"Everything is changed now from before. Last spring I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained. I was playing a lot of songs I didn't want to play. I was singing words I didn't really want to sing. But "Like a Rolling Stone" changed it all. 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." Bob Dylan 1965
1965 was a remarkable year in the life of Bob Dylan, the early part of it had seen the recording and release of the groundbreaking "Bringing It All Back Home" which was followed by what would be his last acoustic tour of the UK. It was on his return from this tour, in early June, that the seeds of the album that would break the musical mould and define the mid sixties were sown. Whether he intentionally turned his back on acoustic/folk music and chose a far more interesting form of expression, or whether it was just a natural and logical progression, we will of course never know. What is beyond doubt though, is that "Highway 61 Revisited," the album that is the manifestation of a twenty four year old Dylan's angst stands tall in his impressive body of work as his first real classic. The sound that Dylan achieved on that album, mainly through the inspired use of Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper is as distinctive and era defining today as it was when it was released forty (yes, forty) years ago. Everything about "Highway 61 Revisited," from Dylan's glowering James Dean pose on the front cover and his amazing lyrics, to Bloomfield's searing guitar and Kooper's majestic organ (a happy accident apparently), comes together to create what many regard as the finest single album of the rock era. Nigel Williamson, in his "Rough Guide..." probably says it best, "If you had to sum up "Highway 61 Revisited" in a single sentence, suffice it to say that it is the album that invented attitude and raised it to an art form. Nobody...has done it better to this day."
If "Highway 61 Revisited" defines an era, then the opening track defines the album. "Like A Rolling Stone," perhaps Dylan's most quintessential song, has an interesting pedigree. The song was written sometime "...after England" and before (obviously) the June 15th recording session where Dylan had apparently decided to record it as a single, possibly influenced by the success that the Beatles and Stones among others were having in the UK. He told several interviewers at that time that it was originally a "...piece of vomit," and although in these interviews the length varies, he eventually told Robert Shelton "It seemed like twenty pages, but it was really six. I wrote it in six pages." Dylan knew Michael Bloomfield and was aware of and impressed by his work with Paul Butterfield's Blues Band. Bloomfield was invited up to Dylan's recently acquired home in Byrdcliffe, near Woodstock, where he was treated to a sneak preview of "Like A Rolling Stone," along with several other songs that would eventually form part of "Highway 61 Revisited," "...he taught me those songs, "Like A Rolling Stone," and all those songs from that album," he said, but the version that Bloomfield heard was very different from the one that has become Dylan's signature song. Initially unsure of what Dylan wanted, Bloomfield says that they fooled around until he "...finally played something that [Dylan] liked. It was very weird, he was playing in weird keys which he always does, all on the black keys of the piano." Obviously liking what he heard, Dylan invited Bloomfield to the recording session that had been booked at Columbia studios for June 15th, even though the latter's time in a recording studio had been minimal. That session, and the one that followed it the next day have passed into rock music folklore.
Al Kooper had been invited to the studio as a guest by producer Tom Wilson, but Kooper, an aspiring guitarist himself was harbouring the idea of actually playing until he heard Bloomfield's guitar work and realized that he was out of his depth. The way he tells it in his book "Backstage Passes" he took advantage of the organ part being switched to piano, and commandeered the organ, improvising as he went along. "The best I could manage was to...feel my way through the changes like a kid fumbling in the dark for the light switch," he says, going on to recount how after six minutes the first complete take of the day was on tape. He maintains that during the playback Dylan told Wilson to turn the organ part up and when Wilson pointed out that Kooper was no organ player, Dylan stood his ground and the sound of "Like A Rolling Stone" was born. Clinton Heylin for one views this account of events with some scepticism, contending that either Kooper's memory is playing him false or he is indulging in a little creative myth making himself as there is no evidence of the legendary organ on any of the aborted takes of that afternoon's session. He further suggests that Kooper may have been used on the final take (the fifth) purely out of desperation - one of the earlier takes from that afternoon can be heard on the "Bootlegs Vols 1-3" album, and it is certainly a very different animal to the finished product that was recorded the next day. While some of the questions from June 15th may never be answered, we do know that Kooper played organ on the 16th, when no fewer than fifteen attempts were made at recording the song, the fourth being the one that was eventually chosen as the single. It was released some five weeks later (July 20th) backed with the previous album's "Gates Of Eden" even though Dylan had tried out three new songs, presumably as B side material, and two of these, "It Takes A Lot to Laugh..." and "Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence" are also available on "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3."
