a list obligatory. the albums of bob dylan.

4 Feb

This week, the list obligatory is taking a guest residency here at Alphabet Bands. Just for this occasion, we’ve decided to take the biggest swing yet; the ten best albums made by Bob f’n Dylan.

Hello Alphabet Bands! My name is Chris and this is my weekly column, a list obligatory. After a lengthy friendship between Adam and the writers over at my home, Earbuddy.net, we’ve decided each take a guest trip across the pond. We’re doing this because we all sat down and realized that both Alphabet and Earbuddy have the same goal; promoting the music that we love and hoping someone else might feel the same. Assuming that, we all figured it couldn’t hurt to give each other’s audiences a chance to see a new point of view.

I’m sure you’re all smart enough to figure it out, but allow me to give you a little introduction to the list obligatory. Just like every other site’s frequent and mind numbing ‘best of’ posts, these are my entirely unimportant and often completely random picks for the best of whatever topic is sticking in my craw that week. What I pride myself on providing is an explanation of the context within each pick existed and why I think it fits. My favorite thing about music has always been learning something new from somebody else. If my years of obsessing over every detail of every piece of music I hear can be used to feed someone else’s curiosity, fantastic. If not, well I learn something new every week anyhow.

Every so often the list obligatory takes a look at the best work from musical heroes; artists with catalogs that are impressive enough to merit an entire discussion unto themselves. In the past, we’ve looked at Brian Eno, Neil Young, R.E.M., and the Talking Heads. Yet, I’ve never had the guts to tackle one of those artists that are true sacred cows of musical criticism. Part of the reason for that is just a feeling that they already get enough ink and that everything has already been said. A different, somewhat more difficult reason is the fear of internet superfans. These are the people that appear out of nowhere by the mere mention of this artist they have fetishized, just to poke holes in the work of anyone else that dares even have an opinion about ‘their’ artist. “Actually, Dylan never played the guitar section on “Don’t Think Twice“. It was credited to him by mistake.” Frankly, these people are just fucking annoying.

Nevertheless, this week I’m going to put on my big boy pants and tackle the ultimate sacred cow; Bob Dylan. I actually feel pretty prepared for this one. Dylan was my second true musical obsession (after Queen). I hadn’t really paid much attention to him until a friend sat me down and forced me to listen to “Desolation Row”. It was said and done after those twelve minutes. I finally ‘got it’. After a few years of collecting and obsessively reading about the man and his assorted myths, I wound up hosting a three hour radio show devoted entirely to The Bob. I even joined one of those underground bootleg trading groups devoted entirely to this man’s work. We’d swap the missing songs from The Basement Tapes for that ultra rare early version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” or a copy of The Gaslight Tapes or Folksinger’s Choice. When my college decided to host a version of Beat the Geeks for charity, they made me the ‘Dylan Geek’. While my own fetishizing of the man has waned over the years, I still feel pretty confident that I can hang with the best of them in a conversation about Dylan. At the very least, I’m more confident with a talk about Dylan than any other musician. So, at least it’s worth a try.


 
I’m going to avoid boring you with Dylan’s back story or various the various tribulations throughout his career. First, there is simply too much to tell. Second, a lot of people have already told it. Third, Dylan has always been so protective of his personal life (including telling multiple outright lies about the same stories), it is just too difficult to tell truth from fiction at times. Needless to say, this is a guy that has been called “The Greatest Living Songwriter” more than anyone else on the planet. I would argue that he absolutely deserves that title. To have crafted so many good songs and to have penned almost all of them by himself is an awe-inspiring feat. Then, you have to realize that his first officially released original song was “Song to Woody”? Seriously? You started that good? It’s truly unfair. Here are the rules for this week. First, no honorable mentions. That would just be a weak attempt to cover my own ass. Second, I’ve ruled out compilation records, but not live performances. This cuts out some truly great additions to The Bootleg Series that I just didn’t think were fair to consider. I’m keeping the live performances because some of the released live albums are truly individual pieces that I believe prove how impressive Dylan could be in concert. Third, these are purely the albums that I personally enjoy the most. I’m giving no weight to what ‘everyone else’ says are Dylan’s best albums. Sometimes my feelings jive with the critical community, sometimes they don’t. One of the great things about Bob Dylan is that fifty million people can connect with Dylan in fifty million different ways. These are the records that most connected with me. Now, allow the trolling to begin.

 

a notable exclusion.

This is a bit I do every week to pull a specific record out of the running. I do it for a variety of reasons. It could be the album already gets too much press. It could be because I feel like everyone assumes it should be chosen, and I just don’t buy it. It also could be a cheap way I get out of having to discuss the 500 million selling gorilla in the room. The notable exclusion this week is about as painful as they get. Most Dylan fans believe in a ‘holy trinity’ of albums from his catalog. Blood on the Tracks is one of those three holy albums. In truth, that’s part of the reason it’s this week’s notable exclusion. When I look at the three, this is the album that has least been able to hold my attention as the years have passed. Don’t get me wrong, I still love “Tangled Up In Blue”. Hearing it in concert drove goosebumps up the back of my neck. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt a bit jaded about the fact that Blood on the Tracks is often discussed like it was the only album Dylan made in the 70’s (unless someone wants to rag on Self Portrait). The truth is, Dylan made several fantastic albums during that decade and I even think one or two of them are better than this one. There is actually a thematic arc to the albums Dylan made during the 70’s and Blood on the Tracks is only the end of it. This is the final nail in the coffin of Dylan’s marriage. There were five years of songwriting before this album that tell the rest of the story. I suppose I just enjoy toying around with the notion of a content Bob Dylan a little bit more. It seems more unique, more special. Nevertheless, you can’t argue that Blood on the Tracks isn’t a nearly perfect record. I just can’t bring myself to honestly include it here.


 

the ten.

 

10. The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue is a live album released by Columbia Records in 2002. It documents the Rolling Thunder Revue, led by Bob Dylan prior to the release of the album Desire. The Rolling Thunder Revue was a thing of wonder in retrospect; consisting of a traveling caravan of musicians and artists, headed by Dylan, that took place in late 1975 and early 1976. In late July 1972, Dylan saw The Rolling Stones perform at Madison Square Garden. According to Arthur Rosato, the soundman on Renaldo and Clara, their 1972 world tour reignited his interest in playing live, and also had a large influence on Dylan’s return to the concert circuit. The prevailing theory was that the tour was named after the Native American shaman Rolling Thunder. Others maintained that tour was named after Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. aerial bombardment campaign conducted during the Vietnam War. But according to Dylan, there was a simpler explanation “I was just sitting outside my house one day thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I looked into the sky and I heard a boom! Then, boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. So I figured that should be the name”.

The special thing for me about this tour was the almost quizzical assemblage of pure talent. Among those featured in the Revue were Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kinky Friedman and Bob Neuwirth. Neuwirth assembled the backing musicians, including T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, David Mansfield, and Steven Soles, and, from the Desire sessions, the violinist Scarlet Rivera, the bassist Rob Stoner, and the drummer Howie Wyeth. So, you have the leader of the Byrds, one of Woody Guthrie’s traveling partners (Elliott), a future producer extraordinaire (Burnett), and David Bowie’s lead Spider from Mars (Ronson). According to Lou Kemp, a friend of Dylan’s who eventually organized the tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue “would go out at night and run into people, and we’d just invite them to come with us. We started out with a relatively small group of musicians and support people, and we ended up with a caravan.” At one point, Patti Smith was invited to join, but amicably declined Dylan’s invitation. And of course, the poet and frequent Dylan groupie Allen Ginsberg would accompany the tour for most of its 1975 run, but his planned recitations, as well as some performances by other Revue members, were cut before the opening date to keep the concerts at a manageable length. However, Ginsberg’s recitation was restored at one concert, at the prison where Rubin Carter was serving his sentence. In total, there were almost fifty performances of the Rolling Thunder Revue, finishing up with a string of shows through the American South, much like you might have expected a true revue to travel.

Until the release of this album, the only official live documentation of the Rolling Thunder Revue was the Hard Rain recorded during the second leg of the revue. I have always viewed Hard Rain with interest. I have a longstanding opinion that Dylan isn’t particularly good at choosing a final set of songs for albums. His career is littered with great cuts and songs that are forsaken in place of some flat out weak replacements. Yet with that in mind, one has to look at the collection on Hard Rain with a bit of awe. How does one amass such great talent, exhaustively film and record almost everything along the way, and come up with this set of nine purely okay tracks? Thankfully, we have a little thing called The Bootleg Series to save the day. Vol. 5 debuted on the Billboard 200 chart on December 14, 2002 at number 56. It spent 9 weeks on the chart. It was certified and awarded a gold record on March 12, 2003 by the RIAA. The album reached #69 in the U.K. The 2-CD set got a warm reception from critics and fans, though some lamented that it does not document, or emulate, a typical complete show from the tour. Fans have also expressed exasperation at the omission of certain revered performances, notably the cover of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go”. I believe any complaints about Vol. 5 are absolute rubbish. This is a perfect example of the way Dylan treats his own songs as living things. He uses the stage to reinterpret his own material. Even “Tangled Up In Blue” (only a year old) is getting a different reading here that is almost as well known as the studio version. You have great moments like the audience calling out “Just Like A Woman” and Dylan playing it or the impressively nice duet between Joan and Bob on “Mama You Been On My Mind”. There are fantastic reinterpretations like “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and the blistering version of “Tonight (I’ll Be Staying Here With You)”. This is a live album that brought me to appreciate songs that I really hadn’t thought much of before. That’s about all you could ask for.


