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Highway 61 Revisited is singer-songwriter Bob Dylan's sixth studio album, released in August 1965 by Columbia Records. It is Dylan's first album to be recorded entirely with a full rock band, after he experimented with the approach on half of Bringing It All Back Home. It is commonly tagged as documenting the "angry young man" period in Dylan's career, in-between the playfulness of its surrounding albums; many of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited are of an accusatory nature and feature rough, loud takes.

Featuring hits and concert staples such as "Like a Rolling Stone", "Desolation Row", "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Ballad of a Thin Man", it is also generally considered to be among the artist's best and most influential efforts. Dylan himself commented, "I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to."

The album peaked at #3 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart and #4 in the UKmarker, while "Like a Rolling Stone" reached #2 on the US Pop Singles chart and #4 in the UK, also receiving the accolade of being placed #1 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In addition, "Desolation Row" and "Highway 61 Revisited" were also included on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs list, at #185 and #364, respectively. The album itself was ranked #4 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The T-shirt that Dylan wears advertises the Triumph Bonneville T120 motorcycle.

Highway 61

At the time Dylan was writing, Highway 61, sometimes called the "Blues Highway," went from New Orleansmarker through Memphismarker and from Iowamarker through Duluthmarker (Dylan's birthplace) to the Canadianmarker border; the section of Highway 61 from Wyoming, Minnesotamarker to Duluth was de-designated in 1991. It was regularly featured in blues songs, notably Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway" and James "Son" Thomas's "Highway 61." Bessie Smith met her death in an automobile accident on that roadway; Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 (itself the subject of a Howlin' Wolf song); Elvis Presley grew up in the housing projects built along it; and Martin Luther King, Jr. would later be murdered at a motel just off Highway 61.

"A lot of great basic American culture came right up that highway and up that river", Robert Shelton told a BBC interviewer. "And as a teenager Dylan had travelled that way on radio. ... Highway 61 became, I think, to him a symbol of freedom, a symbol of movement, a symbol of independence and a chance to get away from a life he didn't want in Hibbingmarker."

While "Like a Rolling Stone" was completed in mid-June 1965, the rest of the album was recorded with a different producer, Bob Johnston, in four days of sessions shortly after Dylan's legendary appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the sessions also produced Dylan's next single, "Positively 4th Street", not included on the LP.

Newport Folk Festival

Before Dylan recorded the songs or finished composing them, he made a historic appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, playing two sets. The first was an acoustic set played at a songwriters' workshop held on a Saturday afternoon. However, the performance was cut short when his presence alone was drawing too much attention.

The second set involved Dylan playing alongside an electric blues band, which met with a mix of cheering and booing from the audience. Dylan left the stage after only three songs. The boos are commonly believed to have come from outraged folk fans whom Dylan had alienated with his electric guitar. An alternative account claims audience members were merely upset by poor sound quality and a surprisingly short set. However, Dylan soon reemerged and sang two much better-received solo acoustic numbers, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Mr. Tambourine Man", although his choice of the former has been described as a carefully selected death knell for the kind of consciously sociopolitical, purely acoustic music that the cat-callers were demanding of him, with "New Folk" in the role of "Baby Blue".

Whatever sparked the crowd's disfavor at Newport, Dylan's new style provoked strong debate amongst the folk music establishment. According to rock journalist Andy Gill, "the old folkies ... were still too busy singing 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' to realize just how much the times had actually changed".

Recording sessions

During 1964 and 1965, Dylan had been writing a book, titled Tarantula, which would not be published until 1971. At least one piece of prose became the source for an actual song. As Dylan recalled in 1966, "I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took 'Like A Rolling Stone'...After writing that, I wasn't interested in writing a novel, or a play."

The original 20-page manuscript has been described by biographer Clinton Heylin as "an ill-formed mass of words whose direction was uncertain." As it was rewritten down to 10 pages, "it wasn't called anything," recalled Dylan, "just a rhythm thing on paper, all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest."

