Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited' as timeless today as in 1965

Bob Dylan's career has been unconventional and wide ranging. Beginning in the early 1960s, Dylan began a journey that has taken him to a port in just about every genre of modern music. Folk, rock and roll, country, and spiritual music all make up significant portions of his album catalogue.

He began as a celebrated folk artist. On the strength of songs like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind," he built a large following among folk music fans. However, his fans soon learned that he followed his own heart and rarely cared about doing what was expected.

Dylan shocked folk purists by releasing an album in early 1965 that contained some rock and roll music on it. Side one of Bringing It All Back Home featured rockers like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm," but he kept side two totally acoustic. Despite being booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he tried to play an electric set, Dylan was going electric and not looking back.

Within 18 months in 1965-66, Dylan released three of the most critically acclaimed rock albums of all time. Bringing It All Back Home was followed by Highway 61 Revisited and the double album Blonde on Blonde. Of the three, Highway 61 Revisited is the best.

The centerpiece of the album is "Like A Rolling Stone." It is undeniably one of the most influential songs in rock and roll history. Despite being released in 1965, it ranked at number one on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the top 500 songs of all time in 2004.

The magazine summed the song up this way: "To this day, the most stunning thing about "Like A Rolling Stone" is the abundance of precedent: the impressionist voltage of Dylan's language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice, the apocalyptic charge of (Al) Kooper's garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield's stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time."

That about says it all. Among the interesting inspirations for the song was Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." The first verse of that song is: "I'm a rolling stone, all alone and lost/For a life of sin I have paid the cost."

As the album's first track, "Like A Rolling Stone" begins the record with breathtaking intensity. The song's power increases with each passing verse. The song is the musical equivalent of a boulder rolling down a hill with nothing to stop it.

The song was also a commercial breakthrough for Dylan. Along with "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35" (which is on Blonde on Blonde), it is his highest charting single. Both songs hit number two on the singles charts.

Another standout track is the 11-minute "Desolation Row." If somebody wanted to pick one song that best illustrated his surrealist approach during this period, this would be a good song to study. Containing imagery so strong that it rivals any Salvador Dali painting, the singer visits a melancholy place full of sad people. Cinderella, Cain and Abel, Albert Einstein, Robin Hood, Romeo and Juliet, T.S. Eliot, Noah, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame are some of the people who make guest appearances here.

Just as surrealistic but happier is "Tombstone Blues." It is the album's second track, and it is a seven-minute ramrod of energy that does not let the listener catch his breath after "Like A Rolling Stone." Containing examples of Dylan's wit, the song has verses such as: "Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns down their camps/With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps/With a fantastic collection of stamps/To win friends and influence his uncle."

Dylan is an artist that polarizes people. People who like his music tend to love it. Those who dislike it tend to hate it. For example, his singing voice. Those who like him generally have no problem with it. Those who dislike him often think his voice sounds like Curley Howard when he sits on a bear trap.

Regardless of how an individual views him, there is no denying his impact on popular music. In reading volume one of his autobiography a few years ago, it appears that being such an important artist has taken a toll on him. Many times, people want him to be all things to them. That is too much to ask of anybody. He is who he is.


Samurai Sholl said...

Nice to keep the Dylan love strong, but to say "Of the three, Highway 61 is the best" is stepping on dangerous ground! Personally Blonde on Blonde sits deepest in my heart, the overwhelming theme of relationships and the complexity of love being so very universal. So easy on those big statements, please!

Ten Irish said...

Blonde on Blonde is transformational, I'll give him that. But it's a Dylan who's grown too comfortable, both with himself and his Art. Give me Highway 61 Revisited.