 

9. Time Out of Mind

In 1997, Bob Dylan rejuvenated his career with the standout Time Out of Mind. By this point, Dylan had spent the better part of a decade not releasing original material. His previous album of originals, 1990’s Under the Red Sky, had been largely panned by critics and listeners alike. The two albums he released in the meantime were collections of traditionals that, while easy listens, hardly set the world on fire. After experiencing the nasty divorce that fueled his 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks and spending the resulting two decades battling alcoholism, writer’s block, and even an evangelical Christian conversion, it seemed by 1997 as if the legendary bard would fade into obscurity. Enter one Daniel Lanois.

Lanois, now a legendary producer, had spent most of the 1980s building his coffeehouse reputation by working with Brian Eno on several of his ambient albums. Lanois began making a larger name for himself as producer for Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s Unforgettable Fire. The story of Lanois and Dylan coming together is all thanks to former Band songwriter Robbie Robertson. In 1987, Lanois was producer on a Robertson solo album. Robertson set up a meeting between the two while Lanois was producing the Neville Brothers Yellow Moon. Just by chance, Aaron Neville had wanted to record two Dylan songs; “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “With God On Our Side”. After hearing them, Dylan looked up and said, “I think that’s a record.” This led to what some consider Dylan’s greatest work of the 80’s, Oh Mercy. Though that album certainly showed that Dylan still had the ability to write a song, even Lanois noted the difficulty of the recordings as Dylan’s lack of trust in the young producer and Lanois’ unwillingness to question a legend led to him having little impact on the overall recording. When the two came back together for Time Out of Mind, the times had indeed changed.

Conflict has long been a key to many of Dylan’s greatest works. Conflict with the press, his fans, his family, his managers and even his expectations for himself. It’s not the nature of good or evil that seems to interest Dylan as much as that place where they rub against each other. This particular album would be no different, as the genius of the album would come from conflict between the artist and his producer. Mark Howard, engineer for both Dylan/Lanois albums, revealed in a 2011 interview that most of the studio time on Time Out of Mind was spent with the two arguing for their opposing views of the soundscape the album would inhabit, with Dylan arguing for a more stripped down simple clean sound and Lanois wanting to fill the songs with interesting ambient tricks and plenty of rough corners. Only this time, Lanois was willing to fight harder for his vision and Dylan was willing to give a little more to the established producer. To see the difference between the two, look at the song “Mississippi.” Officially released on 2001’s Love And Theft, this track was originally recorded with Lanois for Time Out of Mind. The Lanois version was eventually released on 2008’s Bootleg Series installment Tell Tale Signs. Putting the two next to each other, you can hardly tell they are the same song. Dylan’s version is a clear cut ballad with an easy hook and Lanois’ being a murky dirge that makes the protagonist less than sympathetic. It’s Lanois’ rough and dirty production that gives the song an almost mystic quality. As in the cliché, the devil is in the details.

Time Out of Mind was by all accounts a huge success. The album was Dylan’s best selling in over a decade, it cemented Lanois’ place as a legend and brought Dylan’s mystic back into full force. The album won a Grammy for Album Of The Year and peaked at 10 on the Billboard Top 200. Along with Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Time Out of Mind became the archetype for the old song-smith tossing aside the bravado of their youth to accept the reality of old age and death (which is now second hat for artists like Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel). Along with Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash on the first American Recordings, this album also set the standard for the collaboration between a modern day artist producing the seemingly forgotten legend (think Jack White/Loretta Lynn, Jeff Tweedy/Mavis Staples, Ben Folds/William Shatner, Ethan Johns/Tom Jones, or Okkervil River/Roky Erickson). Given that, Dylan didn’t just revive his own career with Time Out of Mind, he provided a road map for others and created a small industry in the wake.


 

8. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Right off the bat, I think such a low placement of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan might cause some concern. After all, if there is an iconic image of Dylan, it is this album’s cover art. If there is a song everyone on the planet identifies with Dylan, it’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. I don’t tend to care much about things like that however. The simple fact is that this was the first collection of wholly original material from Dylan. While the songs are great, they also show a young man stretching to find his own voice. Both critics and the public took little notice of Dylan’s debut album, Bob Dylan, which sold only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even. In a pointed rebuke to John Hammond, who had signed Dylan to Columbia Records, some within the company referred to the singer as “Hammond’s Folly” and suggested dropping his contract. Hammond defended Dylan vigorously and was determined that Dylan’s second album should be a success. Of course, we all know now that no one should ever doubt the judgement on John Hammond.

The recording of Freewheelin’ took place over the course of a year, from April 1962 to April 1963, and the album was assembled from eight recording sessions in the Columbia Records Studio A, 799 Seventh Avenue, in New York City. Many critics have noted the extraordinary development of Dylan’s songwriting immediately after completing his first album. Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin connects the sudden increase in lyrics written along topical and political lines to the fact that Dylan had moved into an apartment on West 4th Street with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo in January 1962. Rotolo’s family had strong left-wing political commitments; both of her parents were members of the American Communist Party. Dylan acknowledged her influence when he told an interviewer: “Suze was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked out the songs with her.” I would argue that the only true development in Dylan’s songwriting here was the addition of politics to his quiver, as we have plenty of evidence that Dylan had been writing originals since at least 1959, but found it difficult to platform them in the standard heavy New York folk scene.

Dylan’s relationship with Rotolo also provided an important emotional dynamic in the composition of the Freewheelin’ album. After six months of living with Dylan, Rotolo agreed to her mother’s proposal that she travel to Italy to study art. Dylan missed her and wrote long letters to her conveying his hope that she would return soon to New York. She postponed her return several times, finally coming back in January 1963. This period would, of course, influence classic later songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Ballad in Plain D”. In her autobiography, Rotolo explains that musicians’ girlfriends were routinely described as “chicks”, and she resented being regarded as “a possession of Bob, who was the center of attention”. Throughout the early period of his career, many voiced concern that Dylan’s lyrics portrayed a certain kind of misogyny. That really begins here with Dylan detailing the breaking of his relationship with Rotolo on “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” and continuing more poisonously through his following two albums.

The tremendous speed and facility with which Dylan wrote topical songs attracted the attention of other musicians in the New York folk scene. In a radio interview on WBAI in June 1962, Pete Seeger described Dylan as “the most prolific songwriter on the scene” and then asked Dylan how many songs he had written recently. Dylan replied, “I might go for two weeks without writing these songs. I write a lot of stuff. In fact, I wrote five songs last night but I gave all the papers away in some place called the Bitter End.” Dylan also expressed the impersonal idea that the songs were not his own creation. In an interview with Sing Out! magazine, Dylan said, “The songs are there. They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.”

Another important development during this recording was the introduction of one Albert Grossman. Grossman became Dylan’s manager on August 20, 1962. Since Dylan was under twenty-one when he had signed his contract with CBS, Grossman argued that the contract was invalid and had to be re-negotiated. Instead, Hammond responded by inviting Dylan to his office and persuading him to sign a “reaffirment”—agreeing to abide by the original contract. This effectively neutralized Grossman’s strategy, and led to some animosity between Grossman and Hammond. Grossman enjoyed a reputation in the folk scene of being commercially aggressive, generating more income and defending his clients’ interests more fiercely than “the nicer, more amateurish managers in the Village”. Dylan critic Andy Gill has suggested that Grossman encouraged Dylan to become more reclusive and aloof, even paranoid. Grossman persuaded Dylan to transfer the publishing rights of his songs from Duchess Music, whom he had signed a contract with in January 1962, to Witmark Music, a division of Warner’s music publishing operation. Dylan signed a contract with Witmark on July 13, 1962. Unknown to Dylan, Grossman had also negotiated a deal with Witmark. This gave Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter Grossman had brought to the company. This “secret deal” resulted in a bitter legal battle between Dylan and Grossman in the 1980s. Grossman would also become famous for ‘double-dipping’ by selling rights to Dylan’s songs to other artists he managed, most importantly Peter, Paul, & Mary.

