Counterbalance No. 11: Bob Dylan – ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

Counterbalance needs a dump truck, baby, to unload its head as it revisits Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan's 1965 game-changer.
Highway 61 Revisited
Bob Dylan
30 August 1965

Klinger: Well, well, look who’s back, Mendelsohn. It’s your old arch-nemesis Bob Dylan! This time, though, I think you’ll find that the tables have turned. This isn’t the logy, substance-addled Bob that you summarily dismissed a few weeks ago. This is the lyrically focused, razor-sharp, other-substance-addled Bob you’re dealing with. And I challenge you to find fault with this LP, my friend.

Mendelsohn: I’m not even going to try to pretend to find fault. I like this album mostly because I like this version of Bob—the rest of them, not so much. Also, Highway 61 is a full half-hour shorter than Blonde on Blonde. There is a whole lot less Bob on Highway 61, which makes loving Bob that much easier. And although Highway 61 is one fun album (and it is), I can only take about an hour of Bob before his lyrical riddles turn from amusing to annoying. I still have no idea what he’s talking about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but…

“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower, while Calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.”

Seriously, Bob? WTF?!

Klinger: Oh, honestly, Mendelsohn—it’s like you’re not even trying. Obviously, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, the Calypso singers represent the Viet Cong, and the fishermen are the Catholic Worker Movement. Any child can tell you that.

Even though it’s presented in a more compact form, you’re still pretty much carpet-bombed by Bob’s lyrics throughout this record. And even when you’re not sure what exactly he’s talking about, it’s still a lot of fun listening to him go. I had forgotten how much fun Highway 61 is, and I think it’s the circa-1965 radio-friendliness that makes the album’s critical bones. It’s easy to forget that “Like a Rolling Stone” was a hit single, played over the airwaves right between the Four Tops and Herman’s Hermits. My mom, who was 17 at the time, recalls that track as being just another song on the radio, but in many ways, that’s the beauty of electric Bob. You can hear it as great pop music or, if you’re so inclined, you can have the doors of your consciousness kicked in, as Bruce Springsteen famously described his reaction to the song.

Mendelsohn: Rusk, MacNamara, and Cong? That’s what that means? Suddenly the veil has been pulled back. I feel like I’m seeing the world clearly for the very first time. Also, we need to establish a sarcasm font. I don’t feel like I’m getting my point across with plain old Verdana.

Klinger: Look, I love the way Dylan toys with words, especially on this album. Was he trying to say something in some sort of code? Maybe at times, but I suspect that he was often just digging the way the language was flowing, and what that language could evoke.

Of course, when he’s focused on his attack, he can be devastating, like on “Like a Rolling Stone” and especially “Ballad of a Thin Man”. Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be that guy.

img-244Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay

Mendelsohn: Dylan definitely knows how to cut with his lyrics. And when it’s obvious, it’s very obvious. I think that’s what gives the rest of his nonsensical lyrics so much weight. We spend a lot of time trying to decipher them because we know how pointed he can be, but all Bob has really done is performed an end-around on his listeners so that he could sneak off and do whatever it is Bob Dylan did in his free time. Meanwhile, our minds are stuck in a Chinese finger trap.

“Your gravity fails and your negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue.”

Again, WTF?

Klinger: Ah, see now here, “gravity” is former Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, “negativity” refers to his running mate, Representative William E. Miller (Republican, New York), whose Catholicism (the yin to Dylan’s Judaic yang) was expected to help the Republicans in post-Kennedy 1964. But Main Street America (the “Rue Morgue Avenue”, as Dylan calls it in a delightful bit of mordant wordplay), wasn’t having it. Did you fall asleep in Dylanology 101, Mendelsohn?

Even if I am talking out of my butt (which I am not), make no mistake—there has long been something approaching a cottage industry dedicated to similar nonsense. Not that that’s surprising—Dylan has always messed with people’s heads, to the point where even his simplest statements come across as hidden in plain sight. How many people have dedicated countless hours to studying “Ballad of a Thin Man”, parsing each line for meanings and references, when it might well be little more than a gay panic dig at some guy who gave him the stink-eye in a restaurant?

Of course, the fact that Dylan’s songs get people asking the questions in the first place is what keeps records like this alive, and it’s why the Canon ranks Bob so highly in general, and Highway 61 Revisited in particular.

Mendelsohn: Do you think he did it on purpose? Or was it just some serendipitous coincidence that people thought his lyrics meant something, but he was just too stoned to set them straight? I imagine he slipped a few veiled references here and there (I do it in Counterbalance all the time. Spread the purple jelly on the frisky biscuit), but do you think he stayed up at night thinking about ways to twist his words just to mess with our heads?

Klinger: Mendelsohn, what was in the briefcase in the movie Pulp Fiction?

Mendelsohn: The briefcase in Pulp Fiction contained the diamonds that were originally stolen in Reservoir Dogs.

Klinger: False. It contained Marcellus Wallace’s soul, which had been sucked out of the back of his head. Now, what’s with all the Esperanto in the album artwork for Radiohead’s OK Computer?

Mendelsohn: If I had to wager an educated guess, I’d say that Radiohead speak Esperanto because they seem like the kind of egg-headed nerds who would do something like that.

Klinger: No argument there. My point is that young people love looking for hidden meanings, and the 1960s were a perfect storm of artists stretching the lyrical boundaries of pop music for a never-before-vaster audience of eager (and possibly high) young people. Many of those people went on to become the first wave of rock critics, and they were more than willing to dig around for “clues”, some of which may have been accidental, and some of them may be intentional misdirection. A MacGuffin, if you will.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Bob was ever especially interested in setting people straight, stoned or not. Dylan has proven time and time again that he’s going to peel off in another direction the minute that you think you’ve got him figured out. Suggest Dylan is the next Woody Guthrie, and he starts making with the crazy lyrics. Call him an acid-rock oracle, and he goes country. Say he’s a has-been, and he releases his most vital work in years. Hail his glorious return, and he puts out a Christmas album.

Mendelsohn: Pulp Fiction and OK Computer I can easily explain away. However, I have a harder time parsing Dylan.

“When all of your advisers heave their plastic, at your feet to convince you of your pain / Trying to prove your conclusions should be more drastic.”

What the WTF?

Klinger: Oh now, you can’t trick me with “Queen Jane Approximately”. When everyone else turns their back on you because you weren’t what they thought you should be, and when everyone’s talking about you and second-guessing your motives, you can always come to see Bob because he’ll understand. Pretty self-explanatory and actually kind of sweet. At least that’s my take. Your interpretation might be different, and I get the impression that Dylan’s OK with that.

But there you have it. Sweet, sweet misdirection—and we haven’t even plumbed the depths of “Desolation Row”. The MacGuffin strikes again, and the Jokerman lives to fight another day. We’ll be seeing him again too.

* * *

Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.

This article was originally published on 3 December 2010.