Written by: Paul Haney
Since it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, there has been no shortage of Bob Dylan commentators, theorists, critics, praise-givers and waxers philosophical, and no shortage of backlash against them. One might wonder if any of this commentary is necessary, or if it’s picking apart something that needn’t be touched, or if these would-be scholars even have anything valuable to say.
I don’t really know much of anything about Bob Dylan’s life or his music – I seem to have missed that train. But my good buddy Paul Haney knows quite a bit about both, and the insightfulness to pick apart some of the points of tension in opening up a new door in music (and literary) criticism. Check out more of his series on Bob Dylan’s albums on Instagram. – Michael Martino
Helping Myself to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited
Since early April, I’ve been listening to every Bob Dylan studio album—plus a few live albums and a couple Traveling Wilbury discs—in chronological order. I’ve detailed the impetus for this project at dylanhypothesis.com, but basically, I’ve been testing a hypothesis: Because Dylan adhered to an ethos of continual artistic reinvention, the best way to “get” his music is to start with the first album and proceed chronologically. True, the same could be said about virtually every artist—each of their albums serving as a response to the one that came before (“Every song’s a comeback,” Wilco reminds us). But Dylan has left in his considerable wake perhaps the most erratic and enigmatic catalogue of all major artists. And now that he’s won the Nobel Prize, critics and listeners alike will scrutinize his life’s work for whether or not it deserves the moniker “literature.” The best way to understand the arc and essence of Dylan’s career, I contend, is to listen one song at a time, thinking and feeling and forging connections along the way.
As fate would have it, on the day the Norwegian Nobel Committee made their announcement, I was able to finish listening to his final three cover albums—a Christmas album plus two collections of Sinatra covers. These three albums of singer-standards drip with irony and contrast. While singing Christmas ballads like “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Silver Bells,” Dylan’s voice scrapes like nutmeg across a grater. At times while covering Sinatra’s material, he sounds like a circus barker battling throat cancer. But I must say, the albums have their charms. His band, if spare and understated, is always superb, and his vocals, knotty and weathered, sift through the textures and nuances of the phrasings. The fact that Dylan has twice won a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocals, and once for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance, surely compels us to give these later cover albums an honest listen, even if our first response is laughter.
Those cover albums come on the heels of one of the richest periods for original music in Dylan’s career, spanning from his 1997 Album of the Year, Time Out of Mind, to the present. Before those atmospheric tracks like “Love Sick” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” rolled through my ears, foggy and thunderous like a low-pressure system, though, I subjected myself to the entirety of Dylan’s wheezy, gospelized ‘80s run. Not gonna lie: that synthesized run during the decade of my birth made me question whether I could complete the project, especially since Dylan’s best years were far behind me.
The most consistently excellent era of Dylan’s output was his early years, revolutionizing folk with Freewheelin’ before redefining rock with Highway 61 Revisited. During my listening, I reveled in this era, even as I knew the uneven terrain ahead. I dove into Highway 61—an album I’ve held dear since high school—with a vim and gusto supplemented by the weather. In Boston, the long, mild winter had finally given way to a sunshiny spring. I got out in the city, attempting to inform my listening with the sites around town, and to populate it with my fellow Bay Staters.
I knew that Al Kooper, who pitched in on Highway 61 (famously ripping the organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”), lived around Boston, so I reached out to him via email, hoping he’d share my enthusiasm. At the end of my email, I asked if he’d meet me for coffee and discuss my hypothesis. He got right back to me, and his response is worth sharing at length:
I appreciate your kind remarks however I don’t agree with the way of thinking you’re on in terms of why Bob did this then and thqt (sic) now, etc. A song should be regarded strictly for what it is lyrically, musically and arrangement wise. All the rest is usually conjecture, opinion and folly. I am not the guy you want to wallow around with on this subject.
I totally disgree with your way of thinking. Music & poetry should be enjoyed at face value and if one wishes to study the creator thats another biographical subject altogether
That’s one way to disprove a hypothesis, I thought: undermine its premise out of hand. Still, I didn’t allow Kooper’s criticism to slow me down. Instead, I found myself amused by Kooper’s claim that music stands apart from its context. It struck me as a distinctly New Critical way of approaching art, one that honors the universal “genius” of the creator, and prohibits critics from importing information external to the work into their readings. These New Critics of the mid-twentieth century Kooper brought to mind believed in art as a closed form, penetrable only through close reading and well-honed skills of critical analysis. Sure, I submit that authorial purpose doesn’t always matter, and biography is mostly beside the point when approaching a text. But this mode of criticism has major limits.
While these New Critics did make inroads into the micro-functions of meaning and significance within language, they had yet to concede that their mode of analysis relies on a monolithic worldview. That is, while exploring the multiplicity of language, they ignored the multitude of identities, eras, and situations from which a work might be read. Current trends call for inclusivity, not exclusive clubs of brilliant critics picking apart geniuses. Meanings shift and change with time and perspective. The text—whether “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’”—morphs too, after publication, and with each new time it’s read.
When accounting for variables that contribute to the slipperiness of text and perception, of course context matters, including biography, but also the publishing milieu, the immediate audience that influenced the work, the medium itself, equipment, marketing, sales, and more. Dylan may not have meant for his songs and albums to take on meanings outside of themselves, but to claim such hermetic immunity is a cop out, I feel, an excuse from full critical evaluation.
In the wake of Kooper’s reply, I got on with my project. I was leaving Emerson College, where I’m a graduate student and instructor in the late afternoon. I slapped on my headphones, queued up Highway 61 Revisited, and headed through the Boston Common toward the Boston Library at Copley Square. It was chilly in the shade and warm in the sun; folks wore long pants and light sweaters all through the park, the trees just starting to bud new sets of leaves. “Like a Rolling Stone” blasted out its free-form rock take-down of disillusioned youth. “How does it feeeuhl” Dylan asked, with Kooper’s organ vibrating behind, and I couldn’t help but be transported back to my days as an undergrad, down in Orlando where a hoodie counts as a winter coat. I had a five-octave Yamaha keyboard plugged into a guitar amp, and during house parties I’d run through that five-chord song, getting the house to sing along: How does it feeeuhl!
The arrangement on “Tombstone Blues” rang out rich, full, and familiar, bringing to mind junior year of high school when I’d tune out my teachers, take out my portable CD player, slip on my headphones, and scrutinize Dylan’s surrealistic, free-flowing words; his biting, expressing vocals; his loose, electrified arrangements. As I heard the opening chords to the third track, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” hung on a blues progression and a jangly upright piano, I smiled at a mother throwing a football to her child. The ball looked unwieldy in her hands; she caught my smile and tossed me the ball. I caught it and lobbed a wobbly arc to her son. He ran and snagged it amid a driving Dylan harmonica solo that soon gave way to the hard-driving “From a Buick 6.”
“If I fall down dyin’ you know she’s / Bound to put a blanket on my bed,” Dylan sings, his voice raising to hit each beat. But “From a Buick 6,” along with “Highway 61 Revisited” itself, might be the weakest on the album, even as each does interesting things with blues-rock arrangements, vocal intonations, and for the latter, slide whistles.
That the weakest tracks on Highway 61 Revisited still push the envelope for what music is and can be speaks to its enduring power, to the brilliance of its composition, arrangement, and recording technique. Namely, that Dylan gave his band almost no instructions, and the studio musicians, sifting through relatively simple chord structures, relished in the opportunity to flex their skills for once. What results is a complex web of impromptu riffs and improvised musical conversations that hoist up Dylan’s own boisterous wordplay. This patterning comes through in the slowed-down “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which I paused across the road from the Common at the Public Gardens to listen to, staring from the bridge at the bare trees reflecting off the chilly pond. “You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand / You see somebody and naked and you say, ‘Who is that man?’” the song begins, obscuring throughout whether the “You” is Dylan, or the listener, or somebody else. “But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is,” the chorus goes, “Do you, Mr. Jones?” Most will say this Mr. Jones character represents the critics, always questioning and querying, thinking they have a beat on what a song or a movement means but usually missing the mark.
In this case, I suppose I am Mr. Jones, scanning the material for meaning, holding my theories up to the light of the music and retooling them with each new insight. Criticism is an art, I would argue, an art in conversation with art, just as Dylan’s songs talk to the lineage of music he emerged from.
But I’d rather be “that man.” We all want to be that man, the inscrutable artist whose creations change the world in steps small and large.
When listening to “Ballad of a Thin Man,” though, besides getting lost in the characters, I also get lost in the performance. This was another song I’d haul out at parties, but more often, in quiet afternoons alone with my keyboard. I’d learned it in high school from sheet music borrowed from the downtown Orlando library. I’d seared those haunting chords into my muscle memory, dropping down my voice to ask, “Do you, Mr. Jones?”
So on that bridge I was critic and consumer, admirer and performer all at once. My selfhood scattered like a reflection popped by a minnow below.
Transported through sound and memory, I turned on my heel and exited the park, “Queen Jane Approximately” filling my ears with that loose and jangly sound. Somehow I never got around to learning that one, or a song I see as its counterpart, “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a full throated piano ballad near the end of the record. But as I weaved through pedestrian traffic on the Newberry Street sidewalk, past the designer boutiques and bougie restaurants, “Desolation Row” again allowed me to reminisce about how the chords feel beneath my fingers. On the album, the track extends for a then-unheard-of eleven-plus minutes like an epic feverish dream, the guitar interplay presaging the acid-rock jams soon to emerge from San Francisco. The guitars speak to each other, seem to cry to each other by the end, their fervid strumming and picking hitting their crescendo just as I passed the ornate churches of Copley Square and hit the library, on my way to the Dylan section.
Highway 61 Revisited is Bob’s album, but it’s my album—our album—too (Wilco again: “Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on”). I learned the songs on my own keyboard; I spent part of high school studying the textures and nuances of every track, just as Dylan now does with Sinatra. I even wrote my high school senior research paper on Highway 61. It’s in my bones. It’s what I do, even if Al Kooper would have it otherwise.