In September, the album entered Billboard’s album charts; the highest position Freewheelin’ reached was number 22, but it eventually came to sell one million copies in the US. Dylan himself came to acknowledge Freewheelin’ as the album that marked the start of his success. During his dispute with Albert Grossman, Dylan stated in a deposition: “Although I didn’t know it at the time, the second album was destined to become a great success because it was to include ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.” Curiously enough, part of what brought Freewheelin’ to the public was Grossman’s aforementioned double dipping. Dylan’s first hit was Peter, Paul & Mary’s cover of “Blowin in the Wind”. Besides “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “Girl from the North Country”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” have all been acclaimed as masterpieces, and they have been mainstays of Dylan’s performing repertory to the present day. The album’s balance between serious subject matter and levity, earnest finger-pointing songs and surreal jokes captured a wide audience, including The Beatles, who were on the cusp of global success. John Lennon recalled: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”

The success of Freewheelin’ transformed the public perception of Dylan. Before the album’s release, he was one amongst many New York folk-singers being signed to major record contracts. Think of it like the contract rush in Seattle after Nevermind became a hit. After Freewheelin’, at the age of 22, Dylan was regarded as a major artist, perhaps even a spokesman for disaffected youth. As one critic described the transformation, “In barely over a year, a young plagiarist had been reborn as a songwriter of substance, and his first album of fully realized original material got the 1960s off their musical starting block.” Janet Maslin wrote of the album: “These were the songs that established him as the voice of his generation—someone who implicitly understood how concerned young Americans felt about nuclear disarmament and the growing movement for civil rights: his mixture of moral authority and nonconformity was perhaps the most timely of his attributes.” Of course, he would spend a majority of the rest of his career shaking that ‘moral authority’ tag. This title of “Spokesman of a Generation” was viewed by Dylan with disgust in later years. He came to feel it was a label that the media had pinned on him, and in his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan wrote: “The press never let up. Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn’t beat the door down. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline “Spokesman Denies That He’s A Spokesman”. I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.”

The album secured for Dylan an “unstoppable cult following” of fans who preferred the harshness of his performances to the softer cover versions released by other singers. Richard Williams has suggested that the richness of the imagery in Freewheelin’ transformed Dylan into a key performer for a burgeoning college audience hungry for a new cultural complexity: “For students whose exam courses included Eliot and Yeats, here was something that flattered their expanding intellect while appealing to the teenage rebel in their early-sixties souls. James Dean had walked around reading James Joyce; here were both in a single package, the words and the attitude set to music.” Andy Gill adds that in the few months between the release of Freewheelin’ in May 1963, and Dylan’s next album The Times They Are A-Changin’ in January 1964, Dylan became the hottest property in American music, stretching the boundaries of what had been previously viewed as a collegiate folk music audience.

Critical opinion about Freewheelin’ has been consistently favorable in the years since its release. Dylan biographer Howard Sounes called it “Bob Dylan’s first great album”. In a survey of Dylan’s work published by Q magazine in 2000, the Freewheelin’ album was described as “easily the best of [Dylan’s] acoustic albums and a quantum leap from his debut—which shows the frantic pace at which Dylan’s mind was moving.” The magazine went on to comment, “You can see why this album got the Beatles listening. The songs at its core must have sounded like communiques from another plane.” For Patrick Humphries, “rarely has one album so effectively reflected the times which produced it. Freewheelin’ spoke directly to the concerns of its audience. and addressed them in a mature and reflective manner: it mirrored the state of the nation.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s verdict on the album in the Allmusic guide was: “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the record that firmly established Dylan as an unparalleled songwriter … This is rich, imaginative music, capturing the sound and spirit of America as much as that of Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, or Elvis Presley. Dylan, in many ways, recorded music that equaled this, but he never topped it.”

In March 2000, Van Morrison told the Irish rock magazine Hot Press about the impact that Freewheelin’ made on him: “I think I heard it in a record shop in Smith Street. And I just thought it was incredible that this guy’s not singing about ‘moon in June’ and he’s getting away with it. That’s what I thought at the time. The subject matter wasn’t pop songs, ya know, and I thought this kind of opens the whole thing up … Dylan put it into the mainstream that this could be done.” Freewheelin’ was one of 50 recordings chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002. The citation read: “This album is considered by some to be the most important collection of original songs issued in the 1960s. It includes “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the era’s popular and powerful protest anthem.” The following year, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 97 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (this ranking would later be changed to number 98 in the published book version of the list). Nonetheless, I still think there is better to come.


 

7. Street Legal

1978’s Street Legal is one of several Bob Dylan records that have actually slipped through the cracks of time. Many of those records are probably best left forgotten (Under A Blood Red Sky anyone?). With Street Legal however, I consider it a travesty that is probably best explained by the context of its day. I honestly don’t know how to describe the music environment in 1978. While the seeds for punk and metal were sown in 1974, they had fully bloomed in 1978, with some of the most important albums in each genre debuting. New wave also hit in a big way in ’78 with releases from Blondie, Nick Lowe, and Elvis Costello. Furthermore, aspects of what was then classic rock came through with releases latter day releases from The Who, The Kinks, and Neil Young. Singer/songwriters were all the craze as Warren Zevon made what might have been his most influential album. The last breaths of an old world bubbled up with good albums from Muddy Waters and Herbie Hancock. To make things even more interesting, extremely important musicians, who had been influenced by Dylan, came through with releases from Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. It seems that just as music was deconstructing the concept of genre, it actually became easier to segment fans into demographics. Street Legal did manage to chart at #11 in the U.S., but didn’t have any charting singles and was his first studio album to miss the US Top 10 since 1964. To make things worse, just about any album that wasn’t breaking new ground in the late seventies gets lost in a discussion about punk music. A few of our readers might recognize “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” as one of Jerry Garcia’s favorite songs to play during his solo live performances (a version of which is included on the soundtrack to the 2003 Dylan movie, Masked and Anonymous). Outside of that, there is little that would be recognizable to the passing American Dylan fan (Street Legal was actually Dylan’s second best selling record ever in the UK). That’s unfortunate, because this records stands completely apart from the rest of Dylan’s catalog and proves that this guy can come through in just about any situation…when he tries.

Before beginning a proper analysis of the record, I think it’s important to talk a little bit about that thematic arc for Dylan’s records in the 70’s that I mentioned earlier. I specifically see four albums that detail the story of Dylan’s love affair, marriage, and divorce from Sara Lownds. In my mind, Dylan’s relationship with Sara was the most important in terms of impacting his work. She was his first wife and the mother of his children. You can see the entire arc of their relationship beginning in 1970 with New Morning, continuing with Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks, and self-destructing on Street Legal. Before work began on Street-Legal, Dylan’s personal life was undergoing a severe change. Sometime in February 1977, Dylan spent several days at Gold Star Studios where Leonard Cohen was recording a new album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, with Phil Spector and Allen Ginsberg. After one particular session where Dylan and others indulged in a substantial amount of alcohol, Dylan returned to his Malibu home with an old friend of Cohen’s, a woman named Malka Marom. According to a declaration by Sara Dylan’s legal representative (publicly released in March 1977), “On February 22…[Sara] came down to breakfast and found Dylan, the children, and a woman named Malka at the breakfast table. She said that it was then that Dylan struck her on the face and ordered her to leave.” It is unclear how much of this statement is true, but any additional context or information was sealed by Judge Raffedie. (Judge Raffedie also sealed Dylan’s response to his ex-wife’s allegations; the order was given even before Dylan’s response was ever filed.) The divorce was quickly settled, becoming final in June 1977, with apparently little effort at reconciliation. Sara would receive initial custody of the children.

When Street Legal was released, it was dismissed by the American press. Crawdaddy! critic Jon Pareles remarked that “Dylan still needs a producer,” but others found fault with both the songs and the performances. Greil Marcus criticized the singing as “simply impossible to pay attention to for more than a couple of minutes at a time” and accused “Is Your Love in Vain?” of sexism, claiming Dylan was “speak[ing] to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD.” Robert Christgau would later call it a “horrendous product,” and in his original review, he gave it a C+, writing that “inveterate rock and rollers learn to find charm in boastful, secretly girl-shy adolescents, but boozy-voiced misogynists in their late thirties are a straight drag. This divorcé sounds overripe, too in love with his own self-generated misery to break through the leaden tempos that oppress his melodies, devoid not just of humor but of lightness—unless, that is, he intends his Neil Diamond masquerade as a joke. Because he’s too shrewd to put his heart into genuine corn, and because his idea of a tricky arrangement is to add horns or chicks to simplistic verse-and-chorus abcb structures, a joke is what it is. But since he still commands remnants of authority, the joke is sour indeed.” I think it interesting that these are some of the same group of assholes that were falling over themselves to welcome The Sex Pistols and Ramones, like production, maturity, and musical virtuosity were touchstones of those records. In the UK, reviews were positive, with Michael Watts of Melody Maker proclaiming it Dylan’s “best album since John Wesley Harding“. NME’s Angus MacKinnon hailed it as Dylan’s “second major album of the 70s.” In 2008, singer-songwriter Kurt Vile’s debut album, Constant Hitmaker featured artwork inspired by the album, with Vile noting, “Street Legal is like a cult classic. It’s pretty cheesy at times but you learn to embrace it. The words just keep coming and coming and you’re like “How the fuck did Dylan think up all these insane lyrics, and why are the back-up singers repeating every single line?” Then, before you know it, you’re hooked ’cause there’s always another whacked line you missed. Awesome album cover, better than Hassle. That’s actually where I got the concept for the Constant Hitmaker photo.”

Perhaps the most controversial of my picks here, Street Legal tends to be a topic of much argument amongst Dylan fanatics. Crafted in the wake of his broken marriage, after any hope of reconciliation that was present on Blood on the Tracks, Street Legal finds a virulent Dylan striking out into new sounds while exhibiting exactly how sharp his lyrics could still be. On this album there is no hope or longing…there is only judgment and broken relationships. Dylan’s stories here are heartbreaking. Almost as if to hide his pain, the lyrics are shrouded behind a full wall of sound. His band and the arrangements seem to be the focus of the record, for the first time in his career. Transitioning from the period he created with John Wesley Harding, all of the songs found here are epic in scale. Every story is detailed and every bit of music gigantic. This album seems almost methodical in its drunken recklessness, much like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. “Changing of the Guards” sets the pace from the very beginning and continues up to the closing “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. Each story is different, but the overall album has a cohesive sound and gives us Dylan at his absolutely most chaotic. Detractors of Street Legal complain that the lyrics become lost in these overpowering arrangements. I find that to be a strength here, as one can finally stop studying Dylan’s lyrics and joyfully become lost in them. These same people applaud the ‘surreal impressionism’ of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. I wonder if they understand how impressionism is supposed to work.


 

6. The Basement Tapes

Here we go. The most popular album never recorded. The Basement Tapes was a ‘failed’ experiment that came together through a very specific aligning of stars. By July 1966, Bob Dylan was at the peak of both creative and commercial success. Highway 61 Revisited had reached number three on the US album chart in November 1965 and the recently released double-LP Blonde on Blonde was widely acclaimed. This was just following a period best described by The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot when he said, “It’s hard to imagine any other performer in rock history having a better fifteen months than Bob Dylan had.” From September 1965 to May 1966, Dylan embarked on an extensive tour across the US, Australia and Europe backed by the Hawks, a band that had formerly worked with rock and roll musician Ronnie Hawkins. The Hawks comprised four Canadian musicians—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson—and one American, Levon Helm. Dylan’s audiences reacted with hostility to the sound of their folk icon backed by a rock band. Dismayed by the negative reception, Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965 and drifted around the South, at one point working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The tour culminated in a famously raucous concert in Manchester, England, in May 1966 when an audience member shouted “Judas!” at Dylan for allegedly betraying the cause of politically progressive folk music. More on that concert later. Returning exhausted from the hectic schedule of his world tour, Dylan discovered that his manager, Albert Grossman, had arranged a further 63 concerts across the US that year.

On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York, suffering cracked vertebrae and a mild concussion.[6][7] The concerts he was scheduled to perform had to be canceled. Biographer Clinton Heylin wrote in 1990 on the significance of the crash: “A quarter of a century on, Dylan’s motorcycle accident is still viewed as the pivot of his career. As a sudden, abrupt moment when his wheel really did explode. The great irony is that 1967—the year after the accident—remains his most prolific year as a songwriter.” In a 1969 interview with Jann Wenner, Dylan said, “I had a dreadful motorcycle accident which put me away for a while, and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realized that it was a real accident. I mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before … but I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Dylan was rethinking the direction of his life while recovering from a sense of having been exploited. Nine months after the crash, he told New York Daily News reporter Michael Iachetta, “Songs are in my head like they always are. And they’re not going to get written down until some things are evened up. Not until some people come forth and make up for some of the things that have happened.” After discussing the crash with Dylan, biographer Robert Shelton concluded that he “was saying there must be another way of life for the pop star, in which he is in control, not they. He had to find ways of working to his own advantage with the recording industry. He had to come to terms with his one-time friend, longtime manager, part-time neighbor, and sometime landlord, Albert Grossman.”

Rick Danko recalled that he, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson joined Robbie Robertson in West Saugerties, a few miles from Woodstock, in February 1967. The three of them moved into a house on Stoll Road nicknamed Big Pink; Robertson lived nearby with his future wife, Dominique. Danko and Manuel had been invited to Woodstock to collaborate with Dylan on a film he was editing, Eat the Document, a rarely seen account of the 1966 world tour. At some point between March and June 1967, Dylan and the four Hawks began a series of informal recording sessions, initially at the so-called Red Room of Dylan’s house, Hi Lo Ha, in the Byrdcliffe area of Woodstock. In June, the recording sessions moved to the basement of Big Pink. Hudson set up a recording unit, using two stereo mixers and a tape recorder borrowed from Grossman, as well as a set of microphones on loan from folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan would later tell Jann Wenner, “That’s really the way to do a recording—in a peaceful, relaxed setting—in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.”

For the first couple of months, they were merely “killing time”, according to Robertson, with many early sessions devoted to covers. “With the covers Bob was educating us a little”, recalls Robertson. “The whole folkie thing was still very questionable to us—it wasn’t the train we came in on. … He’d come up with something like ‘Royal Canal’, and you’d say, ‘This is so beautiful! The expression!’ … He remembered too much, remembered too many songs too well. He’d come over to Big Pink, or wherever we were, and pull out some old song—and he’d prepped for this. He’d practiced this, and then come out here, to show us.” Songs recorded at the early sessions included material written or made popular by Johnny Cash, Ian & Sylvia, John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams and Eric Von Schmidt, as well as traditional songs and standards. Linking all the recordings, both new material and old, is the way in which Dylan re-engaged with traditional American music. Biographer Barney Hoskyns observed that both the seclusion of Woodstock and the discipline and sense of tradition in the Hawks’ musicianship were just what Dylan needed after the “globe-trotting psychosis” of the 1965–66 tour.

Dylan began to write and record new material at the sessions. According to Hudson, “We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs … but others Bob would make up as he went along. … We’d play the melody, he’d sing a few words he’d written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along. It’s a pretty good way to write songs.” Danko told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes, “Bob and Robbie, they would come by every day, five to seven days a week, for seven to eight months.” Hudson added, “It amazed me, Bob’s writing ability. How he would come in, sit down at the typewriter, and write a song. And what was amazing was that almost every one of those songs was funny.” Dylan recorded around thirty new compositions with the Hawks, including some of the most celebrated songs of his career: “I Shall Be Released”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”, “Tears of Rage” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Two of these featured his lyrics set to music by members of the Band: Danko wrote the music of “This Wheel’s on Fire”; Manuel, who composed “Tears of Rage”, described how Dylan “came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: “Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse”?'”

The intense collaboration between Dylan and the Hawks that produced the basement recordings came to an end in October 1967 when Dylan relocated to Nashville to record a formal studio album, John Wesley Harding, with a different crew of accompanying musicians. The same month, drummer Levon Helm rejoined his former bandmates in Woodstock, after he received a phone call from Danko informing him that they were getting ready to record as a group. In his autobiography, Helm recalled how he listened to the recordings the Hawks had made with Dylan, and remembered that he “could tell that hanging out with the boys had helped Bob to find a connection with things we were interested in: blues, rockabilly, R&B. They had rubbed off on him a little.”

In truth, Bob had never intended these sessions to spawn an album. Rather, the original demos were meant to be sold to other musicians. Dylan referred to commercial pressures behind the basement recordings in a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone: “They weren’t demos for myself, they were demos of the songs. I was being PUSHED again into coming up with some songs. You know how those things go.” In October 1967, a fourteen-song demo tape was copyrighted and the compositions were registered with Dwarf Music, a publishing company jointly owned by Dylan and Grossman. Acetates and tapes of the songs then circulated among interested recording artists. Peter, Paul and Mary, managed by Grossman, had the first hit with a basement composition when their cover of “Too Much of Nothing” reached number 35 on the Billboard chart in late 1967. Ian & Sylvia, also managed by Grossman, recorded “Tears of Rage”, “Quinn the Eskimo” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”. In January 1968, Manfred Mann reached number one on the UK pop chart with their recording of “The Mighty Quinn”. In April, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, recorded by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity, hit number five on the UK chart. That same month, a version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” by The Byrds was issued as a single. Along with “Nothing Was Delivered”, it appeared on their country-rock album, the brilliant Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Hawks, officially renamed The Band, recorded “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “I Shall Be Released” and “Tears of Rage” for their debut album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968. Fairport Convention covered “Million Dollar Bash” on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. Almost all of these records are today considered defining works for the artists that made them.

As tapes of Dylan’s recordings circulated in the music industry, journalists became aware of their existence. In June 1968, Jann Wenner wrote a front-page Rolling Stone story headlined “Dylan’s Basement Tape Should Be Released”. Wenner listened to the fourteen-song demo and reported, “There is enough material—most all of it very good—to make an entirely new Bob Dylan album, a record with a distinct style of its own.” He concluded, “Even though Dylan used one of the finest rock and roll bands ever assembled on the Highway 61 album, here he works with his own band for the first time. Dylan brings that instinctual feel for rock and roll to his voice for the first time. If this were ever to be released it would be a classic.” Reporting such as this whetted the appetites of Dylan fans. In July 1969, the first rock bootleg appeared in California, entitled Great White Wonder. The double album consisted of seven songs from the Woodstock basement sessions, plus some early recordings Dylan had made in Minneapolis in December 1961 and one track recorded from The Johnny Cash Show. One of those responsible for the bootleg, identified only as Patrick, talked to Rolling Stone: “Dylan is a heavy talent and he’s got all those songs nobody’s ever heard. We thought we’d take it upon ourselves to make this music available.” The process of bootlegging Dylan’s work would eventually see the illegal release of hundreds of live and studio recordings, and lead the Recording Industry Association of America to describe Dylan as the most bootlegged artist in the history of the music industry.

