On Second Thought
Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Falling chronologically between Bringing It All Back Home, with Dylan’s last vestiges of the folk-rock tradition, and the drunken elegance of Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited is the studio album which most clearly depicts the Dylan of raving Greil Marcus articles and the aggressive, violent concerts of 1965. It is an anti-morality, anti-sincerity, anti-Jones anti-manifesto. It’s a kinetic, energetic masterpiece. Highway 61 Revisited is about a lack of restraint.

There is very little buildup: an exciting, loping musical intro and Dylan’s derisive sneer comes in, upping the ante on the movement, propelling the rhythm with unadultrated scorn. Its very hard to talk about “Like A Rolling Stone” without resorting to stifling self-awareness or one’s elders: suffice it to say that were one trying to introduce a group of disinterested intellectual extraterrestrials to motherfuckin’ Rock and Roll, one would be amiss if he/she failed to get to this track, which manages single-handedly to bust apart the three minute form, and to do it with an electric organ and a harmonica. You’re in Mr. Bob Dylan’s vehicle, now, and he’s going to mother fucking Pittsburgh: he’ll stop when the Highway meets the Gulf.

Lyrically, “Like a Rolling Stone” is a bitter, I-told-you-so piece of anti-intellectualism characteristic to the album – it is literate, but never academic. It’s poetic, but it never means it. And while it just may be a visionary, bricolage-filled meisterwerk, Dylan’s not saying: Dylan is rocking.

One might think, after the long ride of “Like a Rolling Stone”, the listener would be given a break: it leaves me breathless, and there’s no apparent reason for Dylan to be better off. But he’s is relentless, diving without looking into another six-minute rocker, the slightly more traditional blues-boogie of “Tombstone Blues”. But while “Like A Rolling Stone” gives the impression of riding with a master with the top up, “Tombstone Blues” places a madman at wheel. The narrative breaks down into bits and pieces which, by themselves, might accommodate understanding. The boys in/poison stanzas which seem to be mildly advocating some sort of sexual freedom. Sick in/chicken is saying something about the paradox of the altruistic Crusader (maybe), but it’s hard to be philosophically consistent when one is both insane and high.

Taken together, though, the verses and choruses provide an entirely unrelated view. The song has a consistent tone: you can feel the message, or at least a message, whether or not it’s linearly inherent lyrically. This, one would imagine, is bricolage.

Eventually, even Dylan has to rest. And he does so beatnik style, nodding and crooning paternalistically, slamming his world view on to some cozy little New Mexico town and extracting whatever beauty he hasn’t killed. He digs the scene.

I don’t believe “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” for a second. It’s a seduction song, and you’re Sal Paradise, watching with homoerotically charged envy as the girls flock to the sympathetic rambler. You can see that it’s all about the image: “Don’t my gal look fine?” but it’s damned impressive regardless.

And you’re back on the road, this time just a jaunt, the driver again the entertainment, singing about some little girl he’s got back home. When you turn off again, however, the stop is more sinister. A crazy guy shouldn’t be able to be this mean.

“Ballad of a Thin Man” is the most thematically obvious track on the album. It’s about homosexuality:
Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, "Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan"
And then you see [a] one-eyed midget
Come on. This isn’t even subtle.

Optionally, Mr. Jones is the generation gap, the academic establishment, or the folk-rock community. It seems most likely, however, that Mr. Jones is you (not me, you). The subtle, slightly thumping base is an ominous reminder. “No. Really. You don’t get it.” You are no longer a fully privileged companion on this Highway. You are a clueless hitchhiker, and Mr. Bob Dylan has decided to drop you off at Shrevesport.

“Queen Jane Approximately” is pretty. It is sweet, sincere, and understanding. It is bullshit. There is no way that the same guy who meant the previous track also meant this one, and it exists only as proof that your driver can get laid anytime he wants. And besides, how does he find time to serenade? He’s supposed to be driving.

“Highway 61 Revisited.” The title track. The Theme made explicit. This may not be unexpected, but Highway 61 is a weird, third space. It’s a Lonesome Valley, if you will. But no one here is overcoming anyone's demons and no one is getting redeemed. You off your son, sell your soul to the devil, and engage in questionable relations with the Second Mother. And Dylan’s not crossing over: he’s going straight the fuck through, and you know, you know, that this is the best Third Space of all, that this is the only one that ever mattered, and that when you get back home you’ll have a smoldering sexuality and a set of chops the size of Missouri, and then what?!

Afterwards, Dylan, one sees, is finished with driving. He’s shown you what needed seeing, and as such sits down on an amiable stump and breaks out the harmonica, blowing out a couple of beautiful, tragic blues numbers. And this time you believe him. This time, the Authenticity of Experience rings true in your ears. You realize that he’s had it all along: he can conjure up Authenticity at will. So when he sounds like he doesn’t mean it, well, he doesn’t. Bob Dylan is a pretty sarcastic guy.

So now that we’ve imposed our pretty little narrative upon the text, what can we say about it? First, it seems to me that this album is an elaborate argument for why garage bands make the best music in the world. There’s careful craft here, but it’s subtle. Nothing ever screams “Look! Dylan is redefining the meaning and form of the rock song!” It’s just that, when his songs should be three minutes, they’re six. From the beginning. He follows up one rollicking, six-minute rocker with another. That’s twelve minutes of rollicking and rocking!

On the cover, Dylan’s face says this: "I am rock and roll. Rock and Roll is me. I like the Beatles. Deal."

And really, that’s the only consistent theme: that rock and roll takes the hidden weirdness in the folk music he was playing and makes it much much better. Electric guitars and electric organs make the arbitrary, confusing cultural references of the lyrics glitter.

He takes characters from art far “higher” and more “innovative” than his own, and corrupts them.
Now Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
What?!

This shows about as much respect as Hootie and the Blowfish borrowing entire verses from one of the greats of rock and roll.

This album is garage rock. This album is hard meat. This album is a bitch. It lacks respect, for its members’ former selves and for their elders. It lacks restraint, breaking out into defiant electric guitar solos at a whim, playing always until the song is over. Lyrically, Dylan is about the same here as everywhere, especially in his faux-poetics. His narratives have been broken apart by this time, songs like “Desolation Row” paying the price of ambiguity and somehow coming out more resonant, more sorrowful than any mere story, because its about a thousand stories. A thousand stories in 11:21 isn’t half-bad.


By: Ryan Hamilton
Published on: 2003-09-01
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