When Dylan felt it was ready to record, he and Tom Wilson assembled a band. On lead guitar, Dylan recruited an old acquaintance, Michael Bloomfield, who had met Dylan on a few occasions including jamming with him in Chicagomarker in April 1963. By 1965, he was the lead guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a critically-acclaimed, American blues-rock band. Dylan contacted Bloomfield and invited him to his retreat in Woodstock, New Yorkmarker. "I didn't even have a guitar case," recalled Bloomfield, "I just had my Telecaster. And Bob picked me up at the bus station and took me to this house where he lived ... he taught me these songs, 'Like A Rolling Stone,' and all those songs from Highway 61 Revisited, and he said, 'I don't want you to play any B. B. King-type leads, none of that standard blues, I want you to play something else.' So we fooled around and [I] finally played something he liked ... he was playing in weird keys (more suited to keyboard play) which he always does, all on the black keys of the piano."

Days later, on June 15, Dylan held a recording session at Columbia's Studio A in New York. In addition to Bloomfield, Dylan and Wilson recruited pianist Frank Owens, bassist Russ Savakus, and drummer Bobby Gregg. Also present was Al Kooper, a young guitarist invited by Wilson to observe, but who wanted to play guitar on the session. With the more accomplished Bloomfield present, Kooper remained a mere observer and retreated to the control room.

Dylan and his band recorded three songs: a new composition titled "Phantom Engineer" (later rerecorded and released as "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"), a song held over from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions titled "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence," and "Like a Rolling Stone." A number of unsuccessful attempts were made at "Phantom Engineer" and "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence" before Dylan turned his attention to "Like a Rolling Stone".

After several false starts, Dylan decided to use both a piano and an organ on "Like a Rolling Stone". Under false pretenses of having a "great organ part" for the song, Kooper, still keen to participate some way in the recording session, was enabled by a series of miscues at the studio and found himself, not accidentally, at the keyboard of the Hammond organ.

Even though Wilson made it very clear that he was well aware of Kooper's inexperience with the electric organ, "He (Wilson) was a gentleman", according to Kooper, and allowed Kooper to play on. In Kooper's widely-quoted words and his own interview appearing in the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, he was feeling his "way through the [chord] changes like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch." Kooper was so uncertain he purposely played an eighth-note behind the beat in order to assure his playing was properly with the chord changes. As documented in the Scorsese film, after recording one complete take, they "all adjourned to the booth to hear it played back," recalled Kooper . Halfway through the take, Dylan was asked by Wilson about the organ track. Dylan was emphatic: "Turn the organ up!" Wilson accommodated Dylan, who liked what he heard and now had the blueprint for the opening gospel music-influenced organ ("a soulful Hammond B3").

All recorded tracks recorded on June 15 were later discarded, but the work set the stage for the remaining sessions. Dylan and his band returned to Studio A the following day. Virtually the entire session was devoted to "Like a Rolling Stone," with Kooper once again playing his newly-coined organ riff. The fourth take was ultimately selected as the master, but Dylan and the band would record eleven more takes before listening to the recorded results in the studio booth.

Though recorded for a single, Dylan ultimately decided to include it on his next album. With a shortage of new material, Dylan spent a month in his new home in Byrdcliffe, upstate New York writing new songs.

Four days after the Newport Folk Festival, on July 29, 1965, Dylan returned to Studio A and resumed work on his next album. He was backed by the same band from the previous studio session (pianist Paul Griffin was also recruited for the remainder of the sessions), but for unknown reasons, Tom Wilson did not return . Instead, he was replaced by Columbia producer Bob Johnston, who had lobbied to work with Dylan (he was not involved in Wilson's dismissal). When Johnston arrived, he picked a new staff engineer, Mike Figlio, who had also recorded Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and who would follow Johnston down to Columbia Nashville a few years later.

Their first session together was devoted to three songs. After experimenting with different keys and tempos, master takes of "Tombstone Blues," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh," and "Positively 4th Street" were successfully recorded. "Tombstone Blues" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh" were included in the final album, but "Positively 4th Street" was issued as a single-only release.

