Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Five Best...Bob Dylan Albums (#2)

#2. Highway 61 Revisited

In late August of 1965, Highway 61 Revisited was released. And the music world is still trying to catch up. Dylan’s pre-“mercury” sound is best heard through Kooper’s organ and Bloomfield leading the boys with his guitar licks on such tracks as “Tombstone Blues.”

As someone born in 1987, its quite unfathomable to me how an album could be so essential and revolutionary, and still not sell that many albums; in fact, it has sold less than 2 million copies, which is about 9 million less than Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause.

A few years ago, when Rolling Stone released their top-500 albums of all-time, Highway ranked #4 (it was wedged between The Beatles’ Revolver and Rubber Soul) and that’s about as true as anything RS has written about music in quite some time.

The recording session truly began on June 15, 1965, when the band (Dylan, Kooper, Bloomfield, Bobby Gregg, Frank Owens and Russ Savakus) took their first shot at “Phantom Engineer,” later re-titled “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The fascinating process behind the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” is well documented in Greil Marcus’ book, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Personally, I’ve listened to the song countless times and every time, I tend to hear something new. Whether it’s the timing of Kooper’s organ or the excellent piano playing of Frank Owens, this song doesn’t leave much else to be accomplished. And yet, when you listen to the version of “Like a Rolling Stone” included The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 or No Direction Home, Bobby and the Hawks do add an extra something. Whether its just adding more of a “fuck you” attitude to the girl in question is up for interpretation…

Of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Frank Zappa once said, “When I heard 'Like A Rolling Stone,' I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else.' ... It sold, but nobody responded to it the way that they should have.”

There are very few songs that I can say this about but there’s nothing quite like “Tombstone Blues” out there. I mean, where else can you hear lines like, “Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll/ Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”? The track also has one of Dylan’s catchier rhythm to it; one that’s actually quite complex.

“It Takes a Lot…,” outside of being one of Dylan’s lengthier song titles, is a good slow down from the first two tracks and although the alternate from seemingly every Bootleg Series (Vol. 1-3, Vol. 5 and No Direction Home) works by itself, it wouldn’t work well on the finished album.

Book ended around the rather boring “Ballad of a Thin Man” are two gems that don’t get spoken about nearly enough: “From a Buick 6” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” Both are rocking pieces—although “Queen Jane” has a depressed rocking sound to it-- with some classic Dylan lines (For instance, “She walks like Bo Diddley/ And she don’t need no crutch”). Some of Dylan’s finest vocals can be heard on this version “Queen Jane,” and not the one that was released over 20 years later on Dylan & the Dead.

Once past the title track, you’ve got two of Dylan’s all-time greatest songs, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Desolation Row.” During this past winter break, when I was stuck in upstate New York instead of the city, I would sing myself the line, “I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough,” which, of course, I would take out of its drug-filled context so it’d fit my situation. But while that line would bring me happiness, “Tom Thumb’s” is tough to listen to because Dylan sounds so worn out; as if he has just given up on life. Things aren’t much cheerier on the next track, “Desolation Row,” because the world has been pretty much been torn apart and all that’s left is this freak show parade that Dylan somehow got front row tickets to. The topic of the last verse of the album? Everyone you name check is so lame that I need to change them around for the sake of them being relevant and as for you letters, don’t bother sending them…”not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”

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