Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fifty years late, here's my review of "Highway 61 Revisited"

It's all about the fear of falling. By 1965 Bob Dylan had become famous and celebrated more quickly than anyone else. Like anyone suddenly famous and celebrated, he had a secret fear of being found out.

Most of us just have dreams about having to go for job interviews without clothes. Songwriters put the same fear into songs.

I realised this last night listening to a pristine mono copy through a top-of-the-range hi-fi in the library at the Barbican.

Side one starts with "Like A Rolling Stone", pop's best take on what it must be like to fall from grace. Side two starts with "Queen Jane Approximately", which is about being shunned by those on whom you previously depended. Both songs are supposedly about other people. But Dylan knew their falls might foreshadow his own. The failings we point out in others are often the same ones we don't like to recognise in ourselves.

In 1965 only disgraced cabinet ministers seemed to care about prestige and shame. In the age of social media we all do. That's one of the reasons these songs are even more powerful now.

At the same time the music feels as if it's on the verge of falling apart. The musicians are never comfortable and on top of things. You can almost hear their eyes swivelling from side to side as they try to keep track of the chord shapes, wonder whether each verse is the last and whether what they're doing is what's required.

Somebody pointed out that until last night he'd never heard the tambourine part on "Like  A Rolling Stone" and how strange and haphazard it seemed to be. It's that very uncertainty that keeps the music so alive. "Highway 61 Revisited" isn't perfect, which is one of the reasons why it's still brilliant.


  1. Much is made of the move from folk to electric, but a point I've never encountered before is the fact (according to wikipedia) that Dylan's last of his early acoustic LPs, 'Another Side...', got to only no. 43 on the U.S. chart.
    That must have gone some way to focus his, and Albert Grossman's, attention for 1965!

  2. Who is in the background and why is he included? I know someone here will have a theory/explanation

  3. I still have my mono copy from 1837, but sadly even though it was pristine once-upon-a-time, my wannabe-Dansette couldn't take advantage of it.
    Part of the charm, though, I suppose.
    It was always a challenge, trying to fathom the culprit for the various pops and crackles. The stylus? The massive six-inch speaker? Or the record, which pristine, or not, was subject to all the usual vagaries of vinyl.

  4. > "try to keep track of the chord shapes, wonder whether each verse is the last and whether what they're doing is what's required"

    *Exactly* how I felt when trying to learn "Like A Rolling Stone" back in my busking days!

    I stuck with "Heart of Gold" in the end.

  5. Dylan's frightening sharp-witted friend Bob Neuwirth stands behind him with a Leica. Photographer Daniel Kramer said of cover shot: "He's hostile, or it's a hostile moodiness. He's almost challenging me or you or whoever's looking at it: What are you gonna do about it, buster?" which fits with David's surmise of barely-suppressed insecurity. I still find it the most gorgeous backing band ever recorded, Paul Griffin & Al Kooper on keyboard, Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Charlie McCoy on guitar on Desolation Row. The whole thing recorded in 4 or 5 days!