My Thoughts on Bob Dylan and “Highway 61 Revisited”

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Next Sunday (27th September 2015) I am organising a night commemorating the 50th anniversary of the song “Like a Rolling Stone” and the album it is from “Highway 61 Revisited”, at the Musician Pub in Leicester. I’ve got a few days to go and I’m beginning to get a bit nervous now. Some of Leicester’s best are coming to perform their favourite tracks from the album and other songs from the other great mid 60s records, when Dylan decided to “plug in” (“Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde”). 50 years is a long time but the songs and music have not lost their power. In fact, to my ears, they seem even more startling and profoundly modern. Not only have they stood the test of time but they are in the pantheon of great 20th Century Art along with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, Jackson Pollock’s evocative splatterings and Charlie Parker’s mindbending improvisations. It had never been done before and it will never be done again. It stands alone!

Of the three great “electric” records “Highway 61 Revisited” is the pinnacle. It is the first Dylan album that he was part of a real band rather than a soloist with backing musicians. “Bringing It All Back Home” paved the way with some really exciting performances, especially “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” but half of it was acoustic although the songs were like nothing heard before. Dylan had rejected political protest and replaced it with a kind of explosive, image laden, nihilistic stream of consciousness. Popular music had never experienced anything like it. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” takes an Everly Brothers lick and creates a blast of vitriolic energy which is mindblowing: ” Old lady judges watch people in pairs, limited in sex they dare, to push fake morals insult and stare, while money doesn’t talk, it swears, obscenity who really cares, propaganda all is phony”. But, in this record he is still making sense. “Highway 61″ moves the song writing into a different realm. This is a world in which the songs seem to mean something but you can’t quite place what it is. ” Ballad of a Thin Man” epitomises this: “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”. A series of bizarre incidents follow involving sword swallowers, professors and geeks and how your imagination is being attacked! This is the ultimate statement of the Hip/Straight divide that was emerging in the growing counterculture of the 1960s. Most of the songs on “Highway 61” defy logic. They are absurdist and mysterious and yet seem to pertain to a deeper meaning that washes over us and draws us in. “They’re selling post cards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown, the beauty parlour is full of sailors, the circus is in town” and all through the song we learn that “Desolation Row” is either the place to be or the place you are prevented from going. “Right now I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row”.

Perhaps the ultimate Dylan song is “Like a Rolling Stone”. Bruce Springsteen described the beginning of this, the opening song on “Highway 61 Revisited”, as the “snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Folk singer Phil Ochs was even more rhapsodic about the LP: “It’s impossibly good… How can a human mind do this?” When I first heard this song I moved from being a fan of Pop Music to someone who wanted to play and write songs and that desire has never left me. That’s why I’m looking forward to the gig next Sunday and am also quite nervous about it. It is commemorating something that changed my life!!

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