The following day, Dylan and his band returned to Studio A and recorded three songs. A master take of "From a Buick 6" was successfully recorded and later included on the final album, but most of the session was devoted to "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" Dylan was not satisfied with the results, and set the song aside for a later date; it would eventually be re-recorded months later. An "alternate" take from this session, featuring a glockenspiel, was accidentally released on a mis-pressed single, bearing the title "Positively 4th Street." In addition, an alternate take of "From a Buick 6" with a harmonica intro was accidentally released on some early stereo pressings of the album, and was replaced with the master take on subsequent releases.

During the next two days, Dylan spent much time writing out chord charts for the remaining six songs he had yet to record, with Harvey Brooks replacing bass player Russ Savakus. Sessions resumed at Studio A on August 2, this time with Sam Lay sitting in on drums early in the session with Gregg replacing him later. "Highway 61 Revisited" is thus the only song on the album that Lay played on. "Highway 61 Revisited", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", "Queen Jane Approximately", and "Ballad of a Thin Man" were all recorded successfully and master takes were selected for the album.

One final session was held on August 4, again at Studio A. Most of the session was devoted to completing "Desolation Row", various versions and arrangements of which had been previously been tried and rejected. It was finally recorded with just two acoustic guitars. According to Johnston and Kooper, guitarist Charlie McCoy was flown in from Nashville, Tennesseemarker to accompany Dylan on the song. Seven takes were recorded, with numbers six and seven being spliced together to create the master recording included on the final album. One take of "Tombstone Blues" was also recorded, but it did not replace the master take selected from an earlier session.

The songs

Like a Rolling Stone

One of the most celebrated recordings in rock history, "Like a Rolling Stone" is a song directed at a woman who once lived a life of privilege but has now experienced a reversal in fortune. Soon after recording the master, Dylan cut a test pressing for his music publisher and played it for several friends. It made an immediate, strong impression. One early listener was producer Paul Rothchild, who said "I knew the song was a smash, and yet I was consumed with envy because it was the best thing I'd heard any of our crowd do and knew it was going to turn the tables on our nice, comfortable lives." Dylan's friend, Paul Nelson, was recording a folk album at the time, and upon hearing it, he thought, "Oh boy, this just makes what we did obsolete."

When the single was released, Paul McCartney recalls hearing it at John Lennon's house: "It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful ... He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further." A very young Bruce Springsteen would hear the recording on WMCA while driving in a car with his mother: "That snare shot that [kicked it off] sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." Frank Zappa later recalled, "When I heard 'Like A Rolling Stone,' I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else.' ... It sold, but nobody responded to it the way that they should have."

Robert Christgau described it as "the poor boy's put-down" while Clinton Heylin calls it "a truly vengeful song — on a level of misogyny even the Stones had yet to scale." Salon.com critic Bill Wyman wrote that "Like a Rolling Stone" "portrays an entire youth generation as a slumming sorority girl — and that's just the first verse. Then he gets nasty: The rest of the song is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of one of those scenes in The Sopranos in which a mobster systematically kicks the bejesus out of someone who's already down. Is 'Like a Rolling Stone' the most powerful, difficult, unexpected and unrelenting performance in rock? Got another candidate?"

Some critics have claimed that "Like a Rolling Stone" was a song about Edie Sedgwick, who was also linked to Andy Warhol. Bob Neuwirth has said that he and Dylan met Sedgwick in December, 1964, and they "spent an hour or two, laughing and giggling, having a terrific time". Dylan critic Michael Gray concludes that Sedgwick had no connection with "Like A Rolling Stone", but “there’s no doubt that the ghost of Edie Sedgwick hangs around Blonde on Blonde.” Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones apparently thought that the song was about him. Dylan, perhaps playing on Jones' paranoia, purportedly confirmed this to an audience at Carnegie Hallmarker later in 1965.