In January 1975, Dylan unexpectedly gave permission for the release of a selection of the basement recordings, perhaps because he and Grossman had resolved their legal dispute over the Dwarf Music copyrights on his songs. Clinton Heylin argues that Dylan was able to consent following the critical and commercial success of his album Blood on the Tracks, released that same month: “After Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes no longer had the status of a final reminder of Dylan’s lost genius”. There is quite a bit of argument about the song selection for the official Columbia release (as there is with most Dylan albums), particularly surrounding the inclusion of several new compositions by The Band instead of original Dylan compositions. In his book about the basement sessions, Greil Marcus describes the album’s contents as “sixteen basement recordings plus eight Band demos”. Critic Michael Gray writes of the album, “The interspersed tracks by the Band alone merely disrupt the unity of Dylan material, much more of which should have been included. Key songs missing here include ‘I Shall Be Released’ and ‘The Mighty Quinn'”. Heylin similarly argues that compiler Robbie Robertson did Dylan fans “a major disservice” by omitting those two songs as well as “I’m Not There” and “Sign On The Cross”. He writes, “The album as released hardly gave a real idea of what they had been doing in Woodstock. Not even the two traditional songs pulled to the master reels—’Young But Daily Growin” and ‘The Banks Of The Royal Canal’—made the final twenty-four cuts.” By 1975, Dylan showed scant interest in the discographical minutiae of the recordings. Interviewed on the radio by Mary Travers, he recalled, “We were all up there sorta drying out … making music and watching time go by. So, in the meantime, we made this record. Actually, it wasn’t a record, it was just songs which we’d come to this basement and recorded. Out in the woods…” Heylin has commented that Dylan seemed to “dismiss the work as unfinished therapy”.

Of course, The Basement Tapes would end up being one of the most beloved members of either Dylan or The Band’s catalog. “Listening to The Basement Tapes now, it seems to be the beginning of what is called Americana or alt.country,” wrote Billy Bragg. “The thing about alt.country which makes it ‘alt’ is that it is not polished. It is not rehearsed or slick. Neither are The Basement Tapes. Remember that The Basement Tapes holds a certain cultural weight which is timeless—and the best Americana does that as well.” The songs’ influence has been detected by critics in many subsequent acts. Stuart Bailie wrote, “If rock’n’roll is the sound of a party in session, The Basement Tapes were the morning after: bleary, and a bit rueful but dashed with emotional potency. Countless acts—Mercury Rev, Cowboy Junkies, Wilco, The Waterboys—have since tried to get back to that place.” For Elvis Costello, The Basement Tapes “sound like they were made in a cardboard box. I think [Dylan] was trying to write songs that sounded like he’d just found them under a stone. As if they sound like real folk songs—because if you go back into the folk tradition, you will find songs as dark and as deep as these.” Viewed through that lens, one could also argue that this was the first true ‘lo-fi’ record, just created before the age of high fidelity. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked The Basement Tapes number 291 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In a special issue devoted to Dylan’s work, Q magazine awarded the record five stars, its highest rating, commenting that “Dylan’s work is by turns haunting, hilarious and puzzling—and all of it taps into centuries of American song”.


 

5. New Morning

Okay, confession time. While I already appreciated Dylan’s songwriting, it was a first listen to 1970’s New Morning that made me fall in love with the man himself. That is why it pains me so that New Morning is another example of a Dylan record overshadowed by Blood on the Tracks and lost in time. Though the album sold incredibly well, reaching #7 in the United States and giving Dylan his sixth #1 in the UK, the album has come to be viewed as one of the artist’s lesser successes, especially following the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975, often seen as a fuller return-to-form. Personally, I hate the term ‘return-to-form’ and have found that New Morning has enjoyed much more staying power in my own rotation than almost anything else Dylan has made.

New Morning was released four months after Self Portrait and there was some speculation that it was recorded hastily and rushed out as an immediate response to the scathing criticism that surrounded Self Portrait. In fact, much of New Morning was already complete when Self Portrait was officially released. “I didn’t say, ‘Oh my God, they don’t like this, let me do another one,'” Dylan said in 1975. “It wasn’t like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then the other one did as soon as it did. The Self Portrait LP laid around for I think a year. We were working on New Morning when the Self Portrait album got put together.”

During the March sessions that yielded most of Self Portrait, Dylan recorded three songs that he later used for New Morning: “Went to See the Gypsy” (featuring an electric piano), “Time Passes Slowly”, and “If Not For You.” A number of performances were recorded, but none to his satisfaction. Sometime in the spring of 1970, Dylan became involved with a new play by poet Archibald MacLeish. A musical version of The Devil and Daniel Webster was titled Scratch. “New Morning”, “Time Passes Slowly” and “Father of Night” were all written for the production. Though Dylan enjoyed talking with MacLeish, he was never confident about writing songs for the play. “Archie’s play was so heavy, so full of midnight murder, there was no way I could make its purpose mine,” he would later write. Eventually, a conflict with the producer over “Father of Night” prompted Dylan to leave the production, withdrawing his songs in the process. Al Kooper, who is credited as co-producer of New Morning, would later say that these three songs were “pretty much the fulcrum for [New Morning]… That got him writing a little more.”

Bob Johnston was still credited with production, but by July he was absent and would not return. Instead, Dylan and Kooper created the preliminary sequence for New Morning. The process was wrought with frustration, possibly the result of the negative criticism over Self Portrait. The first sequence of New Morning included a few covers as well as a new version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” an original composition dating back to 1962. “When I finished that album I never wanted to speak to him again,” Kooper said. “I was cheesed off at how difficult [the whole thing was]…He just changed his mind every three seconds so I just ended up doing the work of three albums…We’d get a side order and we’d go in and master it and he’d say, ‘No, no, no. I want to do this.’ And then, ‘No, let’s go in and cut this.’… There was another version of ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ that was really good… It was the first time I went in and had an arrangement idea for it and I said, ‘Let me go in and cut this track and then you can sing over it.’ So I cut this track and it was really good… and he came in and pretended like he didn’t understand where to sing on it.”

Critics were quick to praise New Morning upon its release. Ralph Gleason’s Rolling Stone review reflected most sentiments, proclaiming “WE’VE GOT DYLAN BACK AGAIN.” It was only four months since Self Portrait, and many reviewers did not resist comparing the two. “In case you were wondering how definitive that self-portrait was, here comes its mirror image four months later,” wrote Robert Christgau, before giving it an A-. “Call it love on the rebound. This time he’s writing the pop (and folk) genre experiments himself, and thus saying more about true romance than is the pop (or folk) norm.” Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave the record 4 1/2 out of 5 stars and wrote in his review, “…many of the songs explore idiosyncratic routes Dylan had previously left untouched, whether it’s the jazzy experiments of “Sign on the Window” and “Winterlude,” the rambling spoken word piece “If Dogs Run Free” or the Elvis parable “Went to See the Gypsy.” Such offbeat songs make New Morning a charming, endearing record.”

Regardless of difficult the completion of the record was, New Morning is absolutely one of the warmest records Bob ever released. New Morning finds Bob Dylan in a very strange and easy place. This is the best that Dylan’s voice will ever sound, as he calmly moves through jazz, blues, country, and rock influences like they were absolutely natural. “If Not For You” marks an absolutely marked difference from prior Dylan releases rebuffing his reputation as a completely aloof genius; for the first time being completely accessible. This is a love song, it doesn’t mind being anything else. That is the exact attitude that best describes the entire record. “Day of the Locusts” is simply breezy, as one can imagine Dylan writing while sitting in a rocking chair on a summer day (even though it was written as a scathing take on his recent honorary award from Princeton University). “Went to See the Gypsy” finds Dylan playing with what a full band can sound like along with his esoteric lyrics. “Winterlude” recalls the sweet radio ballads of Dylan’s youth with an authentic care for the song. “New Morning” is a track just as epic in scope as “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Tangled Up in Blue”, but with an easy and comfortable feeling, that maybe Dylan will be alright and that life is worth living. “The Man in Me” is purely happy in Dylan’s love for his wife. Up until this point, it had been argued that Dylan was a misogynist, but after “The Man In Me”, that is an impossible point to hold. This first part of his story with Sara is Dylan at his most loving, or more accurately, his most comfortable with the concept of love. The album closes with “Father of Night”. This track gives you the feeling that this could be the last album that Bob Dylan would ever make, but that there were no regrets for the artist or listener.


 

4. The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

In my mind, there are three live albums that define everything a performance record should be; The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (film version), The Band’s Rock of Ages, and Dylan’s fourth volume in the Bootleg Series, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. I have a flashbulb memory of the first time I heard this album. I found it used when I was in high school. I put the first disc in my boombox CD player and laid on my bed. Two minutes into the first track, “She Belongs To Me”, I knew I was hearing something truly special. The recording presented here is perfect. The performances show Dylan at his most intimate and then his most blistering, just at the dawn of his electric revolution. While writing this column, this was the only record I listened to from beginning to finish again and it was just as powerful today as it was when I was seventeen.

