Although my dad has been needling me for years to do more Dylan reviews, this time he didn’t have to ask. Bob Dylan was the obvious choice to break my American Boycott, for three important reasons:
- Many Americans believe he is the greatest poet of his generation, especially the Baby Boomers (though Dylan was born a few months before Pearl Harbor and fails to qualify as a Boomer). His status as a poet is still subject to debate, as demonstrated by the rather defensive argument given by Professor Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy when she announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.” This implies she had already received some blowback from academics outraged by the selection of someone who had the audacity to put lyrics to music. “Poetry is for reading!” I can hear the old farts blubbering. I attribute that reaction to natural memory loss, since the Greek poets had combined words and song over two millennia ago, in the form of lyric poetry.
- Whether you like his work or not, he has had an undeniably powerful influence on the course of popular music by extending its range to include subject matter beyond romance and novelty. More than any other artist, Bob Dylan made lyrics matter, vastly improving the quality of music in multiple genres.
- Finally, Dylan has repeatedly proven himself to be a true blue American by appearing in commercials for Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler.
The Chrysler commercial really hit a nerve. Super Bowl ads invariably attract the greatest number of viewers, but the Pepsi ad was also a Super Bowl ad and didn’t come close to generating the buzz of the Chrysler spot. Methinks the uproar had more to do with the method of delivery than the message. In his first two appearances as a shill, Dylan simply provided the music (doing a “Forever Young” duet with Will.I.Am. for Pepsi; crooning “Love Sick” to Adriana Lima in the Victoria Secret ad). In the Chrysler spot, he narrated the entire two-minute pitch. Because recorded interviews with Bob Dylan are as rare as coherent thoughts from Donald Trump, millions of people watching the commercial had probably never heard him speak. Given that many of those viewers had elevated Dylan to god-like status years before, the impact must have been similar to the shock of the Japanese populace when Emperor Hirohito’s voice crackled over the fragile airwaves to announce the surrender. DYLAN SPEAKS! THE EMPEROR SPEAKS! SILENCE IN THE HOUSE! HEED THE WORDS OF THE EMPEROR!
After one minute of silence accompanied only by the sound of guacamole and chips making contact with teeth and gums, angry viewers wailed in unison: “DYLAN HAS SOLD OUT!” In the morning they woke up to news rags of all stripes screaming “DYLAN SELLS OUT!” A more reasoned analysis by Ruben Navarette unearthed the layers of hypocrisy in Dylan’s core message of American pride: “Let Germany brew your beer,” he says. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” The simple fact that Chrysler had been recently purchased by Fiat pretty much demolished the “Buy American” message. Dylan was certainly guilty of “nostalgic manipulation,” calling up an image of America that died in the 1970s when the bosses of the big automakers ignored the threat of reliable high-mileage cars rolling off the assembly lines in once-defeated and desolate Japan. Dylan defenders could argue that the ad formed a subversive message of support for the guys and gals on the assembly lines screwed by blind management and a dumb trade policy that failed to protect their jobs, but the bottom line is that the cultural icon of the anti-establishment 60s, a man who consistently protested the excesses of capitalism and exposed the system as a massive get-rich-quick scheme open to insiders only, made a nice chunk of change on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday.
So yeah, Dylan is a sellout, but who the fuck in America hasn’t “sold out” at one time or another? Having grown up and lived most of my life in the land of Old Glory, I can personally attest that I cannot recall a single acquaintance who either wasn’t a sellout or who would have gladly sold themselves out if given the opportunity. It’s a matter of degree: some people would sell out their mothers and any shred of decency lingering within their damaged psyches for the big payoff, but the vast majority of us sell out in a more socially-acceptable manner: by giving up our dreams and compromising our values the moment we take a job we don’t really want. Well, shit, you’ve got to pay the rent and put food on the table, right? And once you’ve made that deal with the devil, oh my—look at all the things you can buy now! Have some more credit! Consume, consume, consume! I’ve been there, you’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Americans are wired to try to make a buck—it’s part of the cultural DNA. In taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity, Dylan’s behavior was in perfect alignment with the values and priorities of the vast majority of Americans, giving his status as a true American poet even greater credibility. Dylan spent most of his peak years attacking and satirizing the system, but he also understood that he had to live within that system, and like everyone else, played the angles to the best of his ability. Just because he chose to exploit the opportunities provided by fame doesn’t make his social commentary and observations on the state of the human race any less meaningful.
