Highway 61 Revisited remains to this day, one of the most acclaimed of all rock records. That in itself, is hardly surprising for a piece of work that has survived as an important document in the birth of what is now termed as folk-rock. To me, it is just one of the most pleasurable, yet thought provoking albums that I have ever heard.
Bob Dylan not so much as impresses a first-time listener on this album as he grabs him by the collar and thrusts him into his highly lyrical world of rock and roll. Not even all the superlatives that have poured into this remarkable album can appropriately describe the passionate brilliance that engulfed me on that first listen. It was, and still is a similar experience for many listeners who are just getting their first taste of Dylan on this particular record.
The first shot of snare that kicks off "Like A Rolling Stone" is now almost legendary in its execution, but what follows is a wall of sound that Phil Spector himself would be proud of. An electric mixture of Hammond organ, bluesy electric guitar, chiming piano chords against a simple and understated bass and drums backing. The effect is so stunning that even after the five hundredth listening, this spectacular introduction still gets to you. It can still leave you in awe of the force and aggression, as well as an unmistakable elegance to the whole proceedings.
Dylan's voice breaks through this instrumental storm like a piercing spear, immediately imposing himself on the band and the song, his words firing off like unrepentant artillery. The moment he grabs hold of this particular track in this particular session, he never lets go. In the end, both he and his fabulous backing band turns in perhaps the most sensational recording ever done in rock history.
But "Like A Rolling Stone" is more than just excellent music. It is, like all of Dylan's work in the '60s, more impressive when you connect the melodic rock to his indisputable mastery of poetry and words. "Napoleon in rags", "Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, in your prime", such marvelous imagery that is still remarkably unrivaled. The delightful irony is that this is just the beginning of this delicious poetry dripping off his mouth on this record. The best is yet to come.
"Tombstone Blues" contains lyrical gems filled with wit and sarcasm that quotes anything from Ma Rainey to Jack the Ripper. The track is so furious that the listener is just unable to dance to it. Yet it is a steaming juggernaut of electric blues filled with delicious guitar licks from the brilliant Mike Bloomfield that recalls B.B. King.
If "Tombstone Blues" is a rock and roll song performed with an electric blues feel, then "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" is entrenched with the tradition of Robert Johnson and infused with his own unique poetry. A slow and achy ballad that hints at the loss of a lover perhaps. But whatever he is singing about, it is just a joy to listen to this beautiful ballad. Bloomfield's guitar is working wonders again, pulling out every naked emotion that he could probably muster and making his instrument bleed with pain alongside Dylan's very affected vocals.
The jaunty rock and roll beat of "From A Buck 6" and the title track provides slight comic relief to the otherwise intense words and music of the entire album. Both songs see Dylan in a lighthearted moment, as if he is just enjoying himself as the latest pop and teen sensation at that time. A position more familiar to the likes of the Beatles and Elvis than a folk poet who, just a year ago, was still singing protest songs as the Woody Guthrie heir and incumbent.
"Highway 61 Revisited" is the more often performed and quoted of the two, and rightly so. It tells of a conversation between two people, the names for God and Abraham perhaps just metaphors to the actual subjects that Dylan is referring to. As usual, Dylan not only gets away with ambiguity, but he leaves the listener with a deeper impression than what has actually occurred. A trademark that has been impersonated and tried but rarely, if ever, surpassed.
Sandwiched between these two upbeat numbers are another pair of exquisite ballads, and worlds apart they are too as well. "Ballad Of A Thin Man" counts off with the most menacing piano chords of all time, forecasting a picture of dark apocalypse and even greater cynicism. No one but Dylan knows best what the characters mean, but as again, it is the attitude that counts most, and the performance that comes along with it. It is fitting that when he performs this song at the historic Free Trade Hall concert in Manchester the following year, he is singing it with even greater venom at all the folk purists who detested his switch to electric music.
"Queen Jane Approximately", however, is less cynical as it is altogether more melodic and positive. A love song again perhaps, but only on Dylan's terms. The sweet piano notes that start off the melody is almost mischievous in nature, and the rest of the song just follows suit. Yet, behind this light and upbeat atmosphere also lies an electric backing that is consistent with the rest of the album. The harmonica solos that accompanies this piece is as biting as any on the record.
A perfect companion piece to "Queen Jane Approximately" is unquestionably "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues". The title is as vague as the lyrical poetry that inhibits it, and like the previous piece, it is also rich with tuneful piano and electric instrumentation, though the pace is slower and almost dirge-like. It is whenever Dylan reaches the end of a verse that he has to arch his voice up to new emotional levels that one can finally come to terms with Dylan's exquisite singing, rough on the outside but full of emotional force within.
The final number that concludes this excellent collection of songs is also the lengthiest. A full eleven-minute epic that recalls names and subjects culled from the twentieth century. The imagery is almost ridiculous at times, but the performance and attitude, as always, hits home. With the exception of "Ballad Of A Thin Man" and "Like A Rolling Stone", the song's impact and feel is most strongly felt on this album than on the other tracks. Better yet, its ironic acoustic feel is even more electric than most rock bands can ever hope to muster in an entire career. It is this mastery that eventually transcends "Desolation Row" beyond rock, beyond folk, beyond pop and into something that is truly artful and brilliantly powerful.
This perhaps, applies to the entire record that is Highway 61 Revisited. A supreme masterpiece that is conjured up by this century's most singular songwriter. A masterwork of electrifying rock and roll, surrealistic beauty, pointed cynicism, absurdist wit and veiled yet heartfelt emotions, Dylan's most absolute of rock albums is also, symbolic of the language that he used. "Napoleon in rags" is after all, just a genius disguised as Bob Dylan.
Ian Low 27th May 1997