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…
“Highway 61 Revisited”
26. It followed in the footsteps of songs like Roosevelt Sykes’ “Highway 61 Blues” and the Sparks Brothers’ “61 Highway”, both released in the early 1930s. Thus, it sees Dylan entering into a musical conversation that preceded him by decades.
27. The zany timbres and structure overall (markedly, the siren whistle). It’s quite playful, combining blues and boogie into an outright fun pairing. It also offers a glimpse into Dylan’s often subtle, yet boundless, sense of humor.
28. As with “Like a Rolling Stone”, the opening stanza — starting with “Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/ Abe said, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’” — is among his most adored lyrics. It puts a modernized, colloquial spin on one of the most famous Bible stories. If anyone back then had the guts to do something like that, it was Dylan. (Furthermore, the connection between divine murder and a spacious road relates not only to various real-life incidents, but, depending on your interpretation, to the end of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as well.)
29. Piggybacking off of that, the continuity and pattern of having each verse detail an odd problem and solution. It’s a great example of Dylan’s knack of storytelling and description.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
30. The whimsical dichotomy of its guitar strums and piano playing. There’s an Old West saloon essence to it that suits Dylan’s narration about coming across illicit substances, loose women, and various hardships in Juarez, Mexico.
31. The fact that they did over a dozen takes before landing it. Sometimes, perfectionism pays off.
32. Beyond referencing Charles Sherwood Stratton by his nickname (General Tom Thumb), it continues the album’s penchant for literary signals. Specifically, we get winks to Edgar Allan Poe, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac.
33. Although seemingly incongruous, its placement in “Finger Lickin’ Good” by Beastie Boys (at the 3:00 mark) works pretty well.
34. The boldness of ending an album back then with an 11-plus-minute song. No matter how it sounded, it deserves respect by default.
35. How its acoustic-only guitar-and-vocal score makes it an outlier since the rest of the record had so many more players.
36. Its mention of a multitude of figures both real and fictitious — like Einstein, Noah, Cain and Able, Ophelia, T.S. Eliot, and Romeo — as it unfolds like an epic poem. It’s approaches like this that justify him winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature (and being studied in both music and creative writing classes to this day).
37. That it was used to name the area where over half a million rebellious and ticketless fans watched the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, feeling upset and challenged by the notion that they should pay for live music.
38. The 1995 CD-ROM Highway 61 Interactive, which was described by Wired’s Jeff Baskin as opening with “a scattered collage of photos and objects, each reflecting a fragment of Dylan’s ever-changing persona. Click on an object, and you’ll jump to one of several interactive 3-D environments, such as Greenwich Village, Columbia recording studios, or backstage at Madison Square Garden.” It also included previously unknown recordings (like his Newport Folk Festival performance of “House of the Rising Sun”), and it received mostly positive reviews.
39. Cumulatively, all the literary references. Not only did it show that he was well read, but also that as a listener, you could either be knowledgeable, too, or be left behind. It made no difference to Dylan.
40. That he referred to the album as “vision music” and “mathematical music.” Clearly, he knew how prophetic and intricate it was, even if some people only reacted with “boo!’
41. The sheer fact that it turned out so well considering Dylan’s drug use and exhaustion at the time (due to constant touring, among other things). As he told Playboy’s Nat Hentoff in March 1966, he was even thinking of quitting singing altogether prior to working on it (see my earlier comment about “Like a Rolling Stone”).
42. The countless artists it inspired (perhaps most notably, Bruce Springsteen). Virtually every subsequent folk/blues rock album with candid lyricism and/or prolonged tracks owes a debt to it.
43. Along the same lines, how tied it is to its era. In his book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, pop culture historian Michael Gray even states: “The whole rock culture, the whole post-Beatle pop-rock world, and so in an important sense the 1960s started here.”
44. Although “Positively 4th Street” was recorded during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, it was left off the final album and released as a single instead (in September 1965). That just shows how much Dylan was at the top of his game during that time; he was producing too much top-tier stuff to be contained on one album.
45. Likewise, all of the alternate takes that wound up on multiple entries in the Bootleg Series (especially the expansive Volume 12, a.k.a. The Cutting Edge, whose 18-disc Collector’s Edition reportedly included “every note recorded during the 1965-1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric”). Dylan was determined to try various approaches before deciding on the “right” versions of the tunes.
46. That it was the start of Bob Johnson’s role as producer. His mark is definitely felt here and on the following LPs, and it no doubt played a part in him consequently working with artists like Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen, and Pete Seeger.
47. How well received (by reviewers) it was upon arrival. Even if critics didn’t fully grasp it, they were generally more intrigued and impressed than embittered or disinterested. That’s part of what makes Dylan so one-of-a-kind.
48. The confidence and audacity he showed by doubling down on going electric despite all of the push-back he’d received earlier that year. In fact, following a brief tour of England in May 1965, he famously said: “It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you, if you yourself don’t dig you.” Dylan’s always gone to the beat of his own drum — as the saying goes — and that demonstrates it perfectly.
49. On a similar note, his expression on the front cover, which was taken by Daniel Kramer at the front of manager Albert Grossman’s apartment in Gramercy Park, New York. (Behind him stands friend and fellow folk musician Bob Neuwirth.) Granted, he scowled on most of those initial records, but this one really captures his trademark off-putting demeanor. It’s as if he’s already annoyed that listeners (and the press) are going ask what it all means.
50. As he’d done on the previous trio of LPs, Dylan placed stream-of-conscious poetry on the back cover. Not only was this a characteristic move in general, but it was particularly appropriate here since he was also working on a prose poetry novel, Tarantula, at the time.
Pick up a copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited here.