As some of the more hipster/younger/young hipster readers amongst you may be aware, venerable indie music website, maker of current taste, and easy target for ridicule Pitchfork Media released their first book this week. Titled The Pitchfork 500, the editors and writers of the website compiled their choices for the best 500 songs of the past 30 years, spanning a wide variety of genres while staying true to their out-of-the-mainstream aesthetic, as well as offering some lists of the best songs of the various subgenres that sprang up during that time. I gave the book a good thumbing over today, and it's about what you'd expect if you've read the website more than once in your life; suffice it to say that fans of Radiohead (like me) and Bowie (not so much) will not be disappointed, as well as anybody that thought that the website is totally speaking to them, maaaaaan, when they told you that the Panda Bear album was actually worth the plastic their CDs were pressed upon. Obviously, I'm being snarky for some yuks - I highly respect the musical opinions of the writers, and it's hard to suggest that any of the songs do not at least warrant discussion over their inclusion (you could quibble over, say, "Bizarre Love Triangle" making it over "True Faith" or "Rebel Without A Pause" over "Night of the Living Baseheads", but if you're actually doing that quibbling, I urge you to stop). The writing is intelligent, passionate, and persuasive, and anybody that picks up the book will, in one small way or another, be educated. You can't really ask for more than that.
All the same, at its very essence The Pitchfork 500 is just another book of lists, only as authoritative as you're willing to believe it is, and yet another example of how obsessed our culture is with shoving things into lists and how easy it is to make a buck off that obsession. As previously noted, anybody even vaguely familiar with Pitchfork will not particularly need to buy this book, unless you need yet another validation that Joy Division was really, really great. You certainly can learn a thing or two - after all, nobody can truthfully say that they know all there is to know about music, least of all me - but, for the most part, you're not learning too much that you already didn't know about indie music if you actually like indie music. The book has a very strong whiff of preaching to the choir, which is disappointing but hardly unpredictable. In the end, it's just like any number of lists about music, from Rolling Stone's to VH1's, only tilted towards those that cringe when they mention Wire and get the response "you mean the show about Baltimore?" Here's a dime - how about eleven more of those?
Now, with that said, I should probably mention here that I love those lists. Can't get enough of them. I've been obsessed with lists since 1997, when venerable British mag Q printed their Top 100 Albums of All Time (with recently released Oasis album and EBDS punching bag Be Here Now lodged in the top 20, a choice that gets funnier the more time passes). Every time a new one comes out, I scurry to my computer to take a look, reveling in the choices I feel are correct (oh look, props for Weezer's Blue Album!) and sneering at choices that I feel are obviously bad (again with Marquee fucking Moon???). Occasionally I'll call up a friend of mine and debate the choices, trying to figure out if they could've squeezed on one more Beatles album, or if the Clash's debut deserves to be ranked higher than London Calling, or some such goofy argument. And those arguments, frankly, are a lot more fun than I let on. We all have our opinions, and if we can't share them, then what is the point of having them at all? Nobody likes debating with themselves.
And, as I've also previously noted, we do give those lists exactly as much authenticity and authority as we're willing to give them. But the thing is that most of us will give those quite a bit of authenticity and authority indeed. Take, for example, that Pitchfork list - every single one of those writers has heard more music than me, knows way more about great bands than I do, and can (obviously) write rings around me when it comes to musical criticism. That tends to make me give their opinions a tad more credit than, say, some cat I talk to on a subway about The Knife. And there have been lists actually compiled by great musicians themselves; forgetting the fact that, when it comes to these sorts of things, musicians are essentially the same as us fans, these are our heroes we're talking about! Why in the world wouldn't I give credence to what Elvis Costello or Arethra Franklin considers to be the best records of all time? What I'm trying to get at is that we give these lists credence, authority, and standing over any list we could create for ourselves precisely because they're not any lists we could create for ourselves. It is something that goes beyond our human propensity to mistrust our own ability to make decisions, and to go along with what others say. And, really, there's nothing wrong with that; so long as you can make opinions on your own, putting stock in the opinions of others is not such a bad thing.
So, with this in mind, it is instructive to notice that many of these lists tend to have the same albums or songs popping up, over and over, with an almost metronomic consistency. This could be pointed out as a failing of these lists; both in the sense that they make the lists boring and predictable, and in the sense that there's an uncomfortable whiff of unoriginality, like every list sort of self-perpetuates the next list in terms of what can and cannot appear, so on and so forth, until a list has no credence because Pet Sounds isn't on it (that's just a random example - I love Pet Sounds). But what I get from that is that there's a tacit knowledge amongst anybody making those lists, even beyond "this has to be on there because people expect it to be there", that anything that has reached that stage of approbation has been deemed worthy, and not because of any random whim. It isn't as though generation after generation made it a rule to forever love Revolver or What's Going On or face eternal damnation; rather, generation after generation was pointed to those albums, told "listen, young man", and learned how incredible they are for themselves. And if there's any list perpetuation, it's only because it's not like one day Remain in Light is going to suddenly not become awesome and everybody will go "oh, I thought this album was great, but it really sucks". Remain in Light will always be awesome. And it deserves to be regarded in that way.
