Editor’s note: Star Tribune critic Jon Bream enlisted more than 50 musicians, writers and professors to dissect Bob Dylan’s albums in the new book “Dylan: Disc by Disc.” Here is an excerpt.
The album “Highway 61 Revisited,” released at the end of August 1965, completed Bob Dylan’s transformation from folk music hero to rock ’n’ roll star. That summer, its leadoff song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” climbed all the way to No. 2 on the pop chart, and he polarized audiences at the Newport Folk Festival when he plugged in his Fender electric guitar.
Tony Glover, the Minneapolis folk-blues hero who has known Dylan since 1959, was at that performance and three of the recording sessions for “Highway 61.” He and Los Angeles singer/songwriter Joe Henry, who has produced records by the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, recently discussed the album that is widely regarded not only as Dylan’s best, but as one of the greatest ever.
Glover: He played Newport, which was Sunday, and the first session was Thursday. The blood was still hot.
Henry: Only “Like a Rolling Stone” had been recorded before Newport, right?
Glover: That’s correct. I remember hearing it on the [Newport] grounds. People had transistor radios.
Henry: I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1970. I was 9 or 10. Even though it’s become so ubiquitous in our culture, I can hear it randomly and be jolted back to that first memory.
Glover: It was a definite turn from the way things had been going. One of the things that kind of set it off for me is he did a tour following that [album] with the Band, and he came to Minneapolis in the fall.
He did the first half acoustic and the second half with the Band. He’s out there acoustically, and there’s this guy sitting next to me, and he leans over and says: “Do you know who that is?” I said: “Didn’t you get tickets for Bob Dylan?” He said: “Yeah, but that’s not what he sounds like.” I realized this guy had never heard of Bob before “Like a Rolling Stone.” I thought: Things are going to be different now.
Bream: Does it feel in retrospect that “Highway 61” changed everything for the music, culture, and the music business?
Henry: I think you liken it to something like “Citizen Kane” or Louis Armstrong doing “West End Blues” or Charlie Parker doing “Now’s the Time.” It changed everything that followed. ... There’s a sonic aggression on that record that is as much a departure as anything.
I go back and listen to [Dylan’s previous album] “Bringing It All Back Home,” and even though it was the first quote-unquote “electric” record, it still sounds like it was produced and recorded sort of like a Johnny Mathis record. It was very well balanced. Instruments are cleanly played and a little bit distant to me as a listener, whereas “Highway 61” sounds [messed] up.
Glover: Things like the guitar’s out of tune with the harp on “Queen Jane.” There’s a certain kinetic energy there that’s being captured that’s more important than anything with Johnny Mathis.
Bream: People have suggested that “Highway 61 Revisited” might be the first punk-rock record — an aggressive shout of disillusionment.
Henry: I can’t disagree with it. Especially if you go back to the reissued mono recordings, it’s a much more guitar-forward record and less piano/organ–driven.
Bream: Let’s talk about your interpretations of some of the key songs. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is still in his live repertoire, almost nightly.
Glover: It’s a story. It’s a bunch of different people in situations. A lot of it is “You don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” There’s all these stories that go back to [the Dylan documentary film] “Dont Look Back” where there’s this reporter who’s trying to get him to say things, and he basically chews him up and spits him out.
Henry: I’ve always been inclined to think that Mr. Jones is not a particular person, but the point of the song is nothing in this moment is as we perceived it necessarily. Everybody is going to have to re-imagine their own reality, for lack of a better term.
Bream: My interpretation is, like Tony said earlier, it’s us versus them, the new world — the hip, the counterculture — versus the old world, the straight world that doesn’t really understand.
Glover: I agree with that.
Bream: Let’s tackle “Desolation Row,” the final song on the album. Did he have the lyrics written out for it?
Glover: Yeah. There was like a music stand, and he had notes on it. A lot of his stuff — there are a lot of arrows here and crossing out there, sticking in a word here, going back to there. So it’s kind of a mess. It’s not neatly typed out. It ain’t like a cue card. I’m always amazed at the memory he has as far as being able to recall lyrics.
Bream: “Desolation Row” was the only acoustic song on the record. Did that heighten its impact?
Glover: The way it sits in the album, it’s kind of like a benediction in a way. It’s very cinematic, little scenarios happening. Like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”
It starts out selling postcards at a hanging. That’s something that happened in Duluth in the 1920s. There were some black guys who were accused of rape and ended up getting lynched by a mob and hanging from a bridge, and there were photos taken and put on postcards and sold that way. One line is that whole story. So a lot of lines have little stories in them.
Bream: How does the mood and the vibe of this album capture what was going on at the time?
Henry: If I go back and listen to the record as a complete statement, it sounds human and raw. I associate the sound of “Ballad of Thin Man” with what the Vietnam War looked like to me on the cover of Life magazine.
Bream: How does “Highway 61 Revisited” rank in the canon?
Henry: You’d have to put it in the top two or three. Not just in his catalog but also in the Rock Age.
Glover: It’s definitely up there. It’s one of the ones that makes him worth remembering and thinking and talking about.
Henry: As a record maker, I recognize the distinction between things that might have been recorded two weeks ago and already sound like an artifact to me versus certain music — Charlie Parker is in that category, Robert Johnson is in that category — where it just sounds like living persons jumping out of a speaker.
It sounds completely electric and alive, not a sealed document. On many days, “Highway 61” strikes me as that. It sounds like it’s still evolving because we as listeners are evolving as we hear it. It does not sound like a done deal to me.