On July 25, 1965, Dylan performed with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. Some sections of the audience booed Dylan’s performance. Leading members of the folk movement, including Irwin Silber and Ewan MacColl criticised Dylan for moving away from political songwriting, and performing with an electric band. Poor sound quality was the reason Pete Seeger (backstage) gave for disliking the performance: he says he told the audio technicians, “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” The polarized responses of Dylan’s fans were exacerbated by the structure of his concerts in late 1965 and 1966; the first half would be ‘folk,’ Dylan solo accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica; with the second half ‘rock,’ Dylan and the Hawks with electric guitars and a full rock and roll combo. The rock segment was often greeted with hostility. After touring North America from the fall of 1965 through the winter of 1966, Dylan, accompanied by The Hawks, embarked on a six-week spring tour that began in Australia, wound through western Europe and the United Kingdom, and wrapped up in London. Dylan’s move to electric music, and his apparent disconnection from traditional folk music, continued to be controversial, and his UK audiences were particularly disruptive with some fans believing Dylan had “sold out”.

The electric part of this concert first surfaced in late 1970 or early 1971 on bootleg LPs with various titles. On June 3, 1971, critic Dave Marsh reviewed one bootleg in Creem magazine, writing “It is the most supremely elegant piece of rock ‘n’ roll music I’ve ever heard…The extreme subtlety of the music is so closely interwoven with its majesty that they appear as one and the same.” The same month, critic Jon Landau reviewed another edition of the concert saying:

Needless to say, the album is both musically great and an amazing path back into the temperament of the sixties. Listening to it, it isn’t hard to remember Dylan on stage of the Donnelly Memorial Theatre in Boston or at Forest Hills in New York standing toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with Robbie Robertson between every verse of practically every song, while the guitarist played his fills. Nor is it hard to remember that long, lean, frail look that sometimes made you wonder what gave him the strength to stand up there in the first place, as he remembered the unbelievably complex lyrics to his unbelievably long songs, without ever faltering…It isn’t hard for me to remember the booing, the names, the insults he endured just to be standing there with an electric band…On this album the audience claps at the wrong time, claps rhythmically as if to deliberately throw his timing off. At the beginning of ‘One Too Many Mornings’ he tells a completely psychotic story in a very low voice while the audience makes its noise. As they gradually lose their energy, he finds his and his voice gets louder, until, when they are almost completely silent he says plainly, ‘if you only wouldn’t clap so hard.’ The audience applauds the statement.

The early bootleg LPs attributed the recording to one of Dylan’s tour-closing concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall that was also recorded, as was a show in Liverpool (May 14), supervised by Dylan producer Bob Johnston. However, Dylan’s now-legendary confrontation with a heckler calling out “Judas” from the audience, clearly heard on the recording, was well documented as having occurred at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. After “Judas!”, there is clapping, followed by more heckles. One of those shouts, barely audible on the record, is a man shouting, “I’m never listening to you again, ever!” Dylan then says “I don’t believe you”, then after a long pause, “You’re a liar.” Dylan turned towards the band can be heard telling them to “play it fucking loud” as they begin “Like a Rolling Stone.” At the end, the audience erupts into applause and Dylan says, “Thank you.” It is a supremely satisfying moment in the history of popular music.

After years of conflicting reports and speculation among Dylan discographers, the Manchester source was verified after the preliminary mix of a proposed Columbia edition was bootlegged in 1995 as Guitars Kissing & The Contemporary Fix. Dylan rejected that edition; three years later, he authorized a markedly different version for his second “Bootleg Series” release. One song recorded at Dylan’s real Royal Albert Hall concert had been previously released: his May 26, 1966 performance of “Visions of Johanna” on the Box set Biograph. Excerpts from other 1966 UK performances are also included in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 television documentary No Direction Home. Film footage of the “Judas” incident was discovered and used at the end of the documentary.

When Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert finally was released in 1998, it was a commercial and critical success, reaching #19 in the U.K. In giving the album a perfect five star rating, AllMusic’s Richie Unterberger wrote, “It’s not just an interesting adjunct to Dylan’s ’60s discography; it’s as worthy of attention as anything else he recorded during that decade.” I completely agree with that sentiment. The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is as original a document as any live performance can be and captures the magic of Dylan live. I’ve often heard criticisms of Dylan’s live shows as ‘predictable’. I don’t think those people have heard this record. Dylan transforms acoustic songs into electric (“One Too Many Mornings”). He’s playing material that had never been released (“Tell Me Momma”). To top it all off, everything sounds perfect. This is what a live performer should strive to be.


 

3. Blonde on Blonde

Alright, this is where things get tough. Basically, I could change my opinion about the next three rankings on any given day. For sure, I believe most of the people with musical opinions I respect would raise a scathing eyebrow to Blonde on Blonde not being the unequivocal number one selection. They can write their own lists. I would certainly agree however that this record is an absolute masterpiece of performance and songwriting, captured during a period in which Dylan really couldn’t fail.

After the release of the Highway 61 Revisited in August 1965, Dylan set about hiring a touring band. Guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboard player Al Kooper had backed Dylan, both on his new album and at Dylan’s controversial electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bloomfield chose not to tour with Dylan, preferring to remain with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After backing him at concerts in late August and early September, Kooper informed Dylan he did not wish to continue touring with him. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was in the process of setting up a grueling concert schedule that would keep Dylan on the road for the next nine months, touring the USA, Australia, and Europe. This is when Dylan first contacted a group who were performing as Levon and the Hawks (The Band). Two people had strongly recommended the Hawks to Dylan: Mary Martin, the executive secretary of Albert Grossman, and blues singer John Hammond, Jr., son of record producer John Hammond, who had signed Dylan to Columbia Records in 1961. The Hawks had backed the younger Hammond on his 1965 album So Many Roads.

Dylan rehearsed with the Hawks in Toronto on September 15, where they were playing a hometown residency at Friar’s Club, and on September 24, they made their debut in Austin, Texas. Just two weeks later, encouraged by the success of their Texas performance, Dylan took the Hawks into Studio A of Columbia Records in New York City. Their immediate task was to record a hit single as the follow-up to “Positively 4th Street”. But Dylan was already trying to formulate the shape of his next album, the third he had begun that year backed by rock musicians. After moving to New York to begin recording sessions, Dylan became disillusioned about using the Hawks in the studio. He recorded more material at Studio A on January 25, backed by drummer Bobby Gregg, bassist Rick Danko (or Bill Lee), guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Paul Griffin, and Al Kooper on organ. Two more new compositions were attempted: “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”. Dylan was satisfied with “One of Us Must Know”; the January 25 take was released as a single a few weeks later and was subsequently selected for the album. Six weeks later, Dylan confided to critic Robert Shelton, “Oh, I was really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song…It was the band. But you see, I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to think that.”

Recognizing Dylan’s dissatisfaction with the progress of the recordings, producer Bob Johnston suggested that they move the sessions to Nashville. Johnston lived there and had extensive experience working with Nashville session musicians. He recalled how Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, was hostile to the idea: “Grossman came up to me and said ‘If you ever mention Nashville to Dylan again, you’re gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You heard me. We got a thing going here’.” Despite Grossman’s opposition, Dylan agreed to Johnston’s suggestion, and preparations were made to record the album at Columbia’s A Studio on Nashville’s Music Row in February 1966. Generally considered an amiable southern gentleman, Bob Johnston is often given credit for really shaping Dylan’s intentions into what became Blonde on Blonde, particularly by Al Kooper.

In addition to Kooper and Robertson, who accompanied Dylan from New York, Johnston recruited harmonica player, guitarist and bassist Charlie McCoy, guitarist Wayne Moss, guitarist and bassist Joe South, and drummer Kenny Buttrey. At Dylan’s request, Johnston removed the baffles—partitions separating the musicians—so that there was “an ambiance fit for an ensemble”. Buttrey credited the distinctive sound of the album to Johnston’s re-arrangement of the studio, “as if we were on a tight stage, as opposed to playing in a big hall where you’re ninety miles apart.” In addition, Dylan had a piano installed in his Nashville hotel room, which Kooper would play for Dylan to help in the songwriting process. Kooper would then teach the tunes to the musicians before Dylan arrived for the sessions.

Al Kooper recalled that both the album title, Blonde on Blonde, and song titles arrived during the mixing sessions. “When they were mixing it, we were sitting around and Bob Johnston came in and said, ‘What do you want to call this?’ And [Bob] just like said them out one at a time… Free association and silliness, I’m sure, played a big role.” Another Dylan chronicler, Oliver Trager (they’re starting to pile up here), notes that besides spelling out the initials of Dylan’s first name, the album title is also a riff on Brecht on Brecht, a stage production based on works by German playwright Bertolt Brecht that had influenced his early songwriting. Dylan himself has said of the title: “Well, I don’t even recall exactly how it came up, but I know it was all in good faith… I don’t know who thought of that. I certainly didn’t.” Blonde on Blonde reached the Top 10 in both the US and UK album charts, and also spawned a number of hits that restored Dylan to the upper echelons of the singles charts. In August 1967, the album was certified as a gold disc.