With a running time of six minutes, "Like A Rolling Stone" broke all the rules of the singles market. It was a huge hit for Dylan, reaching number two in the States, (number seven in the UK) and it totally redefined popular music. In 1976 New Musical Express called it ..."the top rock single of all time," and almost forty years later, Rolling Stone awarded it a similar accolade. It is amazing how the song morphed from a relatively benign and thoughtful piece it started out as into the venomous tirade that it became. The taunts to "Miss Lonely" come thick and fast and almost trip over each other in their urgency, he reminds her that she once "...threw the bums a dime" but now in a reversal of fortunes she is "...scrounging for your next meal." The relentless and repetitive refrain of "How does it feel" is brilliantly complimented by some of Dylan's most caustic and biting lyrics, "And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street/And now you're gonna have to get used to it," and the line "You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you" was probably aimed at those who thought that Dylan had all the answers and were trying to live vicariously through him. On another level the song can be seen as a loss of innocence and having to accept the hard knocks of real life, for as he says, "You're invisible now you got no secrets to conceal." Many people speculated on the target of "Like A Rolling Stone," the most obvious one being Joan Baez whose relationship with Dylan was rapidly disintegrating, but that would be too transparent. She herself thought that it might be Bobby Neurwith, a Dylan confidant whom she detested. Others saw the song as autobiographical, Dylan pointing the finger at himself in a rare moment of self awareness - perhaps not as ridiculous as it sounds, but he himself was less specific, he said it was "...just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn't hatred. It was telling someone something they didn't know. Revenge. That's a better word..."
"Like A Rolling Stone" was of course debuted at the Newport Folk Festival on the evening of Sunday 25th July 1965, an event that probably has had more written about it than any other single incident in rock music history. That Dylan was booed is not in dispute, the dissenters were almost certainly in the minority and their hostility had more to do with the quality of the sound rather than the choice of material. "Maggie's Farm" had been in the public domain for some four months and "Like A Rolling Stone" was his new single, although admittedly it had only been released a few days previously. "Phantom Engineer" (the song that was rewritten and rearranged into "It Takes A Lot To Laugh...") would have been unknown. Dylan's appearance, pointed boots, tight trousers, polka dot shirt and sunglasses as opposed to the folkie "uniform" of jeans and work shirt did not help the situation and his position on the bill, sandwiched between two very traditional folk acts, Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island Singers was an inspired piece of bad planning. In order to put all of this into perspective, it has to be remembered that the highlight of Cousin Emmy's set was "Turkey In The Straw"!!! It seems unlikely that Dylan deliberately set out to be confrontational (heaven forbid) but a series of unforeseen events and poor choices, no sound check for example, conspired against him on the very night he chose to unveil his "new" music. He returned to the stage after his three song electric set with an acoustic guitar (borrowed from either Johnny Cash or Peter Yarrow) to perform "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and after some prompting, "Mr. Tambourine Man." The irony of the former was probably not lost on much of the crowd. Dylan returned to Columbia studios four days after Newport, battered but unbowed. Bloomfield and Kooper were now very much part of his plans, and although producer Tom Wilson had been mysteriously replaced by Bob Johnston, he was determined to continue with his chosen form of expression.
