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Highway 51 Revisited

Bob Dylan

Columbia 1965

Review by David Bowling

Highway 61 Revisited exploded upon the world in 1965. Dylan would record with a full rock band for the first time in his career. Blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield and country guitarist Charlie McCoy would provide superb backing for Dylan as would keyboardist Al Kooper. Dylan had now completely embraced an electric sound and the public would respond by making Highway 61 Revisited a huge hit. It would reach number three on the American National charts and achieve platinum status.

Legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil on Highway 61 and maybe Dylan made such a deal for himself. As Johnson would affect and change the blues in America so Dylan would exert an influence on rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan’s music was now rock but different from any other produced at the time. His lyrics and melodies were far beyond the vision and creative ability of all but a few musicians in the world. In the final analysis Dylan was changing what rock was all about. “Like A Rolling Stone” would be the most unique hit single in rock history up until that time. Radio stations wanted and demanded singles less than three minutes in length. The song clocked in at over six minutes, yet the stations would play the song over and over as it rose to number two on the National charts. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank it number one on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. The song is melodic, lyrically superior and unique, a little uncomfortable at times and never lets up for six minutes. It has deservedly gone down in history as a perfect masterpiece.

“Desolation Row,” which closes the album was Dylan’s longest song up until this point in his career. This eleven minute novella would take the listener on a journey through the use of music. I am not sure that the lyrics all make sense or if Dylan had an actual destination in mind but it is a lot of fun to travel with Dylan for awhile. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” has a nice bluesy feel and would be covered by hundreds of artists. “Tombstone Blues” may have obscure lyrics but the music is almost rooted in garage rock. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” alternates between beautiful, wistful, and chilling.

I have always enjoyed, if not completely understood, the trilogy of songs that form the beginning of the second side of the original vinyl release. “Queen Jane Approximately” was a song about a fall from grace based on the story of Lady Jane Grey who was the uncrowned Queen of England for nine days. “Highway 61 Revisited” is a protest song with a beat. “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” is Dylan doing what he does best and that is providing layers of imagery that require the listeners total involvement.

Highway 61 Revisited would find Dylan consolidating his musical vision. Dylan would also continue his journey as a master of words and imagery. If Dylan really did sell his soul to the devil on Highway 61, on this album at least, he got the better of the deal.

Rating: ****1/2

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