God said to Abraham, kill me a son. Abe said man you must be putting me on. God said no, Abe said what?! God said you can do what you want Abe but the next time you see me coming you’d better run. Abe said where d’you want this killing done and God said out on Highway 61.
I was fifteen in ’67 when, two years after its release, I first heard my step-brother’s copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It took only a day or two of the intense back-to-back listening that comes natural to the teenage obsessive before I had it word and note perfect to play in my head on the bus, on my bike, in mental flight from classroom tedium. Culturally isolated – my working class peers had yet to stray from Beatles and Motown, and I was far from confident in the abilities of my step brother in this regard – I’d nowhere to turn for clarification on the finer points. Who was selling postcards of which hanging? Why did Jack the Ripper sit at the head of the Chