Monday, September 6, 2010

HIGHWAY 61 REVISTED: Bob Dylan (1965)

1. Highway 61 Revisited--Bob Dylan (released August 1965, first heard spring 1970). At that point, 1970, all the Dylan I knew was on the first Greatest Hits album. The only song the two albums have in common is "Like a Rolling Stone," which had briefly become an object of fascination as I tried to get all the words just by listening to it over and over again. When my older brother brought this album into the house, he called me in, mainly to play "Desolation Row," a song he'd heard on late night FM radio and had been talking about since. First he played "Tombstone Blues," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." I wasn't even 11 yet, and I was getting tired. Dylan's music, by the early '70s, had been superseded, in aural presence and hooks and power chords, for anyone who had been listening, as we mostly did, to hard rock or pop-rock. This wasn't pop or rock, really. It was some weird hybrid derived from folk and it sounded (as indeed it was) designed for mono playback rather than stereo. Which is to say, it seemed pretty dated already. And yet.

Now it's forty years later and they're about to release the mono version on CD; I've bought this album on vinyl and on CD and on SACD, and I never tire of it. That datedness has come to be an immense part of its charm, partly because of the aura derived from the mid-60s as a time when mono music was still made. And that era boasts an aura, these days, in part because of the albums Dylan released then. Indeed, but for some notable exceptions, the AM radio music of the era isn't what matters, except as nostalgia. This album threw a wrench into what pop and rock'n'roll could be in the name of a hipster subculture I knew very little about when I was 10, but there it was, filling the room. And something changed. Because Dylan, on the cover, was so cleary not a rock star. And he wasn't a folksinger any more either. Whatever he was, he seemed to know it would be unprecedented for a lot of people.

Between '72 and '75, when Blood on the Tracks was released, I got to know most of the Dylan back catalogue and this album only increased its fascination. It so clearly was a definitive statement -- the rock songs on its predecesssor, Bringing It All Back Home, were mostly throwaways, and its dense and drugged-out successor, Blonde on Blonde, though it showed progress in making an entire album boast a dominant sound, lacked the sheer verbal brilliance of this album, haunting, comic, surreal, sneering. "Desolation Row" never fails to put me in a trance and somewhere in there -- among the indelible images, the clever phrases, the articulate guitar fills -- is that feeling I learned to call "poetry" though maybe that's a word too literary in connotation. Maybe it's better just to call it "the dream." Every song on this album takes me away, and from every one of them I could quote a line or two that does it for me. Sums up some state of mind or an attitude or a way of articulating one's status in a memorable, take no prisoners phrase. And for sheer delivery, this is still the Dylan album, the singing, as the liner notes say, "exercises in tonal breath control" that bend and rasp and enunciate as though, in the weird scenes Bob finds himself in, only diction can get you through.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
--Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"

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