And, in the end, when I think of true classics like Revolver, or "God Only Knows", or, indeed, "Like A Rolling Stone", these are the building blocks of any of these lists, the songs and albums that none of them could ever do without. They add legitimacy to these lists, even while rising above them, simply because of what they are and what they have been since the day of their release. Greatness can never be quantified or placed in a box, but any time we measure greatness, we always find ourselves coming back to the same things, over and over again, no matter who it is drawing up the map or steering the ship. Of the many, many ways that you can try to show how amazing "Like A Rolling Stone" is, that's a measure that is easiest to grasp by any of us, music connoisseur or not - just how many people have said "this is a song that stands amongst the greatest ever written". It may not be the best measure there is, but it's the one we all can understand.
If you quizzed Dylan fans on which three Dylan albums they heard first, I would guess that Highway 61 Revisited would show up in at least 95% of the answers, if not all of them. To put it another way, if Dylan was a major taught in college (as opposed to a class already being taught), Highway 61 Revisited would have to be a 101 course. Not only does it have "Like A Rolling Stone" as its leadoff position, but it also has some of Dylan's most beloved and well-regarded songs from any era, let alone the Electric Trilogy. "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", "Ballad of a Thin Man", the title track...hell, the album practically serves as its own Greatest Hits. Not to bring up those damn lists again, but there are precious few of those in existence that doesn't feature this album somewhere on it, usually in the top 20 or so. It's an album whose reputation precedes it, and whose reputation is fully and justly deserved.
What is interesting, to me anyway, is that Highway 61 Revisited is both the delivery of the promise shown in Bringing It All Back Home, as well as the immediate dead end of that style of music making. I'll delve into it a little more when I get to Blonde on Blonde, but suffice it to say that that particular album isn't so much a refining of Dylan's electric style as it is a reinventing, to the point where it almost has its own distinct sound, that "thin wild mercury sound" Dylan talked about, that nobody has come close to emulating since. That kind of separates it from the other two albums, as well; while the first two albums are incredible in their own right and even have their own strong internal logic, they don't come close to the internal logic that strings Blonde on Blonde together. I don't know if that makes it the better album, but it definitely makes it a different album.
But that's Blonde on Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited is an album so good even Dylan has been pleased by it, stating that "there's a lot of stuff on there I would listen to". And he should be pleased by it; Dylan took the leap to the next level with this album, both with his control of an electric band and with his songwriting in particular. You would expect an album with only 9 songs to be all killer and no filler, but when only one of the songs could be possibly suggested as weak and the rest range from "very good" to "stone cold classic", you're looking at one of the greatest of all time. What is remarkable is that Dylan did this in only four days. Four days! And there are outtakes as well - Dylan didn't just immediately stumble upon the versions that make up the master takes, but did his share of feeling out and searching for the perfect style. And he was so on fire, so confident in his game, that he found those perfect styles in four short days. His lyricism was more on point - gone were the weird flights of fancy that read better than they sounded on wax, replaced with words that could cut deep emotionally and leave you speechless in awe at the same time. The Tarantula style honed to perfection, in other words. And he still managed to keep them within the conventions of popular music, which is even more staggering if you think about it. To take those wild thoughts and arrange them into verse/chorus/verse/middle eight form? My goodness.
And it isn't just the fact that the songwriting is amazing - Dylan has learned how to properly utilize all the musicians in the studio, as well as giving them moments to shine within the track itself instead of just playing the music they're given. Think about the organ swells throughout "Ballad of a Thin Man", the whistle that mimics a police siren and adds an extra flair to the title track, and the clanging piano of "Queen Jane Approximately". And that's not even mentioning the most famous organ riff of all time, played by a man who had (so he says) never played an electric organ in his life. By expanding what his band actually could do, Dylan actually gave more breathing room for his lyrics - a kind of symbiotic thing, where one feeds into the other and creates a stronger whole. That's where Highway 61 Revisited's hidden strength lies; Dylan's band, by coming more into the foreground, helped make his words that much more intriguing and exciting to listen to.
I think, then, that that's why Blonde on Blonde turned out the way that it did - Dylan realized that there was nowhere else to go with this style of music, so he chose instead to gaze deeper into his navel and create something even weirder and more out there. I mean, where can you go when you've recorded "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Desolation Row"? That's the real key to the Electric Trilogy, in my opinion: as remarkable as the music is on all three albums, the cumulative effect of the three would be weakened if the third album had simply been a rehash of Highway 61 Revisited's musical advances. But Dylan took a different path, and the craziness of Blonde on Blonde served to throw the other two album's strengths into sharper relief. And Highway 61 Revisited is allowed to stand as its own masterpiece, the pinnacle of Dylan's foray into electric music, and a highlight of his storied career.
I'm not going to lie - this will probably be the hardest section I'll ever write on this blog. I mean, what is there really to say about this song? "Like A Rolling Stone" has buried itself into the national consciousness in a way precious few songs have. Think about how many times you've heard the song on the radio, seen video of Dylan performing the song live, heard mention made of Kooper's famous organ riff or "How does it feel?" or "Once upon a time you dressed so fine", and so on and so on. It's reached the point where "Like A Rolling Stone" isn't even a mere song anymore, so much as it's an institution, something for all writers of music to aspire to in their efforts to create music that touches people and makes them feel emotion, no matter what that emotion is. The song has topped any number of "greatest song ever" polls, and has been namechecked by countless musicians as inspiration and as a just plain awesome tune. It stretched the boundaries of what could be done with popular music, what could be played on the radio, and indeed what "popular music" actually is. It is usually the first Dylan song anybody ever hears, and it is a song that every Dylan fan at least respects as great, if not outright cherishs as their favorite. It is my favorite Dylan song, and quite possibly my favorite song of all time.
So I'm going to ignore the song, and instead use this time to talk about the collapsing American economy. In this time of plunging stocks and consumer fear...
No, just kidding. What I can't get over every time I hear the song is how every inch of it sounds inevitable, like there was no other way for this song to sound. It doesn't surprise me that there's a legend that the song was completed in only one take - how can you not listen to that song and feel that, yes, there was NO way there could be alternate versions or flubbed takes or anything other than the sweet perfection that heads Highway 61 Revisited and was released to radio DJs cut in half due to its length. And, yes, it's only because we've had the song for so long that that feeling of inevitability exists - if Dylan had sung "How do ya feel?", or incorporated a ukelele, or stretched the song to 8 minutes, we'd still feel like those elements are essential to what makes the song the classic that it is, if only because we wouldn't know any different. But then that's true of every classic song, and all of those songs have the same feeling of inevitability; that's part of what makes a classic a classic, the notion that any small change would cause the house of cards to come tumbling down.
"Like A Rolling Stone" is a song that's both the sum of its parts and the individual parts, shining so brilliantly separately and together. This is the perfect example of the symbiotic relationship; we've all heard the piano waltz version of this song, and I think we can all agree that you don't get the same wicked bite from that version as from the master take. So that's one element you have there - Dylan's acid-dripping words, as nasty a putdown as anyone's ever written, a song so bitter and vicious that if he actually did write it about somebody, it's hard to believe that person didn't hear the song and instantly drop dead or turn to stone. Then you have Dylan's vocal itself, delivered marvelously with just the right edge and hint of anger, never going over the edge, as controlled and brilliant a vocal as Dylan ever delivered. And then there's the instrumentation, played without a single hitch, chock full of highlights - that explosive snare shot and the steady drum beat, Dylan's short but sweet harmonica blasts punctuating every chorus and taking the song to the fadeout, the swirling guitar riffs from Michael Bloomfield, Dylan's hammering the piano keys purposefully, and that legendary organ riff, five notes that anybody that loves music can instantly identify. Taking them apart, every single one of those elements could be the best moment of a good song, maybe even a great song. Putting them together made history.
Maybe that's a way to define a legitimate classic - if you took out an element of the song and replaced it with something else, would that affect your reaction to the song adversely? Try to imagine, say, "Good Vibrations" without the theremin, or "Song 2" without the "woohoo!"s, or "Hold On, I'm Coming" without those horns ascending to the heavens. That would make the song something different, and probably not for the better, right? "Like A Rolling Stone" is exactly the same way - take one element away, and you don't have "Like A Rolling Stone". It is always remarkable to see or hear something where every element works together so perfectly that you just get totally caught up in the moment, marveling both at the individual pieces and the entire experience that they create. I feel that way every time I hear "Like A Rolling Stone".
I'm going to bookend the Highway 61 Revisited series with two quick stories (one here and one on "Desolation Row") about my Dylan-loving female friend, both because they're interesting/funny to tell and so that you don't think my experience with her was all storm clouds raging all around my door. When I was getting into Dylan in my senior year of high school, she became interested as well through my burgeoning passion for his music. One day she gave me a call asking me about "Like A Rolling Stone", her favorite Dylan song at that point (IIRC, it would later be "Simple Twist of Fate"). "What's the problem?" I said.
"Well...I bought a Dylan album with 'Like A Rolling Stone' on it, but the version sounds nothing like the one I've always heard. In fact...it kinda sucks."
I paused, then said "Hang on...what's on the cover of the album you bought?"
"A weird looking painting of a face."
I laughed and told her about her mistake, that instead of buying Highway 61 Revisited she bought possibly the worst album Dylan had ever recorded, just because she saw "Like A Rolling Stone" on the back tracklist and immediately snatched it up. Even at that fledgling stage of my Dylan fanhood, I knew that Self Portrait was an album to avoid at all costs. I always wondered what she'd thought when she'd heard the rest of the album.
Ah, Dylan humor.