Gimme a Reason takes classic albums celebrating major anniversaries and breaks down song by song the reasons we still love them so many years later. This time we make like a rolling stone with Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited.
Highway 61 Revisited is unanimously considered not only one of Bob Dylan’s greatest albums, but also one of the most influential and enduring records of its genre and time. Released mere months after the highly controversial Bringing It All Back Home (whose focus on electric instrumentation and cryptic lyricism — punctuated by Dylan’s appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival — left many devotees feeling betrayed and incensed), the LP saw its creator delve further into those polarizing elements. The end result was a collection that brilliantly and bravely mixed sociopolitical commentaries, esoteric religious/fictional insinuations, and varied stylistic underpinnings (folk, rock and roll, blues, and even touches of ragtime) into a masterpiece.
Whereas its precursor still afforded ample space for Dylan’s sparser acoustic persona, Highway 61 Revisited is predominantly electric, with musicians like Bobby Gregg, Paul Griffin, Bruce Langhorne, Joe Macho, Jr., and Frank Owens returning alongside some new players. (Interestingly, Dylan would start playing with members of The Hawks — who’d become The Band — immediately after Highway 61 Revisited came out.) Rather than produce the entire thing again, Tom Wilson just looked after the iconic album starter, “Like a Rolling Stone”, while Bob Johnston oversaw the rest of it (and stayed for the subsequent several records). Mark Polizzotti, in his book Highway 61 Revisited (part of the “33 1/3” series), proposes that Wilson and Dylan argued over how “Like a Rolling Stone” was coming together. In contrast, Dylan told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner in 1969: “All I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there — I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there — and I looked up one day, and Bob was there.” As for its title, Dylan revealed in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, that the location — which ran through his birthplace of Duluth, MN, and reached the Canadian border — gave him his “place in the universe” and “felt like it was in [his] blood.” Of course, its ties to important blues/rock and roll players like Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, and Robert Johnson were a part of that.
Although it landed three spots behind its predecessor on the UK Albums Charts at No. 4, it also climbed three spots ahead on the Billboard 200 at No 3. Since then, it’s gone Gold in Canada and the UK, as well as Platinum in America. As for professional reviews, critics were concurrently (and understandably) impressed, confounded, and fascinated. For example, Allen Evans of NME surmised that its familiar blend of “message songs and story songs sung in that monotonous and tuneless way … becomes quite arresting as you listen,” while Melody Maker deemed it an “incomprehensible … knock-out.” Elsewhere, contemporaries like Phil Ochs and Philip Larkin showered it with praise.
In the 55 years since its release, Highway 61 Revisited has been lauded about as much as any piece of pop culture can be. In 2003, Rolling Stone called it “one of those albums that changed everything” while placing it at No. 4 in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Craig Mathieson and Toby Creswell’s 2012 book The Best 100 Albums of All Time went further by placing it at the top spot, with comparable texts — like Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums — ranking it highly, too. Naturally, Dylan has shown favor toward a few of its songs in concert ever since, and there have been countless covers as well, including ones by David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Joel, PJ Harvey, and even My Chemical Romance.
Clearly, Highway 61 Revisited is immeasurably successful and celebrated, with virtually everyone who hears it acknowledging its significance (if not also loving it from an entertainment standpoint). As for us, well, here are 50 reasons why we still love it.
“Like a Rolling Stone”
01. You have to start with Al Kooper’s spontaneous organ riff; it’s easily the most engaging instrument during the whole song, and it’s a huge reason why the introduction is among the most beloved and recognizable in all of popular music. (The fact that the band had worked on the song the day before but couldn’t nail it, leading them to try again the following day, when Kooper just happened to be there, is the serendipitous icing on the cake.)
02. Similarly — and as obvious as it is to choose — the accusatory opening rhyme: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime in your prime/ Didn’t you?” It’s as famous as Kooper’s contribution, and it kicks off a track full of Dylan’s scaffolded rhymes and scornful jabs.
03. How it revitalized Dylan’s interest in his artform following the negative reception he’d faced on the road. Reportedly, it began as a 10-to 20-page (depending on the source) series of verses that he eventually deemed a “long piece of vomit”; however, he chose to scale it back and add a chorus. In 2004, he recounted its creation to Guitar World Acoustic’s Robert Hilburn: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that … You don’t know what it means except the ghost picked me to write the song.” Satisfied and rejuvenated, he decided to carry on, and the rest is history.
04. The youthful tyranny in his voice. He was only in his mid-20s, after all, so he sounds simultaneously prepubescent and wisely domineering. People often say that Dylan couldn’t sing, and while his voice was never melodious, it was distinctive and fitting as hell.
05. In comparison, how the rest of the music is relatively laid-back and countrified (if not a bit honky-tonk, too). It conjures the tight and lush production and playing of Phil Spector and The Wrecking Crew, yet with warmer and freer vibes.
