Sunday, August 30, 2015

How Does It Feel to Revisit Highway 61 Half a Century Later?

Like any admirer of Bob Dylan's work, there will always be a place in my music collection for "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blood on the Tracks."

But the Dylan album that Rolling Stone ranked the highest in its list of the Top 500 albums of all time — "Highway 61 Revisited" — was released 50 years ago today. (I have that one in my collection, too.)

It can be argued that, although Dylan had been a popular sensation before he recorded "Highway 61 Revisited," it was the album that truly made him a star.

What's more, three of the nine tracks on the album made it into Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. That's a pretty high proportion of any album, wouldn't you say? The first song on the album, "Like a Rolling Stone," was the #1 song on Rolling Stone's list.

"No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time," observed Rolling Stone. Considering how transformational the music of the 1960s was, that's a pretty comprehensive statement.

You can also find "Desolation Row" and the album's title track on that list.

The Bible tells us that God created heaven and earth in six days. Dylan recorded "Highway 61" in six days in the summer of 1965. Now, I'm not really trying to equate Dylan with the deity, but folk singer Robert Ochs did say "Highway 61" was "impossibly good. ... How can a human mind do this?"

It was a clear sign that things were changing in popular music. Up to this point, Dylan had been making acoustic recordings, but rock musicians backed him on every track on "Highway 61" except for one — the haunting "Desolation Row," which, although acoustical on the album, was also recorded in a rock mode.

So you could say that "Highway 61" was Dylan's first all–electric album — except the electric version of "Desolation Row" didn't get on to the album. That's OK, though. It can be found on "The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack," which was released in 2005, 40 years after it was recorded.

How did Dylan come up with the name for the album? Easy. There was a Highway 61 that ran through Duluth, Minn., where he was born and linked Duluth with America's great music cities to its south. Knowing that, I have always wondered if the name served a dual purpose — it was a clear reference to Dylan's roots, but the word "revisited" suggests a taking stock of one's life — and moving on.

"Highway 61 Revisited" launched Dylan on the course he has followed ever since.