Sorry, but sellouts have no right to call anyone else a sellout, so give poor Bob a break here. He’s only one guy, and one guy can’t change the world. Much of his early work was geared towards trying to motivate his Baby Boomer listeners to get up off their asses and make the world a better place. And that effort did yield demonstrable progress in many areas (until the Boomers got scared and voted in Reagan and Trump, undoing half the progress they made).
Dylan’s desire to expose the system as an inhuman creation of human beings still runs hot throughout Highway 61 Revisited, and the movement away from protest songs so apparent on Bringing It All Back Home is now complete. In its place are vignettes that dramatize the unfairness and absurdity of it all. Although sometimes his symbolist leanings lead to little more than wordplay, the best songs—er, poems—are marked by powerful imagery pregnant with meaning.
“Like a Rolling Stone” was a breakthrough for Dylan in many ways, for at the time of its composition he was seriously considering tossing his musical career down the shithole. He told Playboy, “Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation . . . But ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” What began as “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long” eventually turned into one of the most influential singles ever written, and convinced Dylan to stick with songwriting. During the months leading to its creation, he had developed the practice of sitting in front of the typewriter and dumping everything that came into his head onto paper. This cleansing ritual helped rid his brain of various expectations, overbearing influences and miscellaneous crap, enabling him to find his own voice within the muck. And I mean “voice” literally and figuratively—I’ve never considered Dylan much of a singer (she said in a tone that communicated understatement), but on “Like a Rolling Stone” he sings with absolute clarity and confidence, like a man who has found his true calling.
On one level, the piece is the ultimate karma’s-a-bitch song, with Dylan seemingly taking pleasure at Miss Lonely’s plummet from privilege. And while I certainly don’t buy the interpretation pitched by Jann Wenner that the song celebrates the poor woman’s liberation, I don’t accept Dylan’s offhand comment that the song is mainly about revenge. To my ears, the lyrics are a justifiable expression of outrage at the obliviousness of the wealthy, white and privileged when it comes to the suffering and resentment they generate. For me, the core couplet of the song appears at the beginning of the third verse:
Ah, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
It’s that kind of obliviousness that earned Marie Antoinette a trip to the guillotine, the ugly fuel that feeds the justifiable resentment of the underclasses against an arbitrary system based on inheritance and tradition. That such an arrangement is allowed to exist in an allegedly democratic society is a fucking outrage. I think of the British, still under the rule of Etonians and Oxonians who have peddled the bullshit quality of their “superior” education for centuries. The truth is much more prosaic:
Ah you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Her fall from grace, occasioned by one of the many frauds who prey on the leisure class, is depicted in terrifying fashion, and any empathy we feel for Miss Lonely comes from the vivid description of her new life at rock bottom:
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
She has no choice but to sell herself for money, because of the uninformed and oblivious choices she made while riding high:
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
You may notice that there’s no evidence that Miss Lonely has learned a damned thing. Dylan doesn’t supply us with an appendix or a sequel describing how she rose from the mat and became a passionate social activist dedicated to eliminating income inequality and social injustice. Instead, he leaves her in the cold streets, devoid of understanding, clueless as to how she got there, another life trying to survive in the darkness, surrounded by society’s castoffs, part of an underclass created by an upper class that couldn’t care less.
The music that accompanies “Like a Rolling Stone” serves its purpose by providing Dylan an open stage to recite his lyrics. Mike Bloomfield was on a tight leash (Dylan told him he “didn’t want any of that B. B. King stuff”), and his contribution is appropriately pedestrian. Al Kooper lost his guitar slot once Bloomfield entered the picture, and over the protests of producer Tom Wilson, slipped into the mix on the organ. His contribution can be easily reproduced by any church-going grandma with a cheap portable electronic keyboard. The most impactful decision came early on, with the change from 3/4 to 4/4 time, unstiffening the flow and aligning the music with rock sensibilities (you can hear the “waltz” version on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series, and it’s bloody awful). “Like a Rolling Stone” smashed paradigms about song length and subject matter in rock music, and remains one damned fine piece of work.
With a few notable exceptions, the music on Highway 61 Revisited is unremarkable, but hey, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, not music (no, there isn’t a Nobel for music, but he wouldn’t have been under consideration had there been one). Half the songs are little more than standard blues progressions or variations thereof, beginning with “Tombstone Blues.” Though Bloomfield gets in a few good licks during the presentation, the rest of the band (including Dylan) seem to spend most of the time struggling to keep with the choppy, high-speed rhythm. The struggle has nothing to do with the chords, which add up to a grand total of two. The lyrics fall into the symbolist-surreal camp without much in the way of concrete imagery, and the listener leaves the table hungry for meaning. It’s one of those Dylan songs that have a few good lines you can quote to enliven a dull conversation; of those, the last verse takes home the gold:
Now, I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Ironic that these lines appear in a song largely bereft of melody. While it’s tough to follow a masterpiece, “Tombstone Blues” would be a poor choice no matter where it appeared on the tracklist.
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” features an easy, loping beat with a last-call honkytonk feel courtesy of Paul Griffin on piano and the rhythm section of Harvey Brooks (delivering a rather cheeky and playful bass line) and Bobby Gregg on drums. Though my usual reaction to a Dylan harmonica solo is “Hurry up and move on, Bob,” this one is well played and features a fantastic flourish at the end, as if he’d like to have another go-round. In addition to providing Steely Dan with the title of their debut album, the song foreshadows his deeper exploration of country sounds in John Wesley Harding. And though I wish his use of sexual metaphor could have been a little more explicit (or more complete with the introduction of a tunnel for that train to slide into), I deeply appreciate the line, “I want to be your lover baby, I don’t want to be your boss,” an emphatic rejection of all those early rock songs that made a big deal about making a girl “mine.”
The second attempt at blues-based rock, “From a Buick 6” doesn’t fare much better than the first—it’s a stiff presentation, in large part due to Harvey Brooks’ annoying make-sure-you-hit-all-the-right-notes bass part. Dylan seems to have fun singing about his shotgun-equipped squeeze who puts up with his shit and pulls his ass out of various jams, but “From a Buick 6” is not one of his most memorable works.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” certainly is. In order to appreciate the context of the song, I suggest you crank up your cable TV with its thousands of channels and find one of the networks airing old sitcoms around the clock. You’ll want to find episodes of three shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Notice the manicured lawns and manicured white people. Pay attention to the routines, and how the boys raid the refrigerator after a long day at school, how the dads sit in their easy chairs and read the afternoon paper after a hard day at work (except Ozzie—does anyone know what the fuck he did for a living?), how the family all sits down together for a dinner of meat, vegetables, potatoes and milk, how the neighbors drop in without knocking and are invariably greeted with a smile, how the moms are always in dresses and have plenty of time on their hands to make the beds and straighten up the living rooms without breaking a sweat. Pay particular attention to the characters of Ricky, Bud and Beaver, the three boys most likely to cause “trouble” by getting into “scrapes,” and how dad (or mom, on rare occasions) gets them out of the fix and wraps it up by giving them fatherly advice related to one of life’s lessons—all of which have to nothing to do with helping the boys find their true selves, but have everything to do with enforcing conformity to social norms that reflect the American ideal.
This was the America of Mr. Jones, a society where everyone knew their roles, where everyone adopted a very narrow definition of right and wrong, where everyone followed a routine, where everyone watched the same shows, where everyone’s goal was to try their very best to be a “good” father, mother, son, daughter, businessman, housewife, etc. That was the America that sucked the life out of early rock ‘n’ roll, the America that assigned degrading roles to women and people of color, the America that worked diligently to create a predictable, safe environment for its citizenry.
