Folk troubadour reinvents himself as surrealist poet and turns rock on its head in the process
Highway 61 Revisited would be Dylan’s first solely electric album, and one which attracted its fair share of controversy, mainly from all the folk purists who felt as though their spiritual guide had betrayed them. But such cruel criticism didn’t bother Bob one bit, since he never really thought of himself as a folk singer to begin with. From now on it was rock that would become the vehicle through which Dylan could express his new-found vision.
At the time of its release in 1965, Highway was a pretty rough record, more akin to The Rolling Stones than anything he had recorded previously. Bringing It All Back Home gave hints as to his changing direction, but no-one was quite prepared for what Dylan was about to unleash on an unsuspecting world with this LP.
First up is “Like A Rolling Stone”, perhaps one of the most iconic rock songs ever recorded, with the exception of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” from a decade earlier. The first sound we hear is a stick hitting the drum, like a starting gun announcing the beginning of a race. Al Kooper’s organ swirls seductively around the listener’s ears, while Dylan doesn’t so much as sing but rather snarl the lyrics, creating a vortex of syllables that dance and weave their way through what can only be described as a cacophony of instrumental mayhem. When he spits out the line “How does it feeel” it marked the moment when everything anyone had once thought of Dylan changed irrevocably. Because by now, either you were with him or against him. And although lasting only six minutes, it would turn out to be six minutes that would alter the course of popular music forever.
“Tombstone Blues” is all surrealistic imagery, with references to Galileo, Beethoven, and knitting a wig for Jack the Ripper. What it all means I’m sure not even Dylan himself could probably explain, except that it’s certainly entertaining and not without a good deal of humour. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is Bob as bluesman, including verses straight out of the old 12 bar school of songwriting: “Don’t the moon look good, mama, shining through the trees.” Showing that it wasn’t all about Woodie Guthrie – because Dylan enjoyed his rock ‘n’ roll and blues on the same level as folk, and was at this point determined not to be pigeon-holed as just another protest singer.
The riddles continue on “From A Buick 6” and “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, each a larger than life extemporisation of what it means to be young and cynical of the world around you, all performed with little regard for proper tuning and a garage rock insouciance worthy of any punk band from the late 1970’s, at least in terms of attitude. “Queen Jane Approximately” is another one of Dylan’s poisonous put-downs for which he was so good at, discharging his words like bullets at Joan Baez (again). Though despite the vitriolic verses, and the fact that his guitar is slightly out of tune, the chorus itself is extremely listener friendly.
The title track is an absolute scream, especially his take on the Old Testament through lines such as “God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”/Abe said “man you must be puttin’ me on”/God said “no”, Abe say “what?”/God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin’ you better run”/Well Abe says “Where do you want this killin’ done?”/God says, “Out on Highway 61.” Even the band sounds like their having fun, even if they probably had no idea what it was they were actually meant to be playing.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is all barrel house piano and badly pronounced adjectives, something which must have really pissed off a lot of traditional folkies, who had at this stage already turned their backs on him. Although Dylan hadn’t walked away from his folk roots entirely, choosing to conclude the album with “Desolation Row”, a theme of sorts for all the misspent youth out there in the world who were desperate to find some kind of meaning in their lives.
Highway 61 Revisited throughout has an extremely rough-hewn, organic feel to it, as if everyone involved was merely making it up as they went along, something which was perhaps Dylan’s intention from the outset. It would go on to influence everyone from The Beatles to The Byrds, and just about every other band in between. By now, Dylan had successfully reinvented himself as the Rimbaugh of rock, abandoning accurate lyrical description in favour of surrealistic story-telling, which meant that no-one had any real concept as to what he was on about, but would write thousands of words in some vain attempt to analyse him all the same. A futile endeavour, since the original author remains coy to this day.
Still, Highway was a landmark release. Never before had existentialism and symbolism worked so well together in rock. As Dylan himself explained soon after the album’s release: “I’ve conceded the fact that there is no understanding of anything – at best just winks of the eye – and that is all I’m looking for now.”
And now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, one can only marvel at the invention and stance he took in the face of increasing criticism from his older fans. Soon it would not be long before Dylan would start rehearsals with members of who would later turn out to be The Band. Another chapter, and another new beginning.