Revisiting Highway 61

As far back as I can remember, the first time I listen to a Bob Dylan record was in my freshman year in college. One of my roommates had a sizable collection of Dylan’s CDs. I borrowed one, can’t recall which album, for a spin and was unimpressed with his voice. At the time I was not into lyricism and I was not a rock fan. The only rock music I have listened to all these years is Jimi Hendrix’s.

Last week I read the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and learned that Jobs was not only a big fan of Dylan, but he was also using Dylan’s music in his works and quoting Dylan’s lyrics in his presentations. Jobs piqued my interest in Dylan once again. As I searched through my music collection, the only full album I have of Dylan is Highway 61 Revisited. Tim Brown, a former colleague at Vassar College, gave me the album years ago. We shared similar taste in jazz, blues and hip-hop, but I was not into rock.

Upon revisiting Highway 61 in the past couple of days, I still not am impressed with Dylan’s voice—though it is growing on me. The lack of interest in his singing forces me to pay attention to his lyrics. Right off the opening, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan demonstrates his master of storytelling through four concise verses of from-riches-to-rags tales. The chorus of “Tombstone Blues” is already stuck in my head:

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

Yet the track that epitomizes Dylan’s genius of lyricism is “Desolation Row.” Clocking in over eleven minutes without a chorus, Dylan drops ten verses filled poetic allusion, powerful imagery and countercultural references. By stripping the instrumentation down to just picking acoustic guitar, Dylan gave the song a raw, authentic feel and free of distraction from the lyrics. I am now a fan of Dylan and about to embark on a journey to rediscover his music. I now have two favorite rock musicians: Hendrix and Dylan.

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