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Fifty years: ‘Highway 61’

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Bob Dylan’s lasting impact in American pop culture used to astound me as a younger person. I tried to grasp how people thought of the nasally-voiced songwriter, on a scale of popularity or critical regard, as on par with The Beatles.

But just as The Beatles will live forever in the mind of music, so will Dylan on different terms — most notably for his masterstroke, Highway 61 Revisited, which turned 50 last week.

When you listen to his devastating words and realize the civil rights context of the album’s time is eerily similar to today, the genius of Dylan’s work — especially five decades removed — reveals itself.

Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan’s most uncompromising expression, capturing a heavier and more electric sound with a live band that came to define the progression of popular music in its rapid evolution during the mid to late ’60s. In stark contrast to the strictly folk formula of his earlier career, this departure to a more popular sound would appear to die-hard fans as more of a commercial move and less of a grand artistic statement.

The amplified sound, combined with his cryptic, hauntingly surreal lyrics, however, would elevate him from a sell-out, folk-scene pariah to an original, frighteningly compelling poet and the generation’s most inscrutable rock star.

Dylan remains one of the all-time greats of songwriting, mostly because of the mystery that surrounded his persona while recording Highway. As a young folk singer, his tact in terms of topical issues of the early ’60s, like Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, led to the public considering him the spokesman of his generation.

The universality of his concerns — whether it be world issues or Dylan’s own “thought-dreams” — and his contributions during his youth are timeless in their urgency for music to explore more complex shapes and modes. While his early folk albums remain some of his best, his slow shift to an aggressive, fully instrumented sound both made him a controversial figure in the eye of the public and consequently produced the works that would come to cement his legacy.

Dylan cautiously tested the waters of his sonic shift. After his fourth album, which abandoned the strict protest-song focus of his lyrics, in early 1965 he released Bringing It All Back Home, the first in his famous electric trilogy. The album featured an amplified rock band on the first half of the album backing Dylan’s self-aware lyrics of his own public perception. Some of his longest lasting classics were the result, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Sandwiched between this first departure and the masterful southern-fried double album Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited continues to baffle and enthrall with its lyrical complexity and musical vigor.

The middle piece in this period of Dylan’s multi-faceted career would prove to be his most accessible and passionately constructed work.

From the legendary rhymes and iconic organ riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the monumentally powerful 11-minute finale “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 Revisited places listeners in a whirlwind of heady verses. The physical forces of his aggressive bluesy garage rock were wholly unique, timely and boldly forward-thinking in a time when few mainstream artists dared to write little more than straightforward doo-wop love songs.

As a man that headlined the soundtrack to the Occupy Wallstreet movement, Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” blends sophisticated name-dropping with absurdist imagery and, of course, social criticism. While the song isn’t as popular as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” lines like, “and the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul to the old folks home and the college” are just as forebodingly relevant today.

The final verse of the record’s penultimate track, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” is one of his most poignant portrayals of the loneliness and isolation that comes with being the center of debate: “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 bluff, I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.”

The album can hardly be considered dated, particularly for its idiosyncratic take on rock music, but also because the concerns of those in 1965 match those in 2015. The underground is still fighting for equality, justice and general welfare.

Our time has no clear singular voice of our concerns in the music industry — though Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West are probably the strongest contenders — but Dylan wore the crown heavy at the age of 24. Fifty years later, Dylan must look back on the cheekiness of the line: “you would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago…” with either fondness or slight resentment.

It must be frustrating to be chained to the accomplishments of youth and be anchored to a particular legacy and reputation, as Dylan reached the height of his powers so early into his career.

But Highway 61 Revisited was glorious while it lasted, and all 51 minutes of its brutally-cerebral potency is still as urgent and didactically cynical today as it was in its own era.

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Fifty years: ‘Highway 61’