06. The prevailing popularity it’s sustained over the last half-century. It was the album’s lead single (released in late July 1965) and reached No. 2 in the Billboard Hot 100 during summer 1965. Since then, it’s never really gone away. In fact, Rolling Stone gave it the superlative slot in their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
07. The official interactive music video that came out in 2013 (see above). I mean, it’s just really fucking cool, right?
08. The contrast of feisty acoustic guitar plucks and bluesy electric guitar accents (courtesy of Paul Butterfield Blues Band axeman Michael Bloomfield). It makes the track feel like it exists in two worlds at once. Naturally, the shuffling rhythm helps, too.
09. The blend of abstract epithets and characteristically drawn-out vocal deliveries that yield what could be a spiritual successor to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (from Bringing It All Back Home).
10. How it connects to later songs. For instance, its reference to John the Baptist ties it to the more prevalent Biblical allusions in the title track. Plus, it stands as one of multiple LP tracks that Stephen King consequently gave a nod to in his work (at least twice here, in both Carrie and Gerald’s Game).
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry”
11. Even though it’s built upon a standard blues arrangement and tempo, the mere presence of Dylan’s voice and words allows it to fit in with the rest of the sequence. Put another way, he makes it his own without really deviating from the stylistic formula.
12. Going off of that, how it differs from its original (faster) rendition. It’s great, but it also makes the album cut feel more effectively contemplative by comparison.
13. His harmonica solo. Sure, it’s a bit perfunctory, but that doesn’t mean it’s not essential.
14. Despite being somewhat rudimentary and generic compared to what surrounds it, it was still impactful enough to elicit the title of Steely Dan’s first record, Can’t Buy a Thrill. That goes to show that even at its most unassuming, Highway 61 Revisited was nonetheless stimulating to Dylan’s devotees.
“From a Buick 6”
15. Aside from spawning yet another link to Stephen King — via his 2002 novel, From a Buick 8 — it’s been alluded to by indie rock band Yo La Tengo (with their song “From a Motel 6”) and singer/-Billy Bragg (with his song “From a Vauxhall Velox”).
16. Steve Jobs cited it as his favorite track ever, which is neat.
17. The bouncy attitude and time-tested 12-bar/I-IV-V blues pattern. Like “It Takes a Lot…”, it’s a traditional composition infused with a bit of idiosyncratic Dylan edge. Specifically — and not to be confused with The Kinks’ cover of a different song — he took from Sleepy John Estes’ 1930 classic “Milk Cow Blues”.
“Ballad of a Thin Man”
18. The downtrodden down-home piano work, coupled with the embattled other instrumentation (such as the ghoulish organ swirls, plaintive bass lines, and browbeaten guitar reverberations). It concludes Side One on an engrossingly fatalistic note that’s made more powerful because of how lively and/or upbeat the prior tunes were. Even drummer Gregg recognized it as “a nasty song” during the in-studio playback.
19. Although a minor detail, the guitar arpeggios (in waltz time) around the two-and-a-half-minute mark are really evocative. Luckily, there are numerous little alterations like that throughout the piece.
20. Dylan’s singing is notably dismissive and foreboding; he’s devoid of empathy or remorse, instead conveying pride and vindication. Tied to that is how he stretches out some of the syllables (“What it i-i-i-s” / “Do you, Mr. Jo-o-o-nes?”). It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself before anyone else can.
21. The cryptic nature of its titular character and the circumstances that befall him. Dylan eventually explained how it was written as a response to people who kept asking him questions about his songwriting and cultural relevance. In 1975, journalist Jeffrey Jones publicly stated that he thought the song was about him, based on his attempted interview with Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival; however, Dylan later said that he was one of many writers who fit the bill. “You just get tired of that every once in a while. You just don’t want to answer no more questions,” he told an audience in Japan in 1986. With that in mind, lines such as “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/ You’re very well-read, it’s well-known/ But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” are clear digs at arrogantly erudite listeners/critics who felt out of touch and read into things more than they should’ve.
“Queen Jane Approximately”
22. The about-face tonal shift, as it kicks off Side Two with an air of coziness and hope. Sure, he’s still chastising his subject, but he’s also offering her help to break out from the societal detriments that bind her.
23. Compared to prior instances, the harmonica solos are melodic and focused. Simple, yes, but perfectly useful, too.
24. Its catchiness and organization (such as how the same line concludes each verse). It’s remarkably radio-friendly and accessible for a mid-’60s Dylan offering.
25. How well it lent itself to this Grateful Dead reinterpretation. Sure, many of Dylan’s songs have been reimagined, but this one is certainly one of the best.
Click ahead for more reasons we still love Highway 61 Revisited…