Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

6. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

If 'Bringing It All Back Home' was Bob testing the waters of this new electric, literate rock, Highway 61 Revisited sees him gleefully diving right in.

Highway is essentially seven really great songs sandwiched between two staggeringly, thumpingly, magnificent ones. There can't be many people who've never heard opening track Like A Rolling Stone before, and this is the only one here with which I was already familiar.

The words are directed at someone who's suffered a loss of innocence, an undoing of sorts; who this might be in real life, if anyone, I don't know, but boy do I feel sorry for them!  Not for their circumstances, but for the way Bob lays them absolutely bare.  At times his voice sounds like it's performing an exorcism rather than a putdown, and the band contribute layer upon layer of wonderful, textured din-making.  Al Kooper's famous organ riff manages to make an already brilliant song transcendent, and the track as a whole has an unstoppable momentum, feeling to me as if once the engineer has faded them out, the guys just keep on playing and playing.

The clattering urban Tombstone Blues is followed by the loping piano of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.  Whereas at the start of this journey through the box set it rather got on my nerves, I'm now fully on board with the harmonica thing, and the latter has a great break at the end.  Next is some fun garage-rock in the shape of From A Buick 6, with its Nuggets-y guitars and talk of a "graveyard woman/soulful mama".  It provides some short, sharp relief before Dylan lays into another poor soul on Ballad Of A Thin Man, this time the terminally uncool Mr. Jones (probably a symbol for the wider media) and his attempts to understand the prevailing counterculture.  The atmosphere transmitted by the boomy bass and spooky organ make me imagine Bob sitting alone at a cobwebbed piano in a once-hip derelict lounge club, broken bottles and debris strewn about the floor and smashed mirrors behind the bar.

His acid disapproval is present yet again on Queen Jane Approximately, where accompanied by surfy, slightly discordant guitar he's willing a woman to "come see" him once her superficial world inevitably comes crashing down.  No-one can sneer quite like Uncle Bob, especially in 1965 it seems!

As well as the garage-rock sound, 'Highway' is notable for the abundance of keys; pianos, electric piano and electric organ are all frequently employed, giving the album real depth and a cohesive feel.  I particularly like the organ on the title track, which along with the siren whistle give it a raucous, driving energy.  The highway is painted as the solution to everything.  This could be referring to the fact that US Route 61, which runs 1400 miles north to south (also known as the 'Blues Highway') acted as an important route for African Americans traveling away from the Deep South, meaning that the road was indeed a solution to many folks' problems.  It of course has its most northern point close to Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, so perhaps has a particular resonance for him.

There's an ace piano/organ intro on next track Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.  I also love Bob's more soulful singing here, and the way he extends the last syllable at the end of every other line, so that as he describes a rather crappy trip to Mexico (putting it mildly), we get "faaame"... "claaaim"... "sooon"... and "mooon" as a weary, er, crooon.  Sorry.  At the end of the song he decides to head back to the comforts of NYC.  This would have made a great album closer and I'm sure that at this point many artists would be quite happy to rest on their laurels, but no - Dylan ain't finished yet - he hits us with this:

Just when we think we know where we are, he once again pulls the rug out from under us with an acoustic number.  I've listened to Desolation Row a lot over the past week or so; it's certainly the one that's been in my head most often as I fall asleep at night.  The narrator and his 'Lady' look out upon a cruel, twisted world from Desolation Row (not sure whether this is a place or a disposition) on to a gigantic cast of characters fictional and real that includes Nero, Ophelia, Cinderella, Cain and Abel, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound.

It's a world in which I become completely immersed at each listen, pulled in as much by the beautiful interactions between Bob's guitar and Charlie McCoy's gorgeous counter-melody as by the surreal, chaotic scenes.

Highway 61 Revisited displays more cynicism than celebration but is no less enjoyable for it. Kicking off with a barnstormer and concluding with an epic 10-verse ballad is a good start, but the whole album is well sequenced and there's not a duff track in sight (although the astounding bookends can make some of these others seem weak, but only by comparison).

I'm excited to find out which direction along the highway he's going to take next, but at this stage if asked "How does it feel?", I would have to say: Marvellous, Bob. Bloody marvellous.


  1. And he's your uncle? Wow!


    Great piece, Mini - makes me want to listen to it rightr now. But I'm in the library, on my way to walk a dog.

  2. Ta nigel. Hope you enjoy your walk :)

  3. I did thanks, Min (I always do). Back on the Deben Delta now, keeping a quartet of Border Collies company while my Mum takes her other three for a sponsored walk in Dunwich Forest.