Live listening to Highway 61 Revisited

I have tried, I really have tried, to like Bob Dylan. And I know the fault is on my side. Now, at the urging of a commenter operating under the pseudonym Robert Zimmerman, I am making another attempt: this time, listening to his acclaimed masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited, of which author Michael Gray has argued that “in an important sense the 1960s started” with this album.”


I will write a few words about each song as I hear it, updating this blog-post as I go. Wish me luck!

Side 1

1. Like a Rolling Stone. I quite like this, but it might be because I’ve been primed by knowing Sebastian Cabot’s truly appalling version from the album Golden Throats. The combination of Dylan’s and Cabot’s versions is enough to put to bed the idea that Dylan was a fine writer of songs that other people performed better than him. I wonder how much I am missing by not closely listening to the words.

2. Tombstone Blues seems like pure country-and-western as far as the instrumental backing is concerned; only Dylan’s vocal goes some way to justifying the “blues” in the title. I was about to copy-paste “I wonder how much I am missing by not closely listening to the words” from my earlier comments when I heard the line “The sun ain’t yellow, it’s a chicken” slip past; so maybe not. That said, there is something compelling about a phrase like “geometry of innocence”. The song’s real problem might be the way the music just goes on and on doing exactly the same thing over and over again. I have quite a low tolerance for that kind of thing.

3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry again feels like an instrumental parody of country-and western, with Dylan’s vocal and harmonica flown in on top. The whole thing is terribly simplistic, harmonically and melodically. Once more, I wonder if I need to listen closely to the words — because I can’t imagine where else the merit might reside.

4. From a Buick 6 at least feels like it’s its own thing rather than someone else’s (boring) song with a vocal superimposition. But again I find myself quickly wanting something different to happen. Rolling Stone describes Highway 61 Revisited as “the album that destroyed folk music”, but it seems to me that is perfectly exemplifies the worst thing about folk music: the tendency towards extreme repetition. I do wonder how the musicians stay awake. Come on, Bob! Give us an actual song, with verses and choruses and a bridge and a sense of progression!

5. Ballad of a Thin Man immediately feels much more promising: a move away from the relentless use of I-IV-V chords, and a lyric that is more obviously telling a story. Odd that this, which is clearly a blues, is titled “ballad”; while Tombstone Blues, which is clearly a ballad, is titled “blues”. So the song starts promisingly, but like so many of the others, it just keeps trudging round the same sequence — though thankfully a slightly more interesting sequence than the others. And then once we get onto all the one-eyed midgets and suchlike, I start to lose my faith that Bob himself knows what he’s talking about.

Well, that’s side 1 dealt with. I’ll take a break before ploughing into side 2.

Oh dear: I see that Ballad of a Thin Man was described by its organist Al Kooper as “musically more sophisticated than anything else on the Highway 61 Revisited album“. That doesn’t bode well for side 2, does it? Oh well, in we go …

Side 2

6. Queen Jane Approximately is interesting, but it really pains me how out of tune the guitar is. Come on, please — make an effort at basic professionalism. One other thing I enjoyed: just as I was starting to get sick of all the repetition, Dylan sang “And you’re sick of all this repetition”. (But that didn’t stop me from becoming sick of it; then sicker, as the song just carried on and on doing the exact same thing over and over.)

7. Highway 61 Revisited sounds refreshingly different, at least to start with. Sadly, it doesn’t take long before it settles into another long repetitive trudge. At least it’s a lively trudge this time. Also: I am starting to run out of patience with the lyrics style. It’s all very well doing one or two surreal or psychedelic lyrics, but a whole album full of them leaves me wondering whether Dylan himself had any idea what he was talking about, or what he was trying to say. A man can only take so many red, white and blue shoestrings and promoters who nearly fell off the floor.

8. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues sounds like someone doing a Bob Dylan impression — admittedly, a very authentic one. I did think there was some interestingly subtle polytonality going on with this song; but then I realised I was hearing someone messing around with the piano downstairs at the same time as the song was playing. (I do like it that the last line of the song is “I do believe I’ve had enough”. Shame to spoil the effect by rounding it off with another content-free harmonica solo.)

9. Desolation Row … And so on to the final lap. The longest lap. Like, by far the longest lap, nearly twice the length of any of the others. Oh dear. Well, never mind, let’s give it a fair shake. What I find here is the same thing I’ve found with several of the songs: I quite like the opening 30 seconds or so; but then I keep waiting for something else to happen and nothing ever does. Just the same thing keeps on happening over and over again — like the time-loop by which Doctor Strange defeats Dormammu, only without the visual interest. [much, much later] Good lord, will it never end? [much, much, much later] Finally!

In conclusion

This experience has left me much less open to listening to more Dylan in the future, for three main reasons.

