You, me, the music, and me.

Monday, August 28, 2006

BOB DYLAN Highway 61 Revisited

Columbia CH 90324 (1965)

Greil Marcus once wrote about being in a bar in Maui and hearing Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" come on the radio. One by one, he recalled, the conversations around him stopped as the patrons turned their attention to the music, until the room was silent except for Dylan's song. He offered it as proof that there are some songs (or at least one) that can never be turned into background Muzak.

For someone who's only put out two new albums of his own material in the past fifteen years (a third, Modern Times, is set for release tomorrow), Bob Dylan has been the subject of countless retrospectives, films, and books (including Marcus' excellent Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads) in that same time period, which is a testament to the timelessness of his work. After a rough creative spell during the late eighties and early nineties, Dylan rebounded with Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft", two albums that seemed to reach back to a time and place that predated even his own earliest folk recordings. Critics and fans alike applauded the directness and simplicity of the songs, and it seemed that, for Dylan and his listeners, a new era was beginning.

An era of a different sort was being undertaken in 1965 with the release of "Like a Rolling Stone" and Highway 61 Revisited; Dylan fans were shocked and/or appalled by the radical change in his sound that came with the addition of electric guitars, drums, and loud organ. Folk purists accused Dylan of selling out to gain a rock and roll audience, and he and his band were booed routinely at concerts. (In Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home, organist Al Kooper tells an amusing anecdote about playing before an audience that heckled them mercilessly until they started playing "Like a Rolling Stone", at which point the entire audience started singing along. When the song ended, the crowd resumed their catcalls!)

The shock of these recordings may have worn off over time, but the songs retain their bite over forty years later. "Ballad of a Thin Man" and its story of a clueless, floundering character could be aimed at the "establishment" or at Dylan's own audience. "Tombstone Blues" and "From a Buick 6" are fast, folkish talking blues numbers driven by relentless drums and driving organ and guitar fills. The title track's retelling of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is punctuated by a mocking slide whistle, and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is a relaxed, world-weary song that manages to convey both comfort and warning to the listener. The album closes with the lengthy "Desolation Row", a surreal ballad for voice and acoustic guitar that wouldn't sound out of place on one of Dylan's earlier folk records.

Here's a song you'll probably never hear in your dentist's office:

(This is the famous "Royal Albert Hall" version in which someone in the crowd shouted "Judas!" at Dylan just before he started playing. It can be heard on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 - The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert.)


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