The façade began to crack in 1963 due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy Assassination, two events that shattered the manufactured image of American perfectionism. Women, equipped with The Pill and lessons from The Feminine Mystique, began to assert themselves in unfeminine, unpredictable ways. By 1965, the world of the Nelsons, Andersons and Cleavers seemed on the “eve of destruction,” and all those Mr. Joneses (Ozzie, Jim and Ward) who had built their lives around a very specific set of rules and the virtue of predictability proved themselves completely incapable of comprehending it all:
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The verses in “Ballad of a Thin Man” form a series of nonsensical interactions, sort of like distorted takes on “Who’s on First” that evoke terror instead of laughter. What is most terrifying to Mr. Jones is that his “proper” education, where success is measured not by critical thinking ability but the ability to memorize certain “truths” and regurgitate them during the final exam, has left him completely unprepared to deal with the unexpected:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The unusually complex chord pattern (for Dylan) clearly indicates a song written on piano, as the contortions necessary to pull off that F#augBb in the second position on a guitar is itself a paradigm-breaker, whereas it’s a simple adjustment on a keyboard. Kooper’s horror-movie organ enhances the other-worldly feel of the song to the nth degree. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomfield plays his supporting role to perfection with nimble complementary counterpoint mixed with shimmery vibrato chords. Dylan’s vocal has all the right touches, and you can tell he’s on his game in the first verse:
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
(laugh) You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
That little laugh feels like, “You’re kidding, right? You don’t know how to explain a naked man to your wife? Uh . . . hasn’t she ever seen one?” Perhaps not. It was twin beds/lights out for Rob and Laura, after all.
Flipping over to Side Two, we get “Queen Jane Approximately,” which most have interpreted as a softer version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the main character awash in the emptiness of a life based on materialism and the “need” to impress others. The difference is that Queen Jane’s story takes place before the crash, giving Dylan the opportunity to offer himself as her savior. The problem with the accepted interpretation of the song is Dylan’s response to Nora Ephron (cited in Andy Gill’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right) that “Queen Jane is a man.” At first glance, Dylan’s assertion smells like bullshit, but after turning the lyrics upside down and inside out in my head for weeks, I realized I was attempting to interpret the song through contemporary norms regarding LGBTQ relationships, forgetting that the song was written over four years before the Stonewall Riots when homosexuals were considered persona non grata.
Viewing the song through that lens changes everything. Instead of viewing Queen Jane as some form of debutante bored with it all and dealing with her looming old maid status by refusing to see anyone, the line “When your mother sends back all your invitations” becomes a mother’s painful rejection of a son for his immoral, socially-unacceptable behavior. The interpretation gains more validity in the third verse, especially when you remember that homosexuality was described as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the DSM as late as 1973:
When all of your advisers heave their plastic
At your feet to convince you of your pain
Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic
Some of the “treatments” prescribed by mental health “advisers” to “cure” homosexuality were indeed “drastic,” including electro-convulsive therapy applied to the brain and genitals, castration and lobotomies. Given that Dylan spent his more focused formative years in the Village, he would have been acutely aware of the existence of the homosexual underclass and their struggles. So while I could be completely off-base by interpreting the song through my personal lens of bisexuality, let me point out the obvious: when you hear the word “queen,” what comes to mind after you’ve emptied your memory of British female monarchs, Freddie Mercury and the four suits in a deck of cards?
Proving that “third time’s the charm” isn’t just an exhausted cliché, Dylan and his pals finally hit pay dirt in the field of blues-based rock with “Highway 61 Revisited.” Though now truncated and merged with various interstate and US highways, Highway 61 is best known as the Blues Highway; the intersection with US-49 is the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly offered up his soul to Satan. At the time the song was written, the road stretched from the Delta to Duluth, where Dylan was born (the cutoff is now in the center of Minnesota, in the town of Wyoming). In Dylan’s imagination, Highway 61 is the place to go if you want to accomplish something that either a.) falls outside the boundaries of socially unacceptable behavior or b.) falls outside of society’s capabilities. It’s the ultimate back-channel for making things happen.