Tombstone Blues

"If Salvador Dalí or Luis Buñuel had picked up a Fender Strat to head a blues band, they might have come up with something like 'Tombstone Blues,'" writes critic Bill Janovitz. "Like the work of these surrealists, Dylan's song is rich with non sequiturs like 'The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly / Saying, 'Death to all those who would whimper and cry' / And dropping a barbell he points to the sky / Saying, 'The sun's not yellow / it's chicken',' and takes irreverent jabs at religious, political, and bureaucratic figures ('The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits / To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits / a bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits/At the head of the chamber of commerce')."

Ballad of a Thin Man

In 1986, Dylan said that "Ballad of a Thin Man" was written "in response to people who ask questions all the time ... I figure a person's life speaks for itself, right? So every once in a while you gotta do this kinda thing — put somebody in their place ... This is my response to something that happened over in England, I think it was '63 or '64..." The song's lyrics are directed at a "Mr. Jones", whom NPR's Tim Riley describes as "a pedigreed archetype, a person to whom knowledge is a class distinction: 'You're very well read / It's well known." As usual, there's more to it than that. When Dylan notes his pride in having read the complete F. Scott Fitzgerald, he's saying that the 1960s scene makes the Roaring Twenties look quaint ... 'Ballad of a Thin Man' taunts its subject so thoroughly it almost makes you sympathetic toward the poor scribe." John Lennon refers to "Ballad of a Thin Man" in The Beatles' song, "Yer Blues" (from The White Album), in which he sings, "Feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's Mr. Jones."

Notwithstanding the arguments that "Mr. Jones" is based on no specific person but is instead a composite of many archetypical squares that Dylan had had unfortunate experiences with, several individuals have been named as possible inspirations for the character. Most evidence points to Jeffrey Jones, a reporter for The Village Voice, who attempted to interview Dylan at the 1965 Newport festival. In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, Jones himself related that, after embarrassing himself before Dylan and his entourage with foolish questions, Dylan lit into him in a hotel dining room, mockingly asking him "Mr. Jones! Gettin' it all down, Mr. Jones?" Dylan appears also to have partly acknowledged the event when he introduced "Ballad of a Thin Man" at a 1978 concert with the admission: "I wrote this for a reporter who was working for the Village Voice in 1963."

Queen Jane Approximately

On "Queen Jane Approximately," Dylan "sounds simultaneously condescending, self-righteous, sneering, contemptuous, and compassionate," writes Janovitz. "The narrator in the song ... seems to be warning someone of a great fall from grace, an awakening, as if he has either been through it all himself already or is just too smart to fall into such traps ('Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you / And the smell of their roses does not remain / And all of your children start to resent you / Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?')."

"Queen Jane Approximately" refers to Lady Jane Grey, the uncrowned Queen of England for nine days in July 1553.

Highway 61 Revisited

Wyman describes the song "Highway 61 Revisited" as possibly "Dylan's most disturbing composition, a tone poem of brutal capitalism, incest, biblical farce, warmongering and family entertainment, all set to a carnival beat that to this day gets his fans up to boogie at his live performances." Riley called it a "leering salute to America's heartland [that] goes after authority with a broad stroke, evoking his own father's name ('God said to Abraham, kill me a son / Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"')."

Highway 61 is the main highway running along the length of the Mississippi River, from northern Minnesotamarker along the North Shore of Lake Superiormarker near the region known as "The Iron Range" or "The North Country," where Dylan grew up, to New Orleansmarker. Classic New Orleans Blues ballads were frequently written about Highway 61, but Dylan believed a different kind of folk/blues could be written from the northern end, where the river beginsmarker.

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

Janovitz calls "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" a "masterpiece".

Desolation Row

At the time, "Desolation Row" was arguably Dylan's most ambitious song — his longest recording until "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", released a year later on Blonde on Blonde. Heylin describes it as an "eleven-minute voyage through a Kafkaesque world of gypsies, hoboes, thieves of fire, and historical characters beyond their rightful time."

