Saturday, March 8, 2014

Highway 61 Revisited

Out of the anger and despair running through Highway 61 Revisited a weariness of the heart may occur, but not the soul.  Although the album has outsider in mind it manages to rise above such categorizing.  Everyone fancies themselves the outsider at some point, but as the opening track suggests - it's no picnic. With the devastating beauty of "Like a Rolling Stone", a jukebox sermon of self-reliance, Dylan transcended his early persona as the conscience of a generation into something more.

On the second track, "Tombstone Blues," Dylan raises the rancor to another level.  We get a macabre vision of 1960s America with Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Gypsy Davy blow torching everything in sight.  Mike Bloomfield's guitar is unleashed as well. 

A respite arrives with "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" as the pace slows down. A smooth barrel house piano adds to the leisurely ambiance. If the train symbolizes the vibrancy of 19th century America, the automobile personifies the strange unpredictability of modern times.  

Then we're back on the road with "From a Buick 6" with its pulsating blues rhythm.  Your mind's eye is flying through the USA with an unhinged Neil Cassady behind the wheel.  The American highways in "From a Buick 6" are not the healthy veins of freedom Kerouac wrote about.  Instead they're deadly passages with the threat of disaster always looming around the bend and you are  "cracked up on the highway and on the water's edge." 

The first side closes with one of Dylan's most analyzed compositions, "Ballad of a Thin Man."  On earlier albums, Dylan took a more confrontational approach on songs like "Masters of War," "Only a Pawn in their Game" and many others.  The attack here is more psychological: an indictment of an entire mindset of, for lack of a better term, "the Establishment." By placing his subject in a series of grotesque situations we see the disconnect between his perception and reality.  Although Mr. Jones is wealthy and well read, he's unable to relate to the world around him.  His insulated world of Madison Avenue, Ivy League faculty meetings, corporate boardrooms, and the White House gives him the privilege of having the opinion that matters.

"Queen Jane Approximately" had potential as a pop single with it's catchy refrain "won't you come see me Queen Jane."  Once again Dylan is advising the song's character to avoid superficial people or else continue being miserable.  In an interview, Dylan when asked about the true subject of the song, he replied "Queen Jane is a Man."  When watching the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back, a behind the scenes look at Dylan's 1965 tour of England, he is surrounded by an entourage of not so charming hipsters who only want to be seen with him.  In the film, he seems overly concerned about how the media sees him.  In the interview with Time Magazine he angrily accused them of misrepresenting reality and characterizing him as a folksinger. Whatever the genesis of Queen Jane, the combination of guitar, organ, piano, harmonica, and vocals creates a constellation of emotion.

With "Highway 61 Revisited" we're back on the road that ran from Dylan's city of birth Duluth, Minnesota to a place inseparable from the Beat imagination, New Orleans.  The hard driving blues mirrors "Tombstone Blues" with its assortment of odd characters we meet along the way from Georgia Sam to the prophet Abraham.  

A weariness sets in on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" signaling the journey's coming to a close.  Once again, Paul Griffin's piano adds a lightness to a bleak tune about feeling lost, exploited, put upon, and defeated.  By the final verse he resigns himself to apathy and despair, "I started out on burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff."  Feeling lost and betrayed, he declares, "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough." One more stop remains - at Desolation Row.

The surreal setting of "Desolation Row" imagines real and fictional characters interacting in the carnival of history.  Like T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland", ideas of fatalism and fate are in conflict.  Each verse pours on the gallows humor and Gothic allusions with each verse the momentum intensifies into an incredible sadness as Dylan's harmonica and Charlie McCoy's guitar play the song to a cathartic conclusion.  

While Dylan "went electric" in Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited marked a quantum leap forward.

Next Album: Blonde on Blonde

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