The Rewind Button – Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisitedby LefebvreDave on Apr 5, 2012 • 7:04 am 2 Comments
(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every Thursday, we review an album from Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list.) I have to admit, I’ve been pretty much totally out of my element with the first three reviews on this list, but now I’ve emerged from foreign territory and found myself back in a land I know and love. With Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, number four on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list, I feel like I’ve come home.
I missed seeing the Grateful Dead in concert in 1995, choosing to do my high school exams while schoolmates ditched and went to what they described as the best concert of their lives. In August of that year, Jerry Garcia died.
The next spring I found myself yet again in the same situation, only this time it was Bob Dylan playing with what remained of the Dead. Again, I choose exams (back then Ontario had a grade 13). My friends again choose to ditch school and went to what they would describe as, you guessed it, the best concert of their lives. “You could barely understand a word Bob sang but it was amazing!” they jeered.
I passed my exams and, in the fall, began university. Two degrees later, having had a successful TV reporting career, and now nestled in a comfortable (did I really just write that?) communications career, I blog about music and I live out my missed opportunities in words.
All this to say that I’m an unabashed lover of Bob Dylan and what he represents. I’m not a superfan, but I appreciate him as an artist. Blood on the Tracks is an album I once had on repeat after a painful breakup. Not to mention, I’m a lover of lyrics. They’ve always come more easily to me, though now that I play guitar I appreciate the music equally.
This album floods my mind with images of Jack Kerouac, reading On The Road, and dreaming of a vagabond life. Like a warm blanket, this music envelops me. It’s comforting, and for the first time I know what Linus must have felt like in The Peanuts with his filthy blankie. With the Beach Boys I’ve been an interloper. A pretender. I didn’t grow up in a musical family and my parents never played music. My introduction to music, other than records like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was at 13 years old when I took a job washing dishes at a restaurant and listened to Montreal radio station Chom 97.7 FM. It was then that my musical education, mostly self-guided, began. Dylan was part of this education and he remains a comfort to this day.
This was Dylan’s sixth album. It’s amazing when you think that many singers/bands these days don’t make it past one or two albums, and yet it took Dylan’s sound six tries to marinate long enough to garner a top spot on this list. I’m not suggesting that Aqua would ever be able to top their incredible hit Barbie Girl and make something on par with Dylan. Still one wonders what could be if music wasn’t seen as a disposable commodity these days and bands were given time to evolve. I suppose there are a few examples – Coldplay, U2, Pearl Jam – but, by and large, evolution rarely factors into today’s music.
If you look at some of the other options on this list, evolution was clearly crucial to those albums: Sgt. Pepper, Revolver and Pet Sounds, these were their eighth, seventh, and eleventh albums respectively. Eleven albums!!! Can you imagine?
This album was released in 1965. The first song – Like a Rolling Stone – came two full years before the namesake to this Greatest Albums list was first published and three years after the formation of the UK band The Rolling Stones.
I’m not going to dissect each song because, as you’ll see if you follow this link (random lyrical dissection), there are plenty of people who have gone down this road. But I am going to touch on some of the things that really stand out to me.
The first thing you notice is how abruptly the album begins. It feels like you’ve broken into a conversation. There’s a lone double drum note, followed immediately by the entire band (tambourines and all). The album begins with “Once upon a time…” and with those words, you know you’re about to be told a story or multiple stories.
That’s what this album is to me. It’s storytelling. The music forms a tapestry in the background. It’s no less present and complex, but it’s certainly not centre stage. In my mind, I picture Dylan on a dark stage, a lone spotlight shining on him and his band playing in the shadows. You know the band is there, but they’re giving him the light.
The next thing that really stands out for me is the length of the songs. Like a Rolling Stone – clocks in at 6:10. When was the last time a current song came in over five minutes long? These days that’s a rarity. And you really get a sense of this when you read the lyrics and see that there are four long stanzas and four choruses. Listen to the way Dylan sings, putting emphasis in places you wouldn’t expect and cramming as many words into every line that he can, yet he somehow still makes it work. It’s storytelling…set to music.
Then there’s Desolation Row which runs for an amazing 11:23. For some reason, I have this urge to listen to this album with those vintage, spongy headphones that isolated all sound but the songs. I want to be transported to the world that Dylan is describing. And that folks, is the sign of a great album. It’s a merger of ideas, poetry and music without feeling weighed down by the heaviness of some of the subject matter.
Yet again, I find myself at the end of a review not knowing what the album’s true place should be in terms of this greatest list. I can’t find a flaw. It treads new ground in that it’s different from any other sound. It seems worthy…for now. 35 album reviews to go.
I don’t know what became of those friends who experienced The Dead and Dylan. They might be lawyers, they might be gas jockeys. Regardless, they have the memories that I don’t have. But Dylan is still around and one day, maybe, I’ll get my chance again.
The other bloggers participating are listed below (I’ll update as they publish their review).