  • The sheer amateurism of it all: out-of-tune instruments, guitar parts with missed notes, harmonica parts with no melody. It all feels like an early rehearsal rather than an actual piece of work.
  • The active nastiness of the lyrics I was able to make sense of: Like a Rolling Stone and especially Ballad of the Thin Man. It’s evident that Dylan (or, to be charitable, at least the character he’s playing) is a monumentally condescending, mean-spirited and narcissistic jerk; not someone I want to spend more time with.
  • Worst of all, the songs are so darned boring.

I’m glad I did this, though. I’ve been tortured for years, maybe even decades, by the idea that one day I’ll have my flash of lightning and suddenly understand why everyone else seems to think Dylan is so wonderful. I think — I hope — that this miserable experience will allow me to finally put that idea to bed, and move on with my life.

19 responses to “Live listening to Highway 61 Revisited

  1. Your point that “Dylan was a fine writer of songs that other people performed better than him” sums it up well. I would say better that “fine”, but agree with the concept totally.

  2. But, Jon, I was saying that I don’t really buy that argument!

    (Confession: I do like Adele’s version of Make You Feel My Love, and of all the Dylan songs I know it’s the one I am least unlikely to do myself. Probably not coincidentally, it’s one of his more harmonically richest songs.)


    MIke, agree totally with the point that most of the songs musically are very repetitive. “Hurricane” would drive you mad then.

  4. Robert Zimmerman

    Whoa! You actually gave Highway 61 Revisited a shot because of me. I feel so honoured.

    I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t really like it very much at all, but I respect your opinions on the album even if I strongly disagree with them. Thank you for being open-minded. Let me know if you ever decide to take the plunge and listen to Blonde on Blonde one day. (The review makes it sound like a very unlikely possibility, but who knows what the future will hold?)

    Cheers Mike.

  5. Thanks, Robert — as I ended up by concluding, I am glad to have done this exercise, so I appreciate your prodding me into it!

  6. well , I think that nails it.

    What you think of as “amaeterusim”, I think of as “authenticity”; you don’t always pay much attention to the words and I don’t always pay enough attention to the actuual chords; I think of his voice as expressive and quirky, you think it sounds horrible.

    Sounds like you just don’t like whiskey.

    I concede the fact that he sometimes (in common with many folk singers) thinks that singing 50 verses is 10 times as much fun as singing only 5. Desolation Row clearly should end with the Titanic verse, for example.

    It is unfair, as I said, to take particular couplets out of context: he didn’t write “the sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken”, he wrote

    John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
    Looked up to his hero, the commander in chief
    And said tell me great hero, but please make it brief
    is there a hole for me to get sick in
    The commander in chief answers 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 ain”t yellow, it’s chicken.

    Whatever effect the lyric has, its cumulative: Dylan is banging different images and allusions together , and frequently changing direction midline. (we imagine John the Baptist would be talking to Jesus, but he’s actually talking to the president; ‘yellow’ and ‘chicken’ are both slang terms for people who whimper and cry, etc. John the Baptist says something mundane, and the President answers with a non sequitur.

    You’ll love Tempest. it makes Desolation Row look positively concise.

  7. I am not inclined to think that quoting the “chicken” line in context makes it any better. You say he is “banging different images and allusions together” — isn’t that precisely the kind of thing we criticise Doctor Who for?

  8. I think Andrew Rilstone sums it up accurately.

    I do appreciate the second bullet point in your summary, however. While I deeply respect Dylan’s songwriting (and generally appreciate his performance style) the thing that keeps me from feeling deep affection for his music is that he does come across as mean-spirited fairly often (I have the same problem with Elvis Costello, though in that case it didn’t block me from being a fan, it just lead to a gradual falling-out-of-love . . .).

  9. I have, I think, said this before. But trying to get Bob Dylan seems to me pretty much a failsafe way of failing to get Bob Dylan. You’re probably better off sticking a CD on repeat, doing stuff around the house and letting the back of your brain align to it.

    To be perfectly honest, I’m not all that interested in whether Dylan songs are in tune or not. (Though possibly I am a little more than he was. There’s accounts of people struggling to get him to do a retake, even after something that was blatantly wack.) It pretty much is a rehearsal that got released, but it had to sound like that. I’d compare it to a George Grosz drawing, which looks like it was thrown up in a fury, like he dipped a nail in ink then went at the paper like it had done something against him. But if the linework was smoother and the whole thing more measured and considered it would lose far more than it gained. And Dylan can sound like Grosz looks.

    And I don’t think he’s working with conventional narratives like Russell T Davies. There’s no implict promise at the top of, say ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ that it will all be tied up neatly and make sense at the end. It’s more like a surrealist poem. Andrew is on the money about the cumulative effect. Particularly on this album, though partially with the one before, there’s an urgency to everything which holds sway. The imagery comes at you in torrents.

