I was interested to see that Highway 61 Revisited is now fifty years old. Cue the usual stuff about how, after the album came out in 1965, things would never be the same again, how it ‘still sounds as subversive now as it did fifty years ago’, along with the usual well-worn anecdotes on the chaotic recording sessions. As a corrective to this off-the-shelf pop history, I think it’s always worth being suspicious of sentimental or grandiose claims for the timelessness of things – whether it’s an idea, or a piece of music, or a book. Nothing lasts for ever, after all.
But it’s strange; even though this music was already almost forty years old when I first heard it, at the time it did somehow sound brand new to me. Perhaps this says more about my eccentric, rather skewed teenage tastes than it does about the quality of the music. But there was something that seemed to take a kind of hold of me for some time. For a long period, the Bob Dylan of the mid-60s became, for want of a better word, an idol. Now, oddly enough, I’m exactly the same age as Dylan was when he recorded Highway 61 Revisited, which means my relationship this music has shifted – I feel differently about it now, though it hasn’t lost its power over me.
I can remember quite clearly that it wasn’t exactly his words which impressed me then. It was more the sound of the voice and the attitude which it conveyed; Dylan’s vocals suggested power and confidence. His voice was cruelly cynical, yet it hinted at a certain emotional vulnerability too. It seemed to know the world. I think John Lennon once said something to this effect; that the words were actually secondary to the kind of vagabond wisdom Dylan was able to evoke through his delivery alone.
This might seem to go slightly against-the-grain of the received wisdom on Dylan’s music; which is that his importance lies in his literary, politically conscious (and later surrealist and proto-psychedelic) lyrics. That he expanded the horizons of a form that up until that point was really made for sexed-up teenagers. This both undermines the music that came before, and also makes Dylan’s responsible for the awfully pretentious route a lot of pop and rock took in the later 60s and 70s.
But it’s Dylan’s voice, especially on this album, which helps stake his claim to greatness. I’d argue that, along with the likes of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin and Al Green, Dylan is one of the great vocalists of the recorded music era. The usual suspects will baulk at this; I’m not claiming that Dylan possesses anywhere near the grace, or sophistication of someone like Sinatra, or the range and power of Franklin. Of course not. But he defines this moment, and embodies a world-view with amazing conviction and energy – he becomes almost synonymous with the era he lived through.