Dylan biographer Cloin Irwin claims that the inspiration for "Desolation Row" came from the lynching of several black circus workers in Dylan's home town of Duluth, Minnesotamarker. After a young girl claimed that she had been raped by members of a traveling circus, seven middle-aged black men were taken into police custody. Hours later, a lynch mob attacked the county jail. The mob dragged the alleged culprits to the middle of a nearby street, where they proceeded to lynch members of the accused. Three of the accused were saved from death; however, they were all later put to death or to jail — and none of them were ever convicted of rape or murder. Dylan's father, Abraham Zimmerman, was a young man when this event occurred. "Desolation Row"'s references to racial tensions in middle America are most likely drawn from the lynching, especially the lyrics alluding to a circus being in town. The reference to the Duluth lynchings, however, has been under much debate.

Outtakes

"Positively 4th Street" was recorded during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, but it was not included on the album. The song was released as the follow-up single to "Like a Rolling Stone" and eventually charted in the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. Critic Dave Marsh praised it, calling it "an icy hipster bitch session" with "Dylan cutting loose his barbed-wire tongue at somebody luckless enough to have crossed the path of his desires." However, its similarity to "Like a Rolling Stone" was also noted, journalist Andy Gill later describing it as "simply the second wind of a one-sided argument, so closely did it follow its predecessor's formula, both musically and attitudinally".

"Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" was later re-recorded in November with a different band, the Hawks (later known as The Band). An outtake recorded during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions was accidentally released on a single; it was soon withdrawn and replaced with the later master take recorded in November.

"Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence," a track left over from the Bringing It All Back Home album, was revisited with several takes devoted to recording a satisfactory studio version of the song. Ultimately it was omitted from the record (the second time this happened to the song). The master take recording during the Highway 61 sessions eventually saw release on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 1961-1991.

Another outtake recorded at the sessions was "Lunatic Princess Revisited (Why Should You Have to Be so Frantic?)".

The following alternate recordings from the Highway 61 sessions were released on The Bootleg Series Volume 7:

  • "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" (alternate take recorded June 15, 1965) – 3:33
  • "Tombstone Blues" (alternate take recorded July 29, 1965) – 3:34
  • "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (alternate take recorded August 2, 1965) – 5:42
  • "Desolation Row" (alternate take recorded July 29, 1965) – 11:44
  • "Highway 61 Revisited" (alternate take recorded August 2, 1965) – 3:38


Aftermath

Years after its release, Dave Marsh wrote that Highway 61 Revisited was one of Dylan's "best albums, and [one] of the greatest in the history of rock & roll." Subsequent polls in recent years prove that it remains a fixture in the rock pantheon. In 1995 Highway 61 Revisited was named the fifth greatest album of all time in a poll conducted by Mojo Magazine. In 1998 Q magazine readers voted it the 57th greatest album of all time; in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 22. Then in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine placed Highway 61 Revisited fourth on its list of the greatest albums of all time. Its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time placed "Highway 61 Revisited", "Desolation Row" and "Like a Rolling Stone" at #364, #185 and #1, respectively.

Clinton Heylin wrote it was "an album that consolidated everything 'Like A Rolling Stone' (and Bringing It All Back Home) proffered ... an amalgamation of every strand in American popular music from 'Gypsy Davey' to the Philly Sound." Tim Riley said it was "the first Dylan record to posit protest as a way of life, a state of mind, something as psychologically bound as it is socially incumbent."

A profound influence on Dylan's contemporaries, it also coincided with greater commercial success as singles like "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street" brought him to a wider audience. The controversy that ignited with Newport would continue to follow Dylan throughout 1965, but he had no intention of turning back.

Track listing

All songs written by Bob Dylan.

Side one

  1. "Like a Rolling Stone" – 6:09
  2. "Tombstone Blues" – 5:58
  3. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" – 4:09
  4. "From a Buick 6" – 3:19
  5. "Ballad of a Thin Man" – 5:58


Side two

  1. "Queen Jane Approximately" – 5:31
  2. "Highway 61 Revisited" – 3:30
  3. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" – 5:31
  4. "Desolation Row" – 11:21


Charts

Album

Year Chart Position
1965 Billboard 200 3
1965 UK Top 75 4


Singles



Year Single Chart Position
1965 "Like a Rolling Stone" Blillboard Hot 200 2
1965 "Like a Rolling Stone" UK Top 75 4


Personnel



References


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