    I’m not interested in all that Dylanologist stuff, of freezing the frame and asking if John the Baptist torturing a thief might be a metaphor for McCarthyism or something. That just interrupts the momentum of the songs. Dylan could write straightforward political songs with perfectly explicit meanings, and was – at least in my book – very good at it. Which makes me think if he’d wanted to write a song about McCarthy he probably would have done.

    You are right about the nastiness, and indeed there doesn’t seem much point pretending Dylan is a nice guy. In fact it’s worse than that, there’s a smugness and sense of superiority to it which now seems proto-hipsterish. When I first heard this album, aged around fourteen, that was probably the main attraction for me – the feeling that everyone was stupid except me and Bob because they didn’t know what he was singing about. Even though I didn’t really know what he was singing about either. Now it kind of rankles with me. But we’re stuck with it. The bile works like glue, it wouldn’t be the album it was without it. It’s part of the out-of-tuneness.

    But aside from that the only thing I could say against this album was that against the odds he went on to make three even better ones straight after. Everyone’s mileage varies, of course, but for my money that four-album run is a highpoint of modern music history.

  10. Very interesting article Mike, and I can absolutely appreciate the situation. I was in the identical position years back – my older brother (that I got most of my early musical exposure from) loved (and still loves) Dylan, and I most certainly did not ‘get’ it. Anyway, after repeated attempts, I finally ‘got’ it – to an extent, but even then I’m pretty selective. I like his early work up to mid-to-late 1960s, I like albums here and there afterwards such as Blood on the Tracks, but apart from that I can take it or leave it. I freely confess that playing guitar for 33 years has made me prefer above average musicians, and couldn’t agree more – Dylan’s musicianship is pretty no, very, basic. The only reason I got his 1984 live album Real Live was to hear Mick Taylor’s guitar solos.

    I finally settled on a position with Dylan, similar to other philosophies. I like Dylan’s electric folk ramblings, as long as it’s him doing it. In the same way I don’t listen to much jazz/rock, but I loved Jeff Beck doing it, and I don’t listen to many long instrumental solos, but I adore the Allman Brothers.

    I also differ from most Dylan fans in that I don’t really rate Blonde on Blonde. My three favourite albums of his are (in order) Bringing it all Back Home, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited.

  11. Thanks, Gavin and Mark, for further thoughts. I think I belatedly now realised something kind of obvious, which is that if Dylan’s lyrics are “like a surrealist poem” it’s no wonder I don’t like them. I have well-documented history of not being able to understand poetry at the best of times.

  12. It doesn’t have to be a poem, it could be a surrealist artwork if you prefer! And I think the point is that you’re not supposed to ‘understand’ the lyrics in some literal way.

  13. Well, Gavin, I think you know my attitude to conceptual art as well :-)

    OK, “conceptual” is not the same as “surrealist” — but they inhabit much the same space where the idea is the thing and the artist gets a pass on the execution. Which may in fact be a very good description of Dylan. Is he a conceptual musician?

  14. Surrealism is pretty much the polar opposite to Conceptualism. Rather than the idea being the thing, the Surrealists were fixated on automatism – where they’d use devices to unlock the unconscious, and think about what they were doing as little as possible. They were explorers more than they were creators. And at least the well-known Surrealists were highly accomplished painters, such as Dali. The usual accusation against them is that their style of painting was too conventional, and so marked a retreat from Expressionism or Cubism or whatever.

    And while the Surrealist comparison was just a quick ad hoc thing on my part, I do think it’s a similar story with Dylan. Conceptualism is about getting the idea over, with the minimum of fuss and distraction. The artwork itself is just a pointer. With Dylan you have to hear the songs, pick up the mood of the thing to get the feeling. People who claim he’s a poet don’t really know what they’re on about. If, to choose a random example off the top of my head, he was awarded a prize for literature that would be a clunking category error. Luckily, that’s far too silly a thing to actually happen.

  15. Interesting, Gavin — thanks for the background.

  16. I think overall, I’d absolutely agree that Dylan is definitely an acquired taste, and I can easily see why a lot of people don’t see the fuss. That said, my own father – the most hardcore jazz purist (Ellington, Parker etc.) – for some reason loves Dylan. Some things are best not understood.

  17. Dude! I don’t care about you not getting Dylan. That’s just personal taste. But did you just spoiler me for Doctor Strange? Which I’m going to see tonight?! You can’t put spoilers in a review of a fifty-year-old album for a film that came out last week!

  18. Mark, I think you’re right that I will just need to accept that Dylan (and people’s tendency to love him) is simply going to remain a mystery to me; and embrace the fact that the universe still contains mysteries.

    Martin: not to worry, I don’t think I said anything spoileriffic.

  19. Pingback: Mitcheldean Festival 2022: the Taylor Family set | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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