It was a bright, sunny day and I was walking with my brother down the main street of our town, (a suburb of New York in northern New Jersey), when I saw what looked like a new Bob Dylan album in the window of the record store across the street. We crossed the street and discovered my eyes were not wrong: there in the window sat Highway 61 Revisited. We had been away at camp all summer, which ended just in time for Dylan’s concert at Forest Hills, but we had no idea a new album was coming. Bringing It All Back Home was only five months old. Whatever else we had intended for the day ended in that moment and we rushed home to spend the rest of the day (and night) absorbing the album.
Aside from “Like A Rolling Stone”, which had been a hit for over a month by this time, we recognized five of the nine songs from the Forest Hills performance only two days prior. Although the contentious atmosphere at the show hadn’t exactly allowed for a full appreciation, now we had titles to go with the songs we had heard.
The sound was harder and tougher than Bringing It All Back Home and it quickly became clear that Dylan had taken the lyrics into new, uncharted territory. He combined symbolism with absurdity in a way that initially seemed incomprehensible, which was bolstered by the semi-comedic liner notes. We didn’t even stop to think about the fact that most of the songs were based on blues; that would come later.
Immediately noticeable was the lead guitar, played by Mike Bloomfield. The riffs he played after each chorus of “Tombstone Blues” were like nothing we’d heard before.
It was, almost to the day, my second anniversary as a Bob Dylan fan. Considering how much he’d changed and grown in those two years alone — to this day one would be hard pressed to track similar growth in such a short period of time, in any artist, in any field. It was very clear that Dylan was still writing about what was going on in the world, but the targets weren’t as defined or simplistic. Topics like war and peace or civil rights weren’t the main issue. Dylan was singing about the madness of society and the music and lyrics matched that madness. Most of the songs displayed a healthy contempt for the conventions and institutions of society, as well as authority, and the rapid-fire laser sharp tone of the lyrics knocked down one icon after another. Blink, or get distracted, and you missed it.He combined symbolism with absurdity in a way that initially seemed incomprehensible, which was bolstered by the semi-comedic liner notes.
As hard and charged as the album was, there was also time for tenderness, sadness and beauty. It’s all in Dylan’s voice on “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”; in a performance he’s never come close to equaling. And while “Queen Jane Approximately” is in many ways a put down song, there’s a lot of affection in those lyrics. Then there’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. On one level, the ultimate song about being wasted, yet it’s so much more than that. A song that would become explosive in concert, but in this version there’s a sadness that pervades every verse, echoed by Bloomfield’s at times weeping guitar, against Paul Griffin’s piano. Then, of course, there’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, but the reason the lyrics work is the sadness of a person who’s hit bottom.
The exploration of Highway 61 Revisited would continue for months and, as it turned out, years. “Desolation Row” still has new revelations that surface every now and then. How many songs can you say that about after listening to them for fifty years? But back then it was all new, the songs, the sound, the musicians – many of them doing the greatest work they ever did and, in some cases, almost by accident. But back then, on that sunny day in August, we knew we were listening to something great and something that would last. And that album got me through the coming school year. Have a crappy day, go home, put on Highway 61 Revisited and go somewhere else. I’m generally not one to talk in terms of best, but it might be the best album Bob Dylan recorded, maybe the best album anyone has ever recorded.