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!
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 …
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!
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.