limitations of the three-minute pop single.” NO When Dylan refused to whittle the song down, Columbia Records initially shelved the single. However, when the song started getting played at a popular nightspot, New York DJs started requesting copies of the song. MP-54 Columbia gave in to demands for a single and it became the biggest hit of Dylan’s career, peaking at #2 behind “Help!” by the Beatles.

“Tombstone Blues”

This “flat-out garage rock” AMG tune “comes on like an out-of-control freight train, the fast, bass-heavy strum of Dylan’s acoustic guitar setting the pace.” MP: 75-6 “The star of this show is Bloomfield, whose between-verse solos build from heating to blistering.” MP-76

“More than practically any other song on Highway 61, [it] revisits the spirit and myth that informed [Woody] Guthrie’s persona and Dylan’s early fascination with it.” MP-72 The song “is grassroots America, small-town Main Street America, the America of Dylan’s youth.” MP-72 Another “specifically American reality that hovers behind the song…is the Vietnam War…but to call it a song about Vietnam would be too limiting.” MP-73 By referring to “a parade of historical characters,” WK including “outlaw Belle Starr, biblical temptress Delilah, Jack the Ripper…John the Baptist…and blues singer Ma Rainey,” WK Dylan “sketch[es] an absurdist account of contemporary America.” WK

“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”

“If there is a recurring theme in Dylan’s music, it is its constant reinvention.” MP-82 “the most radically redesigned song on Highway 61…is the enigmatically titled ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,’” MP-82 originally called “Phantom Engineer.” MP-82 Critic Sean Egan wrote that Dylan slowed down the original tempo of the song to transform it from an “unsufferably smart-alec number into a slow, tender, sensual anthem.” WK According to Tony Glover, who sat in on the recording session, Dylan reworked the song over lunch to come up with the “sweeter, bluesy version.” MP-85

Dylan has “sometimes played fast and loose with composition, either passing off some early originals of his own as songs learned on the road or, more often, borrowing from traditional songs.” MP-84 In this case, he borrows from old blues numbers such as “Solid Road” by Brownie McGhee and Leroy Carr. WK

This is also the first song on Highway 61 to “take the measure of Bob Johnston’s influence. Anticpating the Nashville tone of Blonde on Blonde, he…injects an inaugural note of country into Dylan’s song, replacing Wilson’s urbane jazz sophistication with a thicker, fuller, more down-home atmosphere.” MP-86

“From a Buick 6”

“Few gneres seem to be as deeply rooted in the…fifty-year span of [Dylan’s] work as the rural blues.” MP-91 “From a Buick” is “the most straightforwardly blues-derived song on Highway 61.” MP-91 This “raucous, up-tempo blues” WK tune is partially based on “Milk Cow Blues,” a 1930 song by Sleepy John Estes. WK “The guitar part is patterned after older blues riffs by Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Big Joe Williams.” WK

One “can spot numerous obscured traces…of Dylan’s relationship with Sara Lownds.” MP-92 Dylan met the former model and Playboy hostess in 1964 through manager Albert Grossman’s wife Sally and they married in November 1965. She was “a mystical kind of chick…into all sorts of Eastern religions” SH: 325-6 who “accepted him for what he was, without trying to groove on knowing the great Bob Dylan.” SH: 325-6 “As love songs go, ‘Buick 6’ runs along the dark side of the road, in contrast to the sunnier fare generally available at that time.” MP-95 “‘Buick 6’ shovels a rare glimpse of what love might look like on Desolation Row.” MP-92

“Ballad of a Thin Man”

Called one of “the purest songs of protest ever sung,” WK “Thin Man” epitomizes “the ‘hip exclusivity’ of the burgeoning counterculture” WK while it also “looks at the media and its inability to understand both the singer and his work.” WK “In stanza after stanza, the once self-impressed Mr. Jones is repelled ever more frantically around an alternate reality that he can neither escape nor fathom.” MP-107 Mr. Jones, the song’s central character, is “one of Dylan’s greatest archetypes…superficially educated and well bred but not very smart about the things that count.” SH-280

“Mr. Jones has inspired more speculation about his true identity than practically any other Dylan subject” MP-108 with people suggesting it is Pete Seeger, Tom Wilson, Joan Baez, or an actual Jones – Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones or journalist Jeffrey Jones. MP: 108-9 At LyricsInterpretation.com, poster Klark_Kent offers a detailed breakdown of the song, saying that Dylan is talking about himself and “ends up becoming a ‘thin’ man by the end of the song. But the desire to know ‘what is’ drives him on even as he mocks his own failed attempts.” LI

Musically, “Thin Man” is “hallucinatory and chilling, a raunchy slow blues that crawls under the listener’s skin.” MP-111 The song “is driven by Dylan’s piano, which contrasts with ‘the spooky organ riffs’ played by Al Kooper.” WK Interestingly, this is “practically the only song of Dylan’s that, although frequently performed live, has never significantly changed.” MP-111

