Desert Island Albums #1: Highway 61 Revisited

A brief introduction: I’m one of those people who likes lists. Greatest guitarists, best books, tastiest burritos, doesn’t matter what: If you can make a top 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 ranking of something, I will read your list. Also, one of my favorite debates to have with friends is the classic, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take ten albums (no Greatest Hits or Live albums) with you, what would they be?” I thought it’d be fun to post my Desert Island Albums on the blog, with a writeup summarizing the story of, and what I love about, each one. Today I’m kicking off the series with Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Bob_Dylan_-_Highway_61_Revisited

The album cover:

A 24-year old (and seriously, it kills me to type that—24!?!) Dylan sits slightly off-center, wearing an indescribably awful patterned shirt over a Triumph Motorcycles t-shirt (an interesting choice, given that less than a year later Dylan famously–possibly apocryphally?–crashed his Triumph motorcycle in upstate New York, which resulted in his ceasing touring for many years). Over his shoulder we see a man from the waist down, standing and holding a camera, most likely an allusion to the intense media scrutiny Dylan experienced at that time (this was not too long after after Dylan caught fire from the folk community for switching to electric instruments, and it was also a period during which, as you can see in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, he got so sick of journalists that he began making up absurd answers to reporters’ question). On the album, Dylan’s weariness with the media comes through in particular on Ballad of a Thin Man.

The album title:

The title refers to U.S. Route 61, which travels along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. The road was used by many Mississippi Delta residents who moved north to St. Louis and the Twin Cities, bringing with them blues music, and Highway 61 became known as the “Blues Highway.” The crossroads where blues pioneer Robert Johnson claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar playing skills is on Highway 61, and legendary singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on the same stretch of road.

Satan never showed

I went there. Just saying.

Dylan “revisits” the blues highway by collecting a band that sounds very much like a bar-room electric blues band. Many of the tracks, including Tombstone Blues, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, From a Buick 6, and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues are structured as blues numbers (although Dylan doesn’t resort to the 12-Bar call-and-response style with his lyrics), featuring electric guitar, piano, and of course, harmonica. Dylan uses the blues band as a canvas on which to paint his complexly poetic and sometimes psychedelic lyrics.

The first sound you hear:

A single strike of the snare drum a beat before the rest of the band fires into Like a Rolling Stone.

The last sound you hear:

Dylan’s harmonica solo at the end of Desolation Row fading out at the same moment the final acoustic guitar note is struck.

Track by Track:

The album of course leads with the iconic Like a Rolling Stone. It follows this six-minute epic of social upheaval with Tombstone Blues, a rollicking up-tempo blues full of semi-apocalyptic biblical imagery which closes with Dylan telling the listener (presumably the college kids who adopted him as the voice of their generation) that he doesn’t have the answers: “Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain/That could hold you dear lady from going insane/That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain/Of your useless and pointless knowledge.”

The album continues with a couple of blues numbers, one slow and dreamy (It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry), one fast and nightmarish (From a Buick 6). Side One, in record speak, ends with Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan’s sneering takedown of the music journalists who spent years flinging stupid and repetitive questions at him. This is the track that sends the album veering into “Angry Dylan” territory. (Further evidence: In Seize the Time, Bobby Seale recounts how Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party, was a fan of Ballad of a Thin Man.)

Side Two begins with a change of tone, the lovely Queen Jane Approximately, with its layering of organ and electric guitar, a song that lyrically seems to be extending an olive branch of solace for the abandoned, resented, sick of repetition Queen Jane. (I’m not sure who Queen Jane represents. Maybe Edie Sedgwick? Maybe some other girl? Maybe it’s Dylan speaking reflexively to himself in the voice of his fans and followers?)

He follows Queen Jane with the title track, a psychedelic tune with a rolling rhythm and unmistakable slide guitar lick punctuating every line and lyrics that recall the Bible (“God said to Abraham, kill me a son”) to Shakespeare (“Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night”).

The next track, my personal favorite on the album, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, is another semi-psychedelic tune, set mostly in a whorehouse in Juarez, Mexico. The lyrics describe Dylan’s growing disillusion with the whores, drugs, and cops that have taken control of his narrative (and perhaps his real life).

The album closes with a classic epic, Desolation Row, an 11-minute 21-second acoustic song so packed with literary allusion too daunting to unpack in the short format I’m working with here. This is a key “Angry Dylan” number, summed up in the final lyric of the album: “Right now, I don’t feel so good/Don’t send me no more letters, no/ Not unless you mail them from/Desolation Row.”

The signature track:

Considering how entrenched the words “Rolling Stone” are in rock music, it’d be hard to argue that the signature track is anything other than Like a Rolling Stone.

The signature lyric:

Every line on this album would be a signature lyric for the average songwriter. For most listeners, the line that stands out is the refrain of Like a Rolling Stone: “How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/A complete unknown/Like a Rolling Stone. (A college history professor of mine once sang those lyrics during a lecture in front of a 500-seat auditorium).

But my favorite line? The final verse of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blue’s: “I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff/Everybody said they’d stand behind me when the game got rough/But the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff/I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” As a New Yorker who’s spent much of his life living elsewhere, those lyrics have taken on a self-defining quality for me.

The essence of the album:

This is “Angry Dylan” (as opposed to the “Sad Dylan” of Blood on the Tracks or the “On a Shitload of Drugs” Dylan of Blonde on Blonde) at his absolute songwriting peak. The lyrics are elusive and allusive, painting a picture of the world as seen through the eyes of a 24-year old genius who had already spent years being bombarded with public criticism. And those lyrics are backed with some of the best electric blues instrumental work you’ll hear anywhere.

In this project, I’m counting down my “Desert Island Albums,” the few records that I’d be allowed to take with me to a grim, eternal exile. This album was released on August 30, 1965, more than 15 years before I was born, and in spite of that fact, it is THE Desert Island Album. If I could only listen to one more record for the rest of my life, Highway 61 Revisited would be it.

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