Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory.
I was in my bedroom, just turned 18 and starting to think about university the following year. It was night, and I was listening to Radio Caroline North, beamed into my Cheshire village from a vessel moored off the Isle of Man. Pirate radio was a real teenage kick, providing an opportunity hear the kind of music the Light programme refused to play. It was then that the dee-jay announced that he was going to leave us for 20 minutes in the company of a song of then unimaginable length – the whole side of an LP! I loved its drowsy, dreamy repetitions instantly.
Greil Marcus, on the other hand, as soon as he heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ recognised a song that articulated the Zeitgeist and would change history:
There was a kind of common epiphany, a gathering of a collective unconscious: the song melted the mask of what was beginning to be called youth culture, and even more completely the mask of modern culture itself.
I think I prefer Bruce Springsteen’s more down-home version:
The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind. … And my mother, she was no stiff with rock ‘n’ roll, she listened, she sat there for a minute and she looked at me and said, ‘That guy can’t sing’.
If you were young in the fifties and sixties, everything felt false everywhere you turned. But you didn’t know how to say it. Bob came along and gave us those words. Man! ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’
It’s fifty years now since the recording sessions (justly regarded now as historic) that produced Highway 61 Revisited. They were completed on 4 August 1965 and the album was released in America on the last day of that month. Something was happening, and it was happening fast.
It was late September before the album was released in the UK, and even then I have no idea when I first heard the whole thing in one sitting. More likely, we were all still absorbing the wonders of Bringing It All Back Home, released earlier that year (songs from that album had been the staple of Dylan’s England tour in May – his last solo and acoustic). And what with singles like The Beatles ‘Help’ and Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’ hogging the charts, it was a miracle that the epic ‘Rolling Stone’ rose as high as it did – reaching number 3, and requiring that radio shows play the whole damn six minutes.
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
So we were all a long way behind the artist, who was now moving forward at the speed of light. In twelve months he went from protest folk singer to stream of consciousness acoustic poet to rock avant-gardist.
I need a dump truck, mama, to unload my head
After the magnificence of Bringing It All Back Home, and with so many ideas cascading through his brain, in New York City in June, Dylan assembled a group of gifted session musicians from blues, rock and country backgrounds that included guitarist Mike Bloomfield, keyboardist Al Kooper, and Nashville musician Charlie McCoy.
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Mama’s in the factory
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues
Nine songs were recorded over six sessions in June, July and August, with with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ completed first. In a recent BBC radio documentary, we heard how the record subsequently named by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest songs of all time, arrived with almost no preparation, and absolutely no rehearsal. Throughout the sessions, Dylan scribbled down and adjusted lyrics, with melodies and instrumentation emerging through a process of sweat and inspiration live in the studio.
The story of how Al Kooper, an observer at the ‘Rolling Stone’ session, blagged his way into the studio and came up with the organ riff that made the record truly great, has been told many times. In another bit of serendipity, Nashville musician Charlie McCoy was accidentally brought in to play the memorable Spanish-sounding guitar on ‘Desolation Row’, its distinctive sound reinforced by the fact that the drummer had gone home.
Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red, white and blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61
The album is named after the road that ran from Bob Dylan’s home state of Minnesota down through the Mississippi Delta. In his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote:
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.
Along the route, Highway 61 passed near the places associated with blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll icons – Muddy Waters, Son House, Elvis Presley and Bessie Smith. Blues legend Robert Johnson was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil at 61’s crossroads with Route 49. Dylan would surely have been familiar with blues recordings like notably Roosevelt Sykes’ 1930s recording of ‘Highway 61 Blues’ and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ’61 Highway’ recorded just a year earlier.
When Dylan insisted that the album should be called Highway 61 Revisited, his record company weren’t impressed: perhaps it reeked of musty blues. But for Dylan, that was just the point. In his biography, No Direction Home, Robert Shelton records Dylan telling him:
I wanted to call that album Highway 61 Revisited. Nobody understood it. I had to go up the fucking ladder until finally the word came down and said: ‘Let him call it what he wants to call it’.
At a press conference in December 1965, Dylan claimed that Highway 61 Revisited was the best album he had ever made, or was ever likely to make: ‘I’m never gonna make a record better than that one. It’s just too good. There’s a lot of stuff on there I would listen to…’
For my own part, and allowing for imperfect memory, I think it was a year or two later, after the impact of Blonde On Blonde had lessened, that I began to really treasure Highway 61 Revisited. One one level it was for the words whose depths could be repeatedly plumbed for wisdom. But, more than that, it was for the music, its aggression, spontaneity and urgency a perfect vehicle for the emotional intensity, mystery and sheer biting sarcasm of the lyrics:
When he heard it, folk singer Phil Ochs was rhapsodic about Highway 61 Revisited: ‘It’s impossibly good… How can a human mind do this?’
I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff
Everybody said they’d stand behind me
When the game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to call my bluff
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough
- Bob Dylan: I didn’t realise how often I’d written about him