(Weekly song selection will continue tomorrow.)
Today (August 30th) marks the 45th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Being only 28, it’s impossible for me to imagine the impact that it had on music and popular culture at the time of its release. But Highway 61 seems to exist on its own time-line. It is at once the product of its times, and also timeless. “Like a Rolling Stone” is the tipping point where rock came into its own existence. Almost every single artist at the time became influenced by the 6 minute single. But no one could better it, because “Like a Rolling Stone” changes every time you listen to it. Each time the put downs get far worse, and Dylan’s sneer gets more demonic. “How does it feel? is both sympathetic and damning.
And even if that was all that Dylan recorded for “Highway 61” he would have left a mark on popular music. If were left wondering about “Napoleon in rags and the language that he used” at the end of “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan had an entire albums worth of Biblical, historical, and literary figures doing all sorts of bizarre things. Every single song on Highway 61 is a masterpiece because every single song contained multiple layers – “Highway 61 Revisited” could either be the most hilarious song Dylan ever recorded with lyrics about Louis the King having “too many red white and blues shoe strings and a thousand telephones that don’t ring” or the most perverse depending on how you read into the lyrics about the second mother being with the 7th son.
And of course, Dylan was always quick to dismiss his critics before they even could even take a shot at them. “Ballad of a Thin” goes beyond a fuck off. Dylan embarrasses his victim (a would-be journalist according to legend) by having him ridiculed by freaks – the lowest form of society. And freaks are also the center-piece of “Desolation Row”, the 11 minute track that closes the album. Everyone from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to Robin Hood, and even Ophelia are stuck on Desolation Row – a place where all of these “lame” people are damned to, and cannot escape. Dylan himself is there at the end of the song – it’s unsure whether he was put there or not – but it’s as if he was saying that he aligned himself with these literary characters.
I’ve often said that I am blown away by both Highway 61 and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. While The White Album or Abbey Road might be better albums – though not by much – Astral Weeks and Highway 61 Revisited were created by one man.