Bob Dylan- Highway 61 Revisited
Written on January 3, 2010
On “Like a Rolling Stone,” the opening track on Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan poses several questions, but the biggest questions are certainly: “How does it feel?” And, who is the song about?
Who is Miss Lonely? Is it Edie Sedgwick? Is it Joan Baez? Is it Marianne Faithful? Or, is it someone else? This question has been debated for decades, and the debate continues today.
Well to me, and contrary to popular belief, I think the answer is pretty clear. When Dylan sings, “How does it feel?” I believe Dylan thinks it feels pretty good, and I write “Dylan thinks” because I think that the song is autobiographical.
The central character is certainly a female (Miss Lonely), but the theme could apply to anyone, and in this case– it applies to Dylan, and as cynical as his lyrics might sound, I think this is an extremely positive song that above all else is about freedom. It’s about the freedom to do whatever one wants. Dylan even says in the closing lines of the song that “when you got nothing/ you got nothing to lose/ you’re invisible now/ you got no secrets to conceal.” Those lyrics say it all. At this point in Dylan’s career, he had experienced tremendous success as a folk singer. Because of this, the general public had essentially proclaimed him as their folk protest superhero. But, this is not what Dylan wanted.
“Dylan was unhappy with the public’s expectations of him, as well as the direction his career was going, and [he] seriously considered quitting the music business”… Dylan went on to remark that “‘Like a Rolling Stone’” changed it all.” (Wikipedia)
Musically, the song is outstanding as well. From the opening famous drum beat to the closing harmonica solo. This song is absolutely flawless in every way: the story, lyrics, music, texture, and of course Dylan’s aforementioned chorus of “How does it feel” are all simply incredible. (Click here to listen to Like a Rolling Stone).
As for the rest of the album, it presents 3 main ideas or themes:
#1: A shift to a full electric rock album
As mentioned, Dylan started his career as an acoustic folk singer. Then on Bringing it All Back Home, (this album’s predecessor) half the material is electric and half is acoustic. This resulted in a huge uproar in Dylan’s fan base, and it ultimately led to Dylan’s disillusionment with the music business in general. Lucky for us, it was this same disillusionment that led him to write “Like a Rolling Stone,” which then gave him the motivation to write Highway 61 Revisited as a full electric album. Compared to Bringing it All Back Home, which simply incorporated electric instruments in some songs, Highway 61 Revisited, is a full electric rock record, and this new sound is most apparent on “Tombstone Blues.” (Click here to listen to Tombstone Blues)
#2: Themes about change
There are also lyrical themes of change in almost every song on the record. This is probably most apparent on “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The Mr. Jones character represents the masses, as in the phrase “keeping up with The Joneses.” The most important lyrical passage of the song deals with this idea and states that “something is happening here/ but you don’t know what it is/ do you/ Mister Jones?” I think Dylan’s view was that the world was changing (“something is happening here”), and the masses didn’t understand how or why, or even worse, they didn’t care (“but you don’t know what it is”). (Click here to listen to Ballad of a Thin Man)
#3: Themes about Women
Laced throughout many songs, Dylan adds themes about women. Although Dylan received some negative attention toward his portrayal of women on the album, I think this is misinterpreted. This is most evident on “Approximately Queen Jane.” On the surface, the song can be interpreted in a negative way, much like “Like A Rolling Stone,” but Dylan’s song meanings rarely rest on the surface, and the point of song is Dylan’s desire to help Queen Jane, and this is repeated in the chorus of “Won’t you come see me/ Queen Jane?” Although it’s never stated, I think Dylan’s message to Queen Jane would have been the same message and epiphany he had for himself in his lyrics to “Like A Rolling Stone,” which is freedom. (Click here to listen to Queen Jane Approximately)
Of the remaining songs, the standout is the closing track, “Desolation Row,” which is absolutely one of Dylan’s finest efforts. Lyrically, it is a complete poetic masterpiece, and every word and verse seems to be meticulously selected and precisely placed. Lastly, Dylan’s influence is still making its mark on new bands today, and My Chemical Romance (a newer rock band) covered a shortened version of “Desolation Row” in 2009. It’s certainly very different than Dylan’s version, but it’s an interesting comparison.
Highway 61 Revisited sits in between the albums Bringing it All back Home and Blonde On Blonde, which many fans and critics consider to be not only Dylan’s greatest three albums, but also three of the greatest albums of all time.
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