So much then for the opening track, which is followed by "Tombstone Blues," and one gets the impression it could go on forever were it not for the constraints of time. Dylan's dexterous juxtaposition of real and imaginary characters as he piles absurdity onto absurdity is masterful, who but Dylan could get "The ghost of Belle Starr," Jezebel the nun" and "Jack the Ripper" all into one four line stanza? The bizarre figures that populate this song are the more benign relatives of the later "Desolation Row," and Dylan provides us with some wonderful images "The sun is not yellow it's chicken" and "...Delilah who sits worthlessly alone/But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter." The man himself puts things into perspective with the final couplet "That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain/Of your useless and pointless knowledge" "Tombstone Blues" typifies Dylan's mid sixties writing, long passages of surreal imagery that seemed to come to him so effortlessly - there were many who tried to emulate him, but no-one even came close.
Like its predecessor, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" comes from the first session after Newport (July 29th). That session interestingly also produced one of Dylan's most scathing songs, "Positively Fourth Street" which some see as his reply to the events of the 25th, and the fact that it was recorded only four days later would seem to back this up. It did not make the album, but was released as a single in September of that year, and followed "Like A Rolling Stone" into the charts (it peaked at #7)."It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is more restrained than the rest of the album, and its bluesy sound is very different from the song that had been performed earlier under the title of "Phantom Engineer." Dylan uses one of his favourite images, the railroad, as a starting point (and provided Steely Dan with the title for their 1972 album) "I ride on a mail train, baby/Can't buy a thrill." This short, evocative piece has an atmospheric feel to it with lines like "Don't the moon look good, mama/Shinin' through the trees?" and "Now the wintertime is coming/The windows are filled with frost," and none of the raucous intensity to be found on most of the album. As is the case with "From a Buick 6," Dylan's raunchy tribute to his funky soul-mate, this "...graveyard woman," this "...junkyard angel," who "...always gives me bread." This rocking blues number is a long way from being a classic, but the studio musicians were obviously enjoying themselves.
There has been more speculation about "Ballad of a Thin Man" than almost any other Dylan song. The hapless "Mr. Jones" could be any one of a number of people or groups of people that Dylan was rapidly distancing himself from. The already paranoid Rolling Stone Brian Jones, often the target of Dylan's acid tongue, was convinced it was about him, as were several journalists and assorted hangers-on who had been left in the wake of Dylan's meteoric rise. Some transposed Jones for Joan (Baez) while those looking for the inevitable drug reference were quick to point out that a "jones" is junkie slang for a habit. Typically, apart from an introduction to the song in a 1978 concert ("I wrote this for a reporter who was working on the Village Voice in 1963") Dylan would not be drawn. The mystery was (perhaps) solved in 1975 when journalist Jeffrey Jones told Rolling Stone that the song was about him. While working on an article for Time in 1965 about the use of the harmonica in contemporary folk music (bad timing or what?) he had embarrassed himself by trying to interview Dylan. Sometime later, Dylan accompanied by his entourage, encountered Jones in the hotel dining room and proceeded to taunt him with "Getting it all down, Mr. Jones?" Anybody who has witnessed Dylan's verbal annihilation of reporter Judson Manning in "Don't Look Back" will know how Jones must have felt. The picture that Dylan paints of the outsider looking in and the superior, sneering delivery of the refrain "Because something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?" is enough to make you squirm. Drummer Bobby Gregg called it a "...nasty" song and was concerned about its inclusion on the album, while Al Kooper called Dylan the "...king of the nasty song." The clinical demolition of the unfortunate victim "How does it feel/To be such a freak?" is responded to with ardent discomfort "Oh my God/Am I here all alone?" as he is taunted for his lack of understanding "But you don't understand/Just what you will say/When you get home" and witheringly insulted with "There ought to be a law/Against you comin' around." Ultimately, "Ballad of a Thin Man" reflects the vulnerability of anyone in a situation that they do not understand or cannot control, Dylan's "gray flannel dwarf" from the previous album's "Gates of Eden," but trying to interpret the lyrics too deeply would be self-defeating as this would drag one into the trap of the song.