The steady, rollicking beat gives a singer lots of flexibility with their phrasing, and Dylan takes full advantage of that opportunity. Combined with his use of American vernacular (as opposed to high-falutin’ ”poetic” language), his phrasing reminds me of a street corner storyteller, a guy whose flair for language draws a crowd of regulars who gather ’round to hear his latest riffs. In the first verse, he transforms the story of Abraham and Isaac into a tale anyone can relate to through his use of everyday language, his depiction of a religious icon as an Average Joe and conversational phrasing with pauses and emphases in all the right places:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61”
Beneath the fun and language games you’ll find pointed commentary on the state of things in 60’s America. Georgia Sam in verse two (likely a reference to Blind Willie McTell) is a black man desperate to escape something (a lynch mob, the troopers, whatever) and asks poor Howard about an escape route. As Howard is carrying a gun, we can assume that Howard is poor and white; if so, we’re left wondering whether his directions to Highway 61 will lead Georgia Sam to freedom or to his demise. Verse three satirizes American consumerism and the useless junk left in its wake; the fourth takes on the myth of the American nuclear family. The last verse held special meaning for a populace living under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the real-time escalation of the American presence in Vietnam, but Dylan’s insight is even more relevant today, given the presence of the roving gambler in the White House and the sycophants who eagerly do his bidding:
Now, the roving gambler he was very bored
Trying to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said, “I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes, I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61”
Though I wish Dylan had eased up on the siren whistle after a while, “Highway 61 Revisited” qualifies as both a hoot and a storytelling masterpiece.
Dylan songs often improve when other people sing them, and I do prefer Judy Collins’ rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” on In My Life with its varied instrumentation featuring winds and pizzicato strings. That said, Dylan’s version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” somehow feels more intimate and true-to-life. Integrating bits of Rimbaud, Kerouac, Poe and Hank Williams, the tale describes the experience of a painter (according to Mr. Dylan) who (like nearly every American expat who chose Mexico as their getaway destination) finds himself the victim of what he might define as “gringo exploitation,” but is more accurately the alienation he feels as a stranger in a strange land, where the exploiter has now become the exploited, where Americans are viewed with suspicion and distrust:
Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon
His attempt to distance himself from the culture through an attitude of cultural superiority hasn’t worked (“And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through”), and since he doesn’t want to wind up like Angel (“Who looked so fine at first but left looking just like a ghost”), he decides to move on: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” Good call, dude.
Now we arrive at the single reason why I have resisted reviewing Highway 61 Revisited with every fiber of my being: eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds of “Desolation Row.” The listening experience is a drag; the music rarely varies (three chords, I-IV-V); and the one notable variation—a Marty Robbins-like “latin-flavored” guitar counterpoint courtesy of Charlie McCoy—gets tiresome after the third verse. Geez, Bob, couldn’t you have pulled something out of the Johnny Cash Playbook and changed the key a couple of times? The lack of a narrative discourages continuing disinterest; the song is just ten stanzas of poetry randomly thrown together connected only by their proximity to Desolation Row. New York Times critic Robert Shelton watched Dylan perform the piece in concert and described it “another of Mr. Dylan’s musical Rorschachs capable of widely varied interpretation . . . It can best be characterized as a ‘folk song of the absurd’.”
I tend to agree, but getting back to the Swedish Academy justification for the Nobel Prize, the poem generally reads well. Some of the stanzas click; others seem overwrought; some feel like gibberish. I suggest you skip the album track, read the poem and pick your favorite verse. As I’m forever interested in the subject of gender within culture, my favorite is the second verse:
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one, ” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
I always thought Romeo was an asshole and I hope the ambulances mean that Cinderella kicked his entitled male ass.
Highway 61 Revisited usually appears in the top ten in those greatest albums of all-time lists—lists that are still largely compiled by Baby Boomers. Although the reasoning behind those lists is fundamentally flawed (appreciation of a given piece of music is always affected by mood and individual experience), I can fully understand why the album has achieved such lofty status. In the context of 1965, Highway 61 Revisited was the ultimate mind-blower, an integration of folk, blues and rock loaded with compelling lyrics—lyrics that were light years ahead of anything else on the charts, lyrics that caused people to stop and re-think “reality.” What blows my mind is that there was once a period in modern history when producing intelligent, thought-provoking music resulted in mass-market acceptance and commercial success.
Hard to imagine that now.