Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #65: Highway 61 Revisited

"Highway 61 Revisited" has the distinction of being, along with "From A Buick 6", one of the two songs I most associate with what we consider to be "rock" - i.e., a fast tempo song played with electric instruments. One could, I suppose, throw "Tombstone Blues" in there, but that song just feels apart from the other two, in a way; it could be that the lyrics are so out there, or that it strikes a different nerve. But, to me, the two most "rock" songs are the two I mentioned, leaving a collection of mid-tempo songs that range from "stately" to "intimate" to, in "LARS"'s case, "mind-blowing". And therein, at least to me again, lies a lot of the album's appeal.

I've taken some stick from my friends, in the past, for what they consider to be my "wussy-ish" (for lack of a better phrase) musical taste, as exemplified by the contents of my iPod. And I freely admit that my tastes tend to run towards slower music, especially when it comes to the rock genre. There are some exceptions (for instance, I love Metallica's "One", in all its explosive/overwhelming/kinda pretentious glory), but it's safe to say that you're going to find more Neil Young or Smiths than Guns 'n Roses or Hives. That's just the way my brain's wired, I guess.

And yet I think there's something to this. If you go on the general consensus of what would be considered the greatest albums of all time, by any range of people you could so choose, I would guess that the majority of them would something akin to Highway 61 Revisited - i.e. a couple faster songs mixed in with tunes that may have more to do with rock than anything else, but may not actually rock per se in the traditional sense. Think about it - Closer, or Sgt. Pepper, or OK Computer; those are just a few examples, and I'm sure you could think of more. Even the two albums generally considered to be the best in the punk genre, Never Mind The Bollocks and London Calling*, eschew the blazing speed we normally associate with punk for songs with more varied tempos - hell, nothing on Never Mind The Bollocks is as fast as just about any song from the Ramones' debut!

I wonder why that is - that we tend to think of the greatest albums of all time as albums that have more measured tempos to the music. Maybe it's just a quirk of fate. Or perhaps it's because we're trained to think of mid-tempo arrangements as more mature, maybe even more intelligent, in contrast to the (by comparison) animal savagery of fast tempos and 50's-style rock arrangements. Or maybe it's because we associate songs with more measured paces with songs like "Like A Rolling Stone", or like "Tonight's The Night", and with songs that make you think and appeal to more than just your hips or your, um, bathing suit area. And I like to think that if that's true, that Bob Dylan, by virtue of an album like Highway 61 Revisited that changed the rules and made us think differently about what rock actually could or even had to be, had something to do with that shift in how we perceive rock music, and music in general. Another laurel in his crown, so to speak.

It helps that "Highway 61 Revisited" is a fine example of that shift, as an up-tempo song that has thought-provoking lyrics attached to it. Backed by a powerful backbeat that's actually somewhat reminiscent of the Rolling Thunder Revue's revamp of "Hard Rain", the song gallops from verse to verse with a palpable energy, aided in some small way by that "police siren" (aka whistle) played at just the right moment. Dylan's lyrics, lyrics that I consider amongst my personal favorites of his, leap from incident to incident with dizzying speed - one second you're talking to Louis the XVIth (or some such king named Louie), the next you're trying to create the next world war. And yet, at the end of every verse, the answer to any question you might have is right there - Highway 61. Anything you need, anything you want, your heart's greatest or smallest desire is right there. I'm sure there's something to be profound to say about that, and I'm also sure I'm not the man to say it. I will say how it's funny that human nature tends to mirror itself; we come from different backgrounds and environments, and yet so many times we tell stories and have experiences that are similar to so many others. That's why art can have such emotional power - no matter who we are, somebody's written/performed/filmed something about us. How great, and how staggering, is that?

One final note about this song - any time I feel the need to defend the 1974 tour (and I will, just you wait), the "Highway 61 Revisited" from this tour, and specifically from Before the Flood, would be my Exhibit A. I know it replaced "Something There Is About You", an underrated tune on an overlooked album, but adding this song was a stroke of genius, since the song fits so well into the aesthetic of a tour based on raw power, even in the acoustic sets. In the hands of the Band and '74 Dylan, the song feels even more vital and alive, brimming with kinetic energy, Robbie Robertson's ferocious guitar licks, synth lines from Garth Hudson that actually sound really cool as opposed to just occasionally goofy, Levon Helm's razor-sharp drumming, and Dylan roaring out the lyrics with lung-tearing volume. No wonder it was the b-side to the BTF version of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" - two better representations of that crazy, much-debated tour are harder to find.

* for the record, I think Wire's Pink Flag, an album with a great deal of fast "punkier" songs, is better than both of them, but that's neither here nor there

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rob! said...

i wonder how many Hwy 61 road signs have been stolen because of this song? more than Abbey Road, less?

i love Bob's delivery with this song--he sounds so delighted with his own genius, and for the moment, he's just enjoying the hell out of it.

Nicolás Pérez Arce said...

I like the pause in the lyrics after he says "And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son" as if it is part of the speech of Louie.

Anonymous said...

Great blog! Keep it up. I've read all your posts in the past few days, and plan to keep on reading.

Love the detail you've given to my favorites, such as "Mr. Tambourine Man", "It's Alright Ma", "The Times They Are a-Changin'", and "Ballad of a Thin Man." So much good stuff out there.

"Highway 61 Revisted" almost feels funny to me, though in a good way. It's weird to think of a lyric genius being so funny, like in "Bob Dylan 115th Dream". It makes him an even better lyricist, I guess, because he pulls it off so well.


joe butler said...

it's not his greatest lyric mostly a mush of surreal allusions, albeit accompanied by a driving riff and the legendary police whistle.
if you've spent hours trying to decipher Whiter Shade of Pale,then just lie back and let the vibe wash over you instead.

Anonymous said...

This song is in the same vein as Watchtower. The definitive version was done by someone covering the song. As Jimi does wonders with Watchtower, to the point where even Bob says that version is "the" version, Johnny Winter takes this song and makes it his own For amazing slide guitar work, and howling vocals, check out the version on "Second Winter". Unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

An up-tempo song with thought provoking lyrics hardly begins to do justice to this song.

How can you fail to comment on the first verse?

How can you fail to respond explicitly to a pop song which was written in the mid-sixties but which takes as its initial theme one of the most celebrated stories of the Old Testament?

How can you fail to mention that Bob´s father was....Abe!

And that Bob was/is Abe´s first born son!!

Words fail me.(Sadly they seem to have failed you to on this occasion. A great pity, I feel.)

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

Gronk said...

"God said, 'no', Abe said 'what?'" ... one of the most hilarious moments in Bob's canon I reckon. I also have always particularly loved the way he sings "Yes I think it can be very easily duuhhhhhne"

Katy said...

Excellent blog! Glad I found it. I myself just did a post on Highway 61 and was googling to see what else had been written about it.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen ti every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan.