In 1965 Bob Dylan in an apt way had reached a crossroads, he was disillusioned with his career, frustrated at fans and the music establishment who tried to frame him as an idol of the folk movement. Dylan himself wanted to embrace something different, step out from under the folk spotlight and take his music further on up the road. That road being Highway 61 which led from his home in Duluth Minnesota all the way down to the Mississippi Delta, the road of the country blues. Highway 61 Revisited pushed the boundaries of popular music, lyrically it saw Dylan continue to develop his writing style, poetic and surreal in it's images and depiction of American society and the characters that inhabited it. I don't think there was an album at that time that had such a deep cynicism and sarcasm to it, Dylan seemed to be venting his frustration as he had been doing on his earlier albums but with a unique flow of the pen. Dylan creates these vignettes with almost visual delight, tales that feature biblical characters and hustlers, people living on the edge and icons of history and popular culture.
Musically Dylan embraced the blues, with a raw and raucous quality with musicians who shared his passion and helped to create his vision. The initial recording sessions began in June 1965 at Columbia studios in Manhattan, Dylan bought in guitarist Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bobby Gregg was on drums, Paul Griffin was on piano and Harvey Brooks on bass.The first song recorded for the session was the rolling country blues styled It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry with some funky barrelhouse piano from Paul Griffin. Dylan is every bit the weary traveller on this song,
Well I ride on a mail train baby,
Can't buy a thrill
Well I've been up all night baby
Leanin on the window sill
Well if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don't make it
You know my baby will.
He is a brakeman on double E travelling down to the see until the winter comes. Dylan was deeply connected to country blues where tales of travelling on trains, changing seasons and colourful characters were embedded in the songs, this style became somewhat of a fertile building block for Dylan's writing.
The immortal Like a Rolling Stone was recorded the following day with Joe Macho jnr on bass, also at the session and initially not scheduled to play was Al Kooper who snuck into the studio to play guitar only to retreat once he heard Mike Bloomfield! He then went back into the studio and headed to the organ an instrument he had not played a lot of, his opening riff would become a dominant part of the song. Dylan leers
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction at home
Like a complete unknown
Like a Rolling Stones
The sheer contempt and sarcasm Dylan elicits I don't think had ever been captured on record before, it's a brilliant song because of this, it's also a great pop song because musically it captures the spirit of rock and roll in it's defiance, it captures the emotion of the blues and marries to a pop sensibility that has this flowing organ sound and subtle blues picking from Bloomfield plus that crisp 4/4 beat from Bobby Gregg. Following this session Dylan moved up to Woodstock for a month to complete writing the album, he also showcased his new sound at the Newport Folk Festival to a wail of boos and cries of sell out. It's possible that this galvanised Dylan in his approach, it seemed that Highway 61 Revisited was also a middle finger to those who tried to corner Dylan, from the folk music establishment who cried accusations of populism.
From a Buick 6 is a driving rhythm and blues number the interplay between Kooper and Bloomfield is a highlight, Dylan once again excels with his wordplay,
Well, she don't make me nervous, she don't talk too much
She walks like Bo Diddley, and she don't need no crutch,
She keeps this four ten all loaded with lead
Well, you know if I go down dyin, she bound to put a blanket on my head.
The sombre Ballad of a Thin Man is Dylan at his most frustrated, it's a scathing critique on the people who tried to understand Dylan and his music, yet they continually overlooked the artists desire for creative freedom. The music press at the time seemed to constantly miss the point and be out of step with what was happening in music. There was this constant stream off commentary about Dylan selling out, the fire was stoked by the music press it was totally irrelevant. Dylan continued on his musical journey which had started more in traditional rock and roll and the blues than folk music. Ballad of a Thin Man has the immortal line,
Because something is happening,
but you don't know what it is,
Do you Mr Jones?
Tombstone Blues is a gritty number full of historical references and surreal lyrics set to the tone of raw garage rock and roll with some slashing lead runs from Bloomfield,the song has an amazing flow of lyrics,
The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course,
The city fathers they are trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
But the town has no need to be nervous
Highway 61 Revisited is an apocalyptic gem, full of wit and sarcasm and all located on the blues highway, Highway 61. It's the place where Dylan absorbed his influences both musically and lyrically, there is a visual image of the Highway on fire with desultory characters coming in and out. For me it's the song that encapsulates the change Dylan was undergoing, to hear it in 1965 must have been quite a significant moment, because no song like that had been heard on the airwaves before, it was anarchic. Musically it captures that sense that all hell as broken loose, with a maniacal whistle to start the song and twisted slide notes that permeate through the song.
God said to Abraham, kill me a son,
Abe says Man you must be putting me on
God says No, Abe says what?
God says Abe you can do what you want, but
Next time you see me you better run
Well, Abe says where do you want this killing done?
God says Out on Highway 61.
I don't think there could be a fitting end to the album than Desolation Row, the album in general has reflected chaos and despair, Desolation Row finishes it off by offering a song cloaked in tired resignation, offering no hope of redemption, it creates a feeling of being on the edge of darkness. Dylan creates a weary well worn vocal for the song against the delicate acoustic backdrop created by famed Nashville session musician Charlie McCoy. McCoy happened to be in New York to visit producer Bob Johnston and in turn was invited to participate on the session. At the initial recording session Harvey Brooks supplied the bass but in the version released on the album the bass is played by Russ Savakus. When Dylan decided to tour the album with an electric band towards the latter half on 1965 he chose Levon and The Hawks who had previously been the backing group for Toronto based rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. There is some great live material that has circulated over the years of some of these concerts that went on into the middle of 1966.