Musicheads Essential Album: Bob Dylan, 'Highway 61 Revisited'

Bob Dylan 'Highway 61 Revisited' album cover.
Detail of album art: Bob Dylan, 'Highway 61 Revisited.' (Columbia)

It's hard to follow "Like a Rolling Stone" as an opening track, but Bob Dylan more than manages on his epochal LP Highway 61 Revisited. It's a Musicheads Essential Album.

Inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen described the opening of "Like a Rolling Stone" as "that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind." Along with "Tutti Frutti," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Rapper's Delight," the 1965 single is one of those rare songs that changed music.

Dylan's epic signature song opens the album Highway 61 Revisited, and it was the only song on the album recorded before Dylan's infamous performance "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. Tom Wilson produced "Rolling Stone," with Al Kooper serendipitously sliding behind the organ; then, producer Bob Johnston took the helm for the remainder of the album.

The mood of Highway 61 Revisited is prickly, galloping, and ominous. Musically it's one of Dylan's liveliest efforts, but the caustic, slashing lyrics ensure the album isn't exactly something you'd throw on for a good time. "Tombstone Blues," "From a Buick 6," and the title track careen along in a way that matches the album's automotive theme, but each side comes screeching to a halt: side A ends with "Ballad of a Thin Man," an accusatory but ambiguous song that's become one of the most-analyzed in Dylan's catalog, while side B ends with the heartbreaking elegy "Desolation Row."

A focused and gripping 51 minutes, Highway 61 Revisited cemented Dylan's legacy as a singer-songwriter of utterly unique gifts. The title invokes the highway that runs through the South and ultimately leads back to Dylan's original home turf in northern Minnesota. The highway "begins about where I began, wrote Dylan in his memoir. "I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere."

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