I’m not sure there’s a better opening track in all of music than in Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. The record races out of the gates with “Like a Rolling Stone,” an anthemic piece of Americana that has become etched firmly into world music’s dense scrapbook.
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The song showcases Dylan’s brilliance as a storyteller and singular stage presence. He was a mere 24 years old when it came together and the track remains a literary masterpiece. Musically, it strings together galloping guitar with church-like organs in one big build that doesn’t exhale until the song is over.
Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan’s sixth studio effort, released in 1965. The name refers to the long piece of asphalt that stretches from Dylan’s hometown of Duluth all the way to the Mississippi Delta. It’s a fitting title for an album that draws from countless blues musicians from the many towns along this highway, especially the southern stretches. The 1,400-mile highway generally follows the nation’s most famous river, the Mississippi.
The record came about during a phenomenal stretch of Dylan’s lengthy songwriting career. He’d returned from an overseas tour beat up and threatening to give up music altogether. He started writing as a means of coping and, as Dylan describes it, was possessed by some kind of ghost as he scribbled out the lines to “Like a Rolling Stone.” The process restored his love for the craft.
On the side, another interesting development: As the album was coming together in the studio, Dylan officially went electric. His iconic July set at the Newport Folk Festival saw him fully plug in, going from Guthrie-like acoustic troubadour to rock ‘n’ roll poet. The scenes are now famous, with fans booing his bigger sound and one hauntingly shouting “Judas” at the musician.
There’s not a bad track on the record. “Tombstone Blues” reveals an edgier Dylan, backed by crashing drums and fire-breathing guitar. Dylan’s almost free-styling here, dropping line after memorable line on his own time. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is blues at its best, coming off like a backyard session of a band that’s been playing together for decades. It pull from the best of the broad American music landscape, from piano parlors and roadhouses to backwoods porches.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” is haunting, a protest song of sorts that many believe is about Dylan’s own fame and the corruption attached to both the media and celebrity. It’s a stirring, piano-driven number that follows a main character in Mr. Jones. It plays a little differently every time, but overall, the song has a pronounced sense of dread, as though the song’s protagonist is lost in a changing world and helplessly trying to stay ahead of it.
It’s as though the song’s protagonist is lost in a changing world and helplessly trying to stay ahead of it.
Elsewhere, “Queen Jane Approximately” is near-perfect in its imperfections, built around little blemishes like slightly out-of-tune guitars. It’s an amazing song to dissect with your ears, focusing on individual instruments first, then letting go and taking in the whole collage. The title track sounds like a pointed homage to the many blues-smiths to come out of the Delta (interestingly, there’s a slide whistle played in this song, an instrument rumored to have entered the studio as something to be sounded anytime somebody was doing drugs).
The record’s finishing touch, “Desolation Row,” is a stroke of genius. It’s the only acoustic number on the album and functions almost like an obituary for the old Dylan sound. It’s also a gorgeously written work that manages to go eleven captivating minutes. Dylan’s downright tireless here, narrating throughout. Busy guitars keep up, chasing his every verse. With a sort of magical realism, Dylan weaves together biblical figures, historical names, and fictitious characters to describe a place that may not exist on a map but certainly exists in some form in every city.
The song touches on the absurdity of 1960s America, with pronounced references to racism and political incompetence. “They’re selling post cards of the hanging,” he begins, in chilling fashion. It feels like he’s painting a portrait of some make-believe societal underbelly until you realize it’s incredibly astute social commentary, hit with a healthy serving of imagination and punctuated by his signature harmonica. And it continues to ring true today.
Just how influential is the record? Writers have argued that the 1960s didn’t really start until after its release. Dylan’s ability to marry folk with rock ‘n’ roll pretty much opened the door for what many describe as the greatest modern form of pop music. It operated like an invitation, ushering forward the esteemed likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the louder, more cerebral version of The Beatles, to name a few. Chuck Berry may have devised rock ‘n’ roll but Dylan walked folk gracefully through the amplifiers with this vital LP. It’s a sound that seems so natural today but genuinely baffled many upon its release.
It’s rare in music for the lyrics and sound to be genuine equals. That’s another trait that makes this record so incredibly special. Dylan’s keen penmanship is matched only by a fully charged batch of bluesy folk-rock.
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