AFter its release, Blonde on Blonde became very simply one of the most beloved albums in critical history. On its release, Blonde on Blonde was not short of critics who argued the album was a major work. To accompany the songbook of Blonde on Blonde, Paul Nelson wrote an introduction stating, “The very title suggests the singularity and the duality we expect from Dylan. For Dylan’s music of illusion and delusion—with the tramp as explorer and the clown as happy victim, where the greatest crimes are lifelessness and the inability to see oneself as a circus performer in the show of life—has always carried within it its own inherent tensions…Dylan in the end truly UNDERSTANDS situations, and once one truly understands anything, there can no longer be anger, no longer be moralizing, but only humor and compassion, only pity.” For Pete Johnson in the Los Angeles Times, “Dylan is a superbly eloquent writer of pop and folk songs with an unmatched ability to press complex ideas and iconoclastic philosophy into brief poetic lines and startling images.” The editor of Crawdaddy!, Paul Williams, reviewed Blonde on Blonde in July 1966: “It is a cache of emotion, a well handled package of excellent music and better poetry, blended and meshed and ready to become part of your reality. Here is a man who will speak to you, a 1960s bard with electric lyre and color slides, but a truthful man with x-ray eyes you can look through if you want. All you have to do is listen.”

The achievement of Blonde on Blonde seems to have lingered in Dylan’s memory. Twelve years after its release, Dylan said: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” For critics, the double album was seen as the last installment in Dylan’s trilogy of mid-1960s rock albums. As Janet Maslin wrote, “The three albums of this period—Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited both released in 1965, and Blonde on Blonde from 1966—used their electric instrumentation and rock arrangements to achieve a crashing exuberance Dylan hadn’t approached before.” Mike Marqusee has described Dylan’s output between late 1964 and the summer of 1966, when he recorded these three albums, as “a body of work that remains unique in popular music.” For Patrick Humphries, “Dylan’s body of work during the 14-months period…stands unequaled in rock’s 30-year history. In substance, style, ambition and achievement, no one has even come close to matching Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.”

In 1974, the writers of NME voted Blonde on Blonde the No. 2 album of all time. In 1997 the album was placed at No. 16 in a “Music of the Millennium” poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 2006, TIME magazine included the record on their 100 All-TIME Albums list. In 2003, the album was ranked No. 9 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2004, two songs from the album also appeared on the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time: “Just Like a Woman” ranked No. 230 and “Visions of Johanna” No. 404.

Biographer Robert Shelton saw the album as “a hallmark collection that completes his first major rock cycle, which began with Bringing It All Back Home“. Summing up the album’s achievement, Shelton wrote that Blonde on Blonde “begins with a joke and ends with a hymn; in between wit alternates with a dominant theme of entrapment by circumstances, love, society, and unrealized hope… There’s a remarkable marriage of funky, bluesy rock expressionism, and Rimbaud-like visions of discontinuity, chaos, emptiness, loss, being ‘stuck’.” For Mike Marqusee, Dylan had succeeded in combining traditional blues material with modernist literary techniques: “[Dylan] took inherited idioms and boosted them into a modernist stratosphere. ‘Pledging My Time’ and ‘Obviously 5 Believers’ adhered to blues patterns that were venerable when Dylan first encountered them in the mid-fifties (both begin with the ritual Delta invocation of “early in the mornin”). Yet like ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Memphis Blues Again’, these songs are beyond category. They are allusive, repetitive, jaggedly abstract compositions that defy reduction.” That sense of crossing cultural boundaries was, for Al Kooper, at the heart of Blonde on Blonde: “[Bob Dylan] was the quintessential New York hipster—what was he doing in Nashville? It didn’t make any sense whatsoever. But you take those two elements, pour them into a test tube, and it just exploded.”


 

2. Bringing It All Back Home

I believe that it was Dylan’s fifth record, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, that actually defines Dylan’s signature upon songwriting history. In 1964, Dylan releases Another Side of Bob Dylan. On that record is the classic song “My Back Pages”, that seems to be the opening shot in Dylan’s war on being ‘the voice of his generation’. Then comes Bringing It All Back Home and with it, a completely different artist is born. Dylan has remade himself more often than any artist I can think of, but this was his boldest and most successful move.

Dylan spent much of the summer of 1964 in Woodstock. Albert Grossman had a home in Woodstock, and when Joan Baez went to see Dylan that August, they stayed at Grossman’s house. Baez recalls that “most of the month or so we were there, Bob stood at the typewriter in the corner of his room, drinking red wine and smoking and tapping away relentlessly for hours. And in the dead of night, he would wake up, grunt, grab a cigarette, and stumble over to the typewriter again.” Dylan already had one song ready for his next album: “Mr. Tambourine Man” was written in February 1964 but omitted from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another song, “Gates of Eden,” was also written earlier that year, appearing in the original manuscripts to Another Side of Bob Dylan. At least two songs were written that month: “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” During this time, Dylan’s writing became increasingly surreal. Even his prose grew more stylistic, often resembling stream-of-consciousness writing with published letters dating from 1964 becoming increasingly intense and dreamlike as the year wore on.

Dylan eventually returned to the city, and on August 28, he met with The Beatles for the very first time in their New York hotel (during which Dylan reportedly turned the band on to marijuana), a meeting which would bring about the radical transformation of the Beatles’ writing to a more introspective style. Dylan would remain on good terms with The Beatles, and as biographer Clinton Heylin writes, “the evening established a personal dimension to the very real rivalry that would endure for the remainder of a momentous decade.” The rivalry would turn a bit personal between Lennon and Dylan a few years later after Dylan ‘borrowed’ a melody for the song “Fourth Time Around”. In exactly the opposite direction, Dylan’s friendship with George Harrison would become ever closer as the years wore on, with the two sharing an art space in the early seventies and Harrison even pulling Bob out of near seclusion for his Concert for Bangladesh.
 

 
Dylan and producer Tom Wilson were soon experimenting with their own fusion of rock and folk music. The first unsuccessful test involved overdubbing a “Fats Domino early rock & roll thing” over Dylan’s earlier, acoustic recording of “House of the Rising Sun,” according to Wilson. It was quickly discarded, though Wilson would more famously use the same technique of overdubbing an electric backing track to an existing acoustic recording with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. In the meantime, Dylan turned his attention to another folk-rock experiment conducted by John P. Hammond (again with the Hammond connection). Hammond was planning an electric album around the blues songs that framed his acoustic live performances of the time. Dylan was very aware of the resulting album, So Many Roads (recorded with the group that eventually became The Band); according to his friend, Danny Kalb, “Bob was really excited about what John Hammond was doing with electric blues. I talked to him in the Figaro in 1964 and he was telling me about John and his going to Chicago and playing with a band and so on…”

However, when Dylan and Wilson began work on the next album, they temporarily refrained from their own electric experimentation. The first session was recorded solo, with Dylan playing piano or acoustic guitar. Ten complete songs and several song sketches were produced, nearly all of which were discarded. None of these recordings would be used for the album, but three would eventually be released: “I’ll Keep It With Mine” on 1985’s Biograph, and “Farewell Angelina” and an acoustic version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. Other songs and sketches recorded at this session: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence,” “On The Road Again,” “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” “You Don’t Have To Do That,” and “Outlaw Blues.”

Dylan and Wilson held another session the following day, this time with a full, electric band. Guitarists Al Gorgoni, Kenny Rankin, and Bruce Langhorne were recruited, as were pianist Paul Griffin, bassists Joseph Macho, Jr. and William E. Lee, and drummer Bobby Gregg. The day’s work focused on eight songs, all of which had been attempted the previous day. According to Langhorne, there was no rehearsal, “we just did first takes and I remember that, for what it was, it was amazingly intuitive and successful.” Few takes were required of each song, and after three-and-a-half hours of recording (lasting from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm), master takes of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Outlaw Blues,” “She Belongs To Me,” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” were all recorded and selected for the final album. Another session was held at Studio A the next day, and it would be the last one needed. Once again, Dylan kept at his disposal the musicians from the previous day; the one exception was pianist Paul Griffin, who was unable to attend and replaced by Frank Owens. Daniel Kramer recalls “the musicians were enthusiastic. They conferred with one another to work out the problems as they arose. Dylan bounced around from one man to another, explaining what he wanted, often showing them on the piano what was needed until, like a giant puzzle, the pieces would fit and the picture emerged whole…Most of the songs went down easily and needed only three or four takes…In some cases, the first take sounded completely different from the final one because the material was played at a different tempo, perhaps, or a different chord was chosen, or solos may have been rearranged…His method of working, the certainty of what he wanted, kept things moving.”