"Queen Jane Approximately" also sees Dylan in a taunting mood, but there is a gentleness or sympathy about the tone in which it is delivered. It is almost as if all the misfortunes he wished for in "Like a Rolling Stone" have occurred, and he is addressing the victim more in sorrow than anger. When she has been rejected by all her family members, the lines "...you're tired of yourself and all of your creations/Won't you come see me, Queen Jane" suggest a shoulder to cry on rather than a mocking swagger. Just how much he is prepared to see her lose is shown in "And the smell of their roses does not remain", and the fifth and final verse opens with the wonderful "Now when all the bandits that you turned your other cheek too/All lay down their bandanas and complain," still he is willing to be "...somebody you don't have to speak to." "Queen Jane Approximately" is an often overlooked song that shows a facet of Dylan rarely seen in his writing.
The title track is an exuberant piece of nonsense that includes a police-car whistle in its repertoire of instruments, and has the most unlikely characters engaged in snippets of surreal conversation. After an opening of (literally) biblical proportions, we are introduced to the colourfully named "Georgia Sam," "Mack the Finger" and "Louie the King" who carry out their diverse activities on or around the ubiquitous highway that seems to provide all the answers "Just take everything down to Highway 61." This is Dylan having a dig at cheap commercialism and it comes as no surprise when we meet the gambler and the promoter who are about to engineer a world war (presumably for profit) even though they have "...never engaged in this kind of thing before." He has used this image often and it is particularly effective in the much later "Foot of Pride" with the character "Red" who "...sells tickets to a plane crash." Dylan is in great voice here, the standard of musicianship is very high, and again the thing that comes across is how much he was enjoying what he was doing.
In "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" Dylan visits the Mexican landscape that will feature so prominently in later writing. "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez/And it's Eastertime too" begins this haunting tale of illness and excess. The world weary resignation of our hero (or anti-hero) is beautifully captured by the unusual use of two pianos as we are taken through a mournful litany of despair and lost hope. We meet some of the "...hungry women" who are partly responsible for this sad decline, among them, "Sweet Melinda" who "...takes your voice/And leaves you howling at the moon" as gratitude for your kindness. The message, if there is one, seems to be don't try this unless you are prepared to accept the consequences or "You better go back to from where you came." This is a place of corruption and empty promises where everybody and everything has a price and nobody takes responsibility, indeed corruption is worn like a badge of honour, "Now all the authorities/They just stand around and boast/How they blackmailed a sergeant-at-arms/Into leaving his post." It is easy to identify with the apparent speed of the decline "I started out on Burgundy/But soon hit the harder stuff" (who hasn't been there?), and now abandoned and alone he's "...going back to New York City/I do believe I've had enough." One of Dylan's most atmospheric pieces, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" probably takes it's title from Rimbaud, one of Dylan's favourite poets. His 1870 work My Bohemian Life contains the lines "I tore my shirt, I threw away my tie, Dreamy Tom Thumb, I made up rhymes as I ran...in dark and scary places. And like a lyre I plucked the tired laces of my worn-out shoes, one foot beneath my heart." Dylan, in typically obtuse fashion, introduced the song in Melbourne Australia in 1966 with a rambling description of a Mexican painter called Tom Thumb who had "...a lot of friends and this was when he was going through his blue period."
