Friday, June 15, 2007

Revisiting Highway 61

So, I'm heading out the door last weekend to meet the betrothed, and I'm feeling a bit cranky and I need some feisty music for the car, to sort of synch up with my mood, and then point it in a happier direction. Quickly scanning my rapidly aging CD collection, I grabbed Highway 61 and hit the road.

Now, I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan. Between his earliest and latest material, there are probably 20 songs I feel are stunning and critical moments in the history of popular music. The rest I don't even like that much. But those 20 are so precious, any one of them cements the man's throne firmly to the floor of my pantheon.

So, in the car, I listened to the first bunch of songs -- I have always loved Tombstone Blues because it's rockin' and nonsensical, but mainly because you can feel Dylan's undying love for traditional blues just oozing out of it. (At the time, he might have publicly spurned pure roots music, but it remained his favorite ingredient to cook up songs with.)

However, like a heat-seeking missile, I was headed for the title track, and it did not disappoint. It never does.

Is there a more insouciant, goofy, jaunty, witty, dangerous, fun song in the canon of Western music? The acidic, playful, hard-driving tone in Dylan's voice on this song takes lyrics that would otherwise be called "very clever," and drives them right up the scale into the range of "celestial." It sounds like he is trying to shout over the top of the band he's simultaneously inspiring to play so loudly. It sounds like he's having a scary amount of fun. Needless to say, I turned the volume up very, very high.

The first verse alone deserves to be chiseled into the foundation of the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame building:

Well, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61."

I spent 20 years trying to write a song as good as that one verse. How to begin telling you why I love it so?

How about with the fact that Dylan summed up one of the most famous, controversial and symbolic stories of the Bible in seven lines? He manages to be flip, funny and emotionally charged, all at the same time. How much ink has been spilled trying to penetrate the mystery of this story? I'll say it again: Dylan took seven lines.

How about that he seamlessly weaves two major themes of western civilization (the Bible and the storied history of the Blues) into one pitch-perfect Abbott and Costello routine? The warp and woof of Highway 61 are figures such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith and Howlin' Wolf. The link between that road and the history of the blues is as deep and wide as the Mississippi River it bestrides.

It would have been typical of Dylan's intuitive gift to have inwardly glimpsed the mythological threads running between the dark decision of Abraham binding his son up on the mountain, and the dark deal Robert Johnson is said to have struck with the devil, standing right on Highway 61 in Mississippi. Elvis, Ike Turner, and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was killed in a motel on 61) were all tied with the same road. Dylan instinctively lashed together these enormous themes bristling with symbolic power -- and then, typically, just cut loose and tossed playful pixie dust over the whole thing.

I mean, lest we take the whole thing too seriously, how about that whoopee whistle he can't stop wailing on?


El Cabrero said...

kill me a son--
Check out Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. It's all about that and not too long.

I can't wait for your posts on the "teleological suspension of the ethical..."

thinkulous said...

Good on ya, Cabrero, for the reference -- I've been meaning to get to some Søren again, 20+ years after getting my philosophy B.A. (Didn't like philosophy then; don't ask me what I was thinking; I wasn't. But I might like it again now, with a little life seasoning in between.) It goes on the list.

SK was mentioned extensively in a fascinating book I read independently to further my psychology education: Against Depression, by Peter Kramer. Sparked my renewed curiosity, so thanks for the reminder.

El Cabrero said...

Soren and psychology--jeez--where would you start...

By the way, I still like Freud.

thinkulous said...

Freud, yeah! I should do a series of posts on that baby. He's been dissed so unfairly in the last 30 years. Well, OK, so he was misogynist. And he always blamed the mother. Oh, and, yeah, everything was about the sex drive. OK, so he got a little overexcited about a few things.

But what he got right! And what he started! I said to a Freud-dissing friend the other day, "No sexual revolution without Freud. No James Joyce without Freud. No Modernism as we know it." On and on...

Most of all, he got SO much right about psychology.

El Cabrero said...

There was a Fun With Freud Week at Goat Rope a while back: March