Highway 61 Revisited

Week two in the “listening to classic albums” music club. This week it’s Bob Dylan‘s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Some Historical Context

This album was released just before my third birthday so, unlike last week’s album, I have no memory of the album coming out. In fact, I can’t really remember when I first became aware of Bob Dylan. I had cassettes of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits volumes one and two when I was growing up. And I remember reading about his massive Blackbushe gig in 1978. But I certainly wasn’t a huge Dylan fan at that time. I owned no Dylan at all on vinyl. It was only once I started buying CDs that I started to buy Dylan. Even now, I don’t keep up with his newer work. I have a dozen or so Dylan CDs, but they’re all from the sixties and seventies (or recordings from that period that were released later).

However, I do think that in the sixties Dylan was a hugely influential artist and I listen to his music a lot. Highway 61 Revisited was one of my suggestions for the music club. It was a toss-up between that or Blonde on Blonde.

This album comes right as Dylan was moving from acoustic to electric music. His previous album had a side of each. This album is all electric except for the final song.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Like a Rolling Stone

An easy way to get into the album. Something that everyone will recognise. This must be one of the best-known popular songs of all time. And rightly so, it’s fabulous. I particularly love Dylan’s biting lyrics and Al Kooper’s swooping Hammond organ. One of the best starts to an album ever.

2. Tombstone Blues

Rather more basic instrumentation on this one. Which means that there’s far more emphasis on Dylan’s lyrics. It’s a good song, but maybe not quite strong enough to follow “Like a Rolling Stone”. Is anything?

3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

You know, there are so many really strong songs on this album that there are actually a few that I’ve never really listened to carefully. This is one of those. It’s typical of the kind of thing that Dylan did on his early albums – he takes a traditional American musical form (in this case a blues song about trains) and subtly mutates it to his own ends. Not one of the best songs on the album, but perfectly enjoyable mid-side fodder.

4. From a Buick 6

Another pretty standard blues form pushed almost beyond recognition by Dylan and the band (not The Band – they came very soon afterwards). And there’s that glorious Hammond again. Love it.

5. Ballad of a Thin Man

Another of the album’s classics to close side one. Not as well known as “Like a Rolling Stone”, but almost as good. Some of the easiest to understand lyrics on the whole album and it’s the closest thing on the album to a protest song. Dylan is attacking the journalist who were reporting on the folk scene without really understanding what it was about.

6. Queen Jane Approximately

Side two starts very strongly too. But, while this isn’t quite as biting as “Ballad of a Thin Man”, it’s not exactly a positive lyric. Great song though.

7. Highway 61 Revisited

Ah yes, the slightly silly one. Well, the music always makes my smile. It’s a driving song – the clue is in the title. Probably the weakest song on the album, but that’s far from being a criticism on an album as good as this one.

8. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

This is another one that I tend to overlook. But that’s only because it’s rather eclipsed by what comes next. If you listen to it on its own merits then it’s a perfectly fine song.

9. Desolation Row

And this, to me, is what the album has been leading to. Eleven minutes of the finest music ever committed to vinyl. It has a stripped-down sound compared to the rest of the album (this is the single acoustic track) but somehow that gives it greater power. The lyrics make little or no sense – just a series of “stream of conciousness” vignettes – but they are majestic in their nonsense. Fans of the Watchmen will probably recognise the verse that starts “at midnight, all the agents”. I’ve been trying for years to work out why I love this song so much and I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just awesome.

In Summary

I’ve had no surprises over the last 50 or so minutes. I’ve loved this album for years. It’s not my favourite Dylan album (I don’t think I have a favourite Dylan album – they all have things to recommend them) but in “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” this certainly contains two of my favourite Dylan songs.

I haven’t mentioned his voice. I know it grates on people. You just have to move past it. I haven’t noticed it for years but, listening to it now, I can understand how it might bother people who aren’t used to it. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s one well worth taking the effort to acquire.

I predict that it’ll be several weeks before the music club throws up an album as good as this one[1].


[1] A very dodgy prediction as a) they’re all classics and b) a lot of the albums in the hat were suggested by me.


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