Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17: Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Year: 1965
Label: Columbia

There are a handful of artists who have such diverse and influential catalogs, that it is nearly impossible to decide exactly "which" album to review first. Very close to the top of this list is a man whose name is easily one of the most recognized and respected in the history of music: Bob Dylan. Both musically and lyrically, there are few artists who garner the reverence and reputation as Dylan, and comparing an artist to him is almost always considered an honor. After much deliberation, I have decided to make the first Dylan review what many consider to be one of the most important albums ever, 1965's Highway 61 Revisited.

Though Dylan had already broken the folk mold (and taken a LOT of heat for it from fans and critics) by "going electric," he takes everything one step further by bringing in an entire "rock and roll" backing band for Highway 61 Revisited. The album title itself is a reference to the legendary highway that runs from Minnesota (Dylan's home state) all the way to New Orleans, LA, also a musical hotbed, influences of which can be heard throughout the record. Dylan himself admitted that the record may be his best work, famously saying, ""I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to." One rather interesting aspect of the record is the fact that producer Tom Wilson had really only produced jazz records until Highway 61 Revisited, though he worked with the best of the best including Coltrane and Lester Young, as well as a majority of Dylan's previous albums. As much as Highway 61 Revisited was a transitional record for Dylan, it was for Wilson as well, as Wilson would go on to work with such cutting edge acts as The Animals, The Mothers Of Invention, and The Velvet Underground.

The backing band on Highway 61 Revisited centers around blues guitarist, Michael Bloomfield. When Dylan recruited him to the band, Bloomfield was the lead guitarist for the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The guitar work is anything but standard blues, with Bloomfield playing in unorthodox keys and constantly shifting in front and behind the organ playing of Al Kooper. Kooper, who was one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, brings contributions to Highway 61 Revisited that became the influences for bands like The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and one can even draw a connection to modern acts like Phish and Ben Folds. The connection with The Doors is further enforced by the fact that drummer Harvey Brooks handled all of the Highways 61 Revisited drumming, as well as contributions on various Doors records, including The Soft Parade and L.A. Woman. The rest of Dylan's backing band have similar, top notch pedigrees, and as a single unit, they remain one of the most highly respected bands in history.

It is almost cliché to even attempt to talk about the lyrical talent of Bob Dylan. Few artists can be mentioned in the same breath, and his lyrics throughout Highway 61 Revisited are no exception. Writing darker songs than his previous efforts, Dylan shines with songs like "Desolation Blues" as well as the title track. The song, "Highway 61 Revisited" brings the usual attacks on capitalism, yet the song gets rather discomforting as Dylan mixes in references to biblical events, incest, gross brutality, and plays this all against a whimsical, circus-like musical background. The juxtaposition between the lyrics and sound remains almost unparalleled to this day. With "Desolation Row," Dylan tones the band down and it is a bit of a throwback to the "classic" Dylan sound. One of Dylan's longest single songs (over eleven minutes), the song is a biting confrontation of racial tensions, thought to be inspired by Dylan's knowledge of a lynching of several black circus workers in his own hometown (decades before Dylan's birth). Again, the contrast between the music and the lyrics border on eerie, and yet highlight the brilliance of Dylan's talent.

That being said, Highway 61 Revisited specifically revolves around two tracks. The somewhat lesser known of these two standout tracks is the scathing, "Ballad Of A Thin Man." The song, which is a strike back at the general ignorance and banality of the music media, remains one of the most brilliant songs in history. Generally believed to be directed at then Rolling Stone and Village Voice writer, Jeffrey Jones, Dylan uses the song to berate writers for not truly understanding the complete idea of "what" and "who" they are writing about. Summing it up his detest and questioning of ability of music writers, Dylan writes, "You try so hard, but you don't understand/just what you'll say, when you get home...Because something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

However, even taking everything previously stated into account, Highway 61 Revisited can be summed up in the albums' first song and lead single, the timeless tune, "Like A Rolling Stone." Perhaps the greatest "riches to rags" song ever composed, the tune has been hailed by everyone from John Lennon to Frank Zappa to Bruce Springsteen as one of the most influential songs they'd ever heard. Zappa was quoted years later saying, " I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins (sells well) and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else.'" The song itself can easily be seen as Dylan collectively referring to an entire generation in the form of a single woman. As the song progresses, Dylan gets more and more aggressive, challenging the woman (generation) to be able to survive after being forced to fiend for themselves. Referencing everything from drug abuse to dirty politicians, "Like A Rolling Stone" stands as what may be the finest "down and out" song ever. Dylan closes the song with one of the most legendary lines ever, as he states: "...when you got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."

Bob Dylan is an island onto himself. Beyond a legend or an icon, he simply "is" Bob Dylan. Influencing nearly every artist who has made music since his 1962 debut, Dylan fearlessly pushed into unexplored musical territory, often losing him fans along the way. Whether acoustic, electric, blues, or rock, Bob Dylan creates music that transcends genres, socioeconomic classes, and even languages. With a catalog that could take one an entire lifetime to properly experience, it is often difficult to decide just "where" to start. While nearly all of his albums from the 1960's are nothing short of classic, perhaps his finest record of the decade, and perhaps his career was his seminal 1965 release, the preeminent, Highway 61 Revisited. If you've never experienced this musical treasure, you are truly doing yourself a disservice and should find yourself a copy of the album as soon as possible.

Standout tracks: "Like A Rolling Stone," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," and "Highway 61 Revisited."


rockandrollguru said...

It simply does not get any better than this album. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It's a great album but Harvey Brooks was the Bass player.

The Music Guru said...

Harvey Brooks and Harvey Goldstein are the same person :)