I don’t belong to the cult of Dylan. I’ve always viewed the phenomenon of Dylan to be a little bit of an emperor’s new clothes scenario. For every fan who really dug Dylan’s music, there were 10 more who were too afraid too admit that they didn’t get it and bought the record anyway for fear of seeming unhip. I went to a concert in 2005. Most of the audience gave a standing ovation after every single song. Even when it was clear Dylan couldn’t care less about connecting with the crowd or singing his legendary lyrics in a way that was remotely intelligible.
There is plenty on this album I don’t get, I must admit. But it is also somehow still very captivating. My favorite folk songwriter, Phil Ochs, said that Dylan had “produced the most important and revolutionary album ever made” when it came out in ’65. In an interviews disc I heard Phil say, “I put on Highway 61 and I laughed and said it’s so ridiculous. It’s impossibly good, it just can’t be that good. How can a human mind do this?”
And putting myself back in that scene, I think I can understand why he felt this way. Many writers, Phil included, had limited themselves by adhering too strictly to the folk tradition. Whether it be instrumentation, structure or subject matter. Highway 61 is completely irreverent of any of the aforementioned. Totally cocky and unapologetic. At this point, Dylan couldn’t care less about alienating his folk audience.
And he did. But gained many more followers as a result. This was Dylan’s first full electric album. He had just come back from his well documented tour of England and had grown very resentful of what he was expected to be.
Allegedly written, as Dylan describes, as a “long piece of vomit”, the opening song “Like a Rolling Stone” is certainly one of Dylan’s all-time classics really embracing uncertainty and the changing of the guard. My favorite song on the album is “Ballad of a Thin Man” for its truly bizarre imagery. What’s kind of funny to me, though, is that it is written as a mockery of those on the outside of the counterculture, the journalists, the older generation who don’t get what it’s all about. But I, actually, find myself sympathizing with Mr. Jones because I often find Dylan too pretentious. My favorite lyric comes from “Tombstone Blues” which is “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”. This was the era of free-association for Dylan. Sometimes he’s said it was as if a ghost was writing the songs on his behalf.
The band sound is instantly recognizably 60s. Especially that organ. It sounds like a live happening. Like Dylan gathered up some guys to play a one-time only concert on a flat bed truck rolling down highway 61. It really works to support the attitude of his vocal delivery. Though, I really would have appreciated hitting the breaks to take a moment to tune the electric guitar on “Queen Jane Approximately”. Seriously. Did anyone else catch this? It’s brutal. Perhaps this is what the “approximately” part was all about.
In closing, I still don’t really know if I’d call myself a Dylan fan. But I do find it a very fascinating record and one that can stir up plenty of conversation over the interpretation of his lyrics. Were they deep insights? Or was Dylan putting us on like the Emperor, or Mr. Jones and inviting us to make fools of ourselves acting like we really get it? If a copy of Highway 61 survives the extinction of humankind and later some aliens stumble upon it, would 11mins of “Desolation Row” provide more clues or red herrings to what we were really like?
Check these other blogs for more on Highway 61 and the Rewind Button Blogs: