Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bob Dylan: "Highway 61 Revisited"

Bob Dylan is about to release his latest album “Together Through Life” at the end of April, which is of course cause for celebration. Now 67, Dylan is still touring almost continuously despite his time-ravaged voice and recent health scares. He had hinted that his last album, the phenomenal “Modern Times,” might be his last, but luckily for us all Dylan is evidently still driven to create. His last few albums have been among the strongest of his career, and from the early reviews “Together Through Life” seems destined to continue his late-era renaissance.

Bob Dylan’s vast and diverse catalogue can be a daunting prospect for those seeking to learn more about his music. Where to start? The easy answer is “Highway 61 Revisited,” released in August 1965. If you picture Bob Dylan as wheezing his way through strident, atonal folk songs while forlornly strumming on an acoustic guitar, “Highway 61 Revisited” is a blast of freezing water to the face. It’s Dylan at his most vitriolic and incisive; and most importantly, it ROCKS. The picture of a young Dylan glaring balefully at the camera on the cover captures the spirit of the record perfectly.

Everybody knows (or should know) “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s 6+ minutes of gleeful malevolence, schadenfreude in its most derisive form. “Like a Rolling Stone” grasps hold of someone at their lowest point, cowering in a pool of desperation on the sidewalk, and delivers a few well-aimed kicks with steel-toed boots. Dylan sneers the lyrics with icy disdain while his band rollicks and riffs so loosely that it seems like they may fall apart at any moment, but never do. Rock ‘n’ roll had never been this nasty before and it opened up new horizons that resonate to this day.

The rest of the album is just as great. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is another withering torrent of purest loathing, this time aimed at a clueless journalist or perhaps a record company executive. The title track is an aural nightmare, with haunting doomsday imagery. The bleary-eyed shuffle “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a sordid tale of drink, drugs, and women in the corrupt Mexican border city of Juarez. And of course there’s the epic “Desolation Row,” poetic and surreal, and miles away from anything else being recorded at the time.

To understand the nuclear impact made by “Highway 61 Revisited,” it’s worthwhile looking at what else was on the scene during the summer of 1965. The Beatles were riding high with innocuous pop songs like “Help!” and “Yesterday” - timeless classics and great in their way, but juvenile and trite compared to something like “Tombstone Blues.” The Rolling Stones were still mostly recording ragged covers of old blues songs. Pop radio was dominated by friendly crooners. “Highway 61 Revisited,” with Dylan’s groundbreaking lyrics, sandpaper vocals, and searing backing band, upped the ante for everyone. Anybody who claims that Dylan can’t sing needs to be immersed in this record immediately. It’s the ultimate reminder of why Dylan is untouched in rock music lore. For longtime fans or newcomers to Dylan’s music, delving into “Highway 61 Revisited” is a good way to while away the weeks until “Together Through Life” hits stores on April 28.

Side one

Like a Rolling Stone 6:09
Tombstone Blues 5:58
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry
From a Buick 6
Ballad of a Thin Man

Side two
Queen Jane Approximately
Highway 61 Revisited
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
Desolation Row

Originally posted on NBC-4 on March 30, 2009

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