The session began with “Maggie’s Farm”: only one take was recorded, and it was the only one they’d ever need. From there, Dylan successfully recorded master takes of “On The Road Again,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” all of which were set aside for the album. A master take of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” was also selected, but it would not be included on the album; instead, it was issued as a single-only release in Europe, but not in the U.S. or the UK. Though Dylan was able to record electric versions of virtually every song included on the final album, he apparently never intended Bringing It All Back Home to be completely electric. As a result, roughly half of the finished album would feature full electric band arrangements while the other half consisted of solo acoustic performances, sometimes accompanied by Langhorne, who would embellish Dylan’s acoustic performance with a countermelody on his electric guitar.

The release of Bringing It All Back Home coincided with the final show of a joint tour with Joan Baez. By now, Dylan had grown far more popular and acclaimed than Baez, and his music had radically evolved from their former shared folk style in a totally unique direction. It would be the last time they would perform extensively together until 1975 (for the aforementioned Rolling Thunder Revue). The timing was appropriate as Bringing It All Back Home signaled a new era. Freewheelin’ may have made Dylan a commercial success, but it was Bringing It All Back Home that cemented his historical legacy as one of the most important figures in American music history. The album reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart, the first of Dylan’s LPs to break into the US top 10. It also topped the UK charts later that Spring. The lead-off track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, became Dylan’s first single to chart in the US, peaking at #39.

One of Dylan’s most celebrated albums, Bringing It All Back Home was soon hailed as one of the greatest albums in rock history. In 1979, Rolling Stone Record Guide critic Dave Marsh wrote a glowing appraisal: “By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll […] that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock.” Clinton Heylin later wrote that Bringing It All Back Home was possibly “the most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In a 1986 interview, film director John Hughes cited it as so influential on him as an artist that upon its release saying, “Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another.” In his perfect five star review of the record, AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine said, “With Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan had begun pushing past folk, and with Bringing It All Back Home, he exploded the boundaries, producing an album of boundless imagination and skill. And it’s not just that he went electric, either, rocking hard on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” and “Outlaw Blues”; it’s that he’s exploding with imagination throughout the record.”


 

1. Highway 61 Revisited

I just wouldn’t ever be able to forgive myself if Highway 61 Revisited wasn’t number one on the list. In terms of pure impact on my own life, Highway 61 is almost unmatched. As previously mentioned, it was the closing track from this album, “Desolation Row”, that began my love affair with Bob Dylan. This entire record however is absolute perfection and the example of what I want every rock album to be. Leading with the single (and absolute anthem) “Like a Rolling Stone”, the album features songs that Dylan has continued to perform live over his long career, including “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. He named the album after the major North American highway connecting his birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, to southern cities famed for their musical heritage, including St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Some writers believe the inspiration behind the name was really in the opposite direction, as Southern blacks moved North to places like Chicago during the diaspora and brought the blues with them. In his autobiography Chronicles, Dylan described the kinship he felt with the route that supplied the title of his sixth album: “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

In May 1965, Dylan returned from his tour of England feeling tired and dissatisfied with his material. He told journalist Nat Hentoff: “I was going to quit singing. I was very drained.” The singer added, “It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” As a consequence of his dissatisfaction, Dylan wrote 20 pages of verse he later described as a “long piece of vomit”. He reduced this to a song with four verses and a chorus; “Like a Rolling Stone”. He told Hentoff that writing and recording the song washed away his dissatisfaction, and restored his enthusiasm for creating music. Describing the experience to Robert Hilburn in 2004, nearly forty years later, Dylan said: “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.”

Highway 61 Revisited was recorded in two blocks of recording sessions that took place in Studio A of Columbia Records. The first block, June 15 and June 16, was produced by Tom Wilson and resulted in the single “Like a Rolling Stone”. On July 25, Dylan performed his controversial electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, where some of the crowd booed his performance. Four days after Newport, Dylan returned to the recording studio. From July 29 to August 4, he and his band completed recording Highway 61 Revisited, but under the supervision of a new producer, Bob Johnston. The switch from Collins to Johnston was typical of Dylan’s often temperamental decision-making in the studio, but one that Al Kooper has attributed to Dylan’s ultimate success during this period. Kooper should know, this is the record that started his career and it was another sudden Dylan decision that started it. While recording “Like A Rolling Stone”, Dylan invited Kooper to play organ, an instrument he didn’t really play. As a result, Kooper’s signature organ part in the track was half a step behind the rest of the arrangement. Dylan loved the timing quirk and a great career was born.

Highway 61 Revisited opens with “Like a Rolling Stone”, which has been described as revolutionary in its combination of electric guitar licks, organ chords, and Dylan’s voice, “at once so young and so snarling … and so cynical”. Michael Gray characterized “Like a Rolling Stone” as “a chaotic amalgam of blues, impressionism, allegory, and an intense directness: ‘How does it feel?'” Critic Mark Polizzotti writes that the composition is notable for avoiding traditional themes of popular music, such as romance, and instead expresses resentment and a yearning for revenge. It has been suggested that Miss Lonely, the song’s central character, is based on Edie Sedgwick, a socialite and actress in the Factory scene of pop artist Andy Warhol. Critic Mike Marqusee has written that this composition is “surely a Dylan cameo”, and that its full poignancy becomes apparent upon the realization that “it is sung, at least in part, to the singer himself: he’s the one ‘with no direction home’.” That argument sums up a lot of the other fantastic, surreal and semi-autobiographical songs on the record and throughout Dylan’s career. He can be talking about himself, be also a completely fictional character, making it difficult to tell reality from imagination (or making it easy to conceal his own private feelings). “Like A Rolling Stone” reached No. 2 in the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1965, and was a top-10 hit in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Dylan concludes Highway 61 Revisited with the sole acoustic exception to his rock album and to great effect. Andy Gill has characterized “Desolation Row” as “an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters”. These include historical celebrities such as Einstein and Nero, the biblical characters Noah and Cain and Abel, the Shakespearian figures of Ophelia and Romeo, ending with literary titans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The song opens with a report that “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”, and adds “the circus is in town”. Polizzotti connects this song with the lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota, which was Dylan’s birthplace, and describes “Desolation Row” as a cowboy song, “the ‘Home On The Range’ of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America”. In the penultimate verse, the passengers on the Titanic are shouting “Which side are you on?”. Robert Shelton suggests Dylan is asking, “What difference which side you’re on if you’re sailing on the Titanic?” and is thus satirizing “simpleminded political commitment”. For me, this song was revelatory. Almost every paper I wrote in college was based on a name Dylan drops in “Desolation Row”, just so I could get a little bit closer to understanding the song. As a result, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is still one of my favorite stories ever.

In the British music press, initial reviews of Highway 61 expressed both bafflement and admiration for the record. New Musical Express critic Allen Evans wrote: “Another set of message songs and story songs sung in that monotonous and tuneless way by Dylan which becomes quite arresting as you listen.” The Melody Maker LP review section, by an anonymous critic, commented: “Bob Dylan’s sixth LP, like all others, is fairly incomprehensible but nevertheless an absolute knock-out.” The English poet Philip Larkin, reviewing the album for The Daily Telegraph, wrote that he found himself “well rewarded” by the record: “Dylan’s cawing, derisive voice is probably well suited to his material … and his guitar adapts itself to rock (‘Highway 61’) and ballad (‘Queen Jane’). There is a marathon ‘Desolation Row’ which has an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words.” In September 1965, the US trade journal Billboard also praised the album, and predicted big sales for it: “Based upon his singles hit ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Dylan has a top-of-the-chart-winner in this package of his off-beat, commercial material.” The album peaked at number 3 on the US Billboard 200 chart of top albums, and number 4 on the UK albums charts. In the US, Highway 61 was certificated as a gold record in August 1967, and platinum in August 1997.

Highway 61 Revisited has remained among the most highly acclaimed of Dylan’s works. Biographer Anthony Scaduto praises its rich imagery, and describes it as “one of the most brilliant pop records ever made. As rock, it cuts through to the core of the music—a hard driving beat without frills, without self-consciousness.” Michael Gray calls Highway 61 “revolutionary and stunning, not just for its energy and panache but in its vision: fusing radical, electrical music … with lyrics that were light years ahead of anyone else’s; Dylan here unites the force of blues-based rock’n’roll with the power of poetry. The whole rock culture, the whole post-Beatle pop-rock world, and so in in an important sense the 1960s started here.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine described the long term importance of Highway 61 in writing, “And that is the most revolutionary thing about Highway 61 Revisited — it proved that rock & roll needn’t be collegiate and tame in order to be literate, poetic, and complex.”

Among Dylan’s contemporaries, Phil Ochs was impressed by Highway 61, explaining: “It’s the kind of music that plants a seed in your mind and then you have to hear it several times. And as you go over it you start to hear more and more things. He’s done something that’s left the whole field ridiculously in the back of him.” In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine described Highway 61 as “one of those albums that changed everything”, and placed it at No. 4 in its list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. The Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time ranked “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Desolation Row” and “Like a Rolling Stone” at No. 373, No. 187, and No. 1, respectively.

Whew. I need a nap.


 

Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.

No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.

Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisBell81 and keep the conversation going on our Facebook page.

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