“Queen Jane Approximately”

“Queen Jane is Mr. Jones’s female counterpart, another stranger in a strange land she thought her own, but spared his drastic fate because of her humility – or simply because of her gender.” MP-114 It has been speculated that the song is directed at Joan Baez and the folk movement, while others have suggested it is about “the stifling nature of an upper class existence.” WK In 1964, Baez recorded the song “The Death of Queen Jane” about the “nine-day mini-reign of Henry VIII’s wife Jane Seymour – Queen Jane momentarily.” MP-118 “Not only was Dylan aware of Baez’s connection to the song, but he also knew his ex-lover would get the reference.” MP-118

Dylan’s early career was given a significant boost because Baez championed his songs. However, “what most people admired about Baez – her clear voice and earnest commitment – were precisely what Dylan appreciated least in her.” MP-114 “Dylan wanted no part of the heart-on-the-sleeve empathy that would define so much of Baez’s career and music.” MP-116

Musically, the song “stays low-key,” MP-118 offering the listener “a chance to catch one’s breath…[it is] a rest stop along the way, relatively lighthearted and lightweight.” MP-113 It offers a “touch of sympathy and even comfort in place of relentless mockery.” MP-113

“Highway 61 Revisited”

The title cut references the Bible and God’s request that Abraham sacrifice his son. Considering Dylan’s father was named Abram, the song takes on a possible meaning that God is asking for the head of the singer himself. AG:87-8 At least in Dylan’s version, Dad isn’t quite so willing MP: 119-20 although at this stage in his life, Dylan was barely on speaking terms with his father. Abram wished Bob would devote himself to education and a career instead of wasting his time on music. MP-121

Of course, “this celebration of a highway central to blue’s history” WK “is more than just the King Bob Version” MP-120 about “the conflict between a son and his real or symbolic fathers,” MP-121 including Wilson and Grossman. MP-123 “With so many of Dylan’s songs at the time, cultural references crowd in from a variety of sources.” MP-120 Dylan makes “the highway a road of endless possibilities, peopled by dubious characters and culminating in a promoter,” WK likely based on Grossman, MP-123 who “seriously considers staging World War III out on Highway 61.” AG: 87-8

Musically, “the song is quick…and energetic, pushed along by Bloomfield’s slashing bottleneck guitar.” MP-126 Kooper suggested Dylan substitute the police siren for the harmonica: “A little variety for your album – suits the lyric better as well.” ND-39

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

“Unlike the comic dysfuction parading by in ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ this is deadly serious, an escape literally and figuratively gone south.” MP-129 Over six verses and no chorus, the song follows an anti-hero to Juarez, Mexico on Easter. While on tour in Melbourne, Australia, in 1966, Dylan explained that Tom Thumb was a painter who’s “about 125 years old but he’s still going…and, uh, this is when he was going through his blue period, painting.” MP-130 The narrator faces “dangers from predatory women to narcostic dissolution…to rampant corruption and indifference.” MP-128 In the final verse, the narrator announces his intent to return to New York City, “conceding that even the decadence of the Naked City is preferable to what he’s just experienced.” MP-131

Musically, the song is embued with an Old West vibe thanks to “Paul griffin’s barroom piano” and “Bobby Gregg’s heavy-reverb drums, a mix of the cowboy past and hotrod present.” MP-128

“Desolation Row”

The title may be derived from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. Kooper suggested it refers to a stretch of Eight Avenue in Manhattan “infested with whore houses, sleazy bars, and porno-supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption.” MP-133

This is “a cowboy song, the ‘Home on the Range’ of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America, a distillation of all the frontier ballads, cowpoke’s laments, tales of murder and of gamblers on the run.” MP-139 “Individuality is eradicated in favor of bland anonymity…, its denizens either processed or eliminated by the faceless powers that be.” MP138 “This is one of the most immaculately frightful visions ever set to music.” MP-136

The song features “a Fellini-esdque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters,” AG-89 including blibical characters Noah, Cain, and Abel; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Ophelia; Casanova, Cinderella, and the Phantom of the Opera. “Most of the characters seem to lead mysterious alternate lives, to perform other, darker functions on the side.” MP-135 For example, Albert Einstein, “‘disguised as Robin Hood,’” is “ a ghoulish , drug-addled wreck, a shadow of the man ‘famous long ago for playing the electric violin.’” MP-136

The “reflective folk-rock,” AMG “acoustic 11-minute epic” NO featured Charlie McCoy on guitar. “While Dylan’s panoramic lyrics and hypnotic melody sketch out the vast canvais, it is McCoy’s fills that give it their shading.” MP: 141-2


Notes:

Alternate recordings, including a full disc’s worth of “Like a Rolling Stone” outtakes, are featured on the six-disc box set The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 12).

Review Sources:


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