"Desolation Row" may well be one of Dylan's most audacious pieces of writing, using a structure that he was to make uniquely his own. Fellini meets Kafka in the parade of grotesques that populate this bizarre and chaotic nightmare that is modern day society. "I accept chaos" Dylan said in 1965 and here he is asking us to do the same; the symbiotic but ultimately futile relationships are as out of place as the sailors in the beauty parlour or the blind commissioner who has "One hand tied to the tightrope walker." An ominous feeling of doom pervades the song, and the sinister darkness has people reacting in appropriate "The fortune telling lady/Has even taken all her things inside" or inappropriate "Everybody is making love/Or else expecting rain" ways. Dylan's vision becomes more fantastic as the song progresses, and the characters become more freakish from "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood" accompanied by a "...jealous monk" to the menacing "Dr. Filth" with his dubious sounding nurse and "Ophelia" who is an old maid at twenty-two. The feast or carnival that everyone seems to be preparing for never actually occurs, and this helps to give the song a timeless quality, along with the threatening sense of "...the superhuman crew/Come out and round up everyone/That knows more than they do." The line "The Titanic sails at dawn" is a stark reminder of the precarious grip we have on reality, the unsinkable ship that in fact sank, and with "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower" Dylan shows the futility of taking sides in the face of complete disaster. The final irony of course, is that everyone is either in Desolation Row or trying to get there not the opposite, and in his insistence that we accept chaos, Dylan's advice would be "Don't send me no more letters no/Not unless you mail them from/Desolation Row." The song had been attempted on the July 30th session and again on August 2nd (an amazingly fruitful night that produced the title track along with "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Queen Jane Approximately" and "Ballad Of A Thin Man"), but Dylan decided to rethink "Desolation Row." A final session was hastily rearranged for August 4th and Bob Johnston had respected Nashville session guitarist Charlie McCoy* flown in for it. The song was re-recorded and has a totally different sound to the rest of the album - just two guitars, no rhythm section and no keyboards, a sound that fits the long song/poem perfectly and is far superior to the earlier version.
*Some sources credit Bruce Langhorne as being second guitarist on "Desolation Row."
There are times in Bob Dylan's work that his focus and single-minded adherence to an idea that he has pays off in spades. One thinks in terms of "John Wesley Harding," "Blood On The Tracks" or more latterly, "Time Out Of Mind" or "Love And Theft." "Highway 61 Revisited" is one of those moments, to many people it is his finest moment; it certainly has a distinctive sound, and the writing was light years ahead of what anyone else was doing. The blending of experienced session musicians and talented young Turks paid off and the album helped propel Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper into the limelight. Unfortunately, Bloomfield was a man troubled by addiction problems and he died prematurely in February 1981 (he was not even forty years old). Somewhat ironically his last live performance was with Dylan at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre a few months earlier. Al Kooper on the other hand has had a fruitful, if patchy, relationship with Dylan, playing on several of his albums and even producing 1970's "New Morning." Charlie McCoy seemed a little bemused by Dylan's recording technique, saying "We just did one song. The only one I played on was eleven minutes long..." but he must have enjoyed the experience, as he played on Dylan's next few studio albums. Bob Johnston went on to produce such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen. The album of course was a huge success, Paul Nelson writing in Sing Out early in 1966 quoted novelist John Clellon Holmes who said that Dylan "...has the authentic mark of the bard on him, and I think it is safe to say that no-one, years hence, will be able to understand just what it was like to live in this time without attending to what this astonishingly gifted young man has already achieved." Phil Ochs, a man who chose to stay with the folk movement but was soon to be very much in Dylan's shadow was equally fulsome in his praise "It's the kind of music that plants a seed in your mind..." he told biographer Anthony Scaduto, "...and then you have to hear it several times - ten times. And as you go over it you start to hear more and more things...He's in his own world now." Dylan embraced his new sound with a self belief that was quite staggering in its intensity, the more hostile the audiences were the better he liked it. He took his new show on the road, tentatively at first in selected venues in the States before embarking on the craziness of the 1966 world tour that would probably have killed a lesser man. But before that he was back in the studio before Christmas to begin work on what would become another groundbreaking album. But "Highway 61 Revisited" will remain his classic mid sixties album, "I'm not gonna be able to make a better record than that one." he said in 1966, ""Highway 61" is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to." Dylan did not appear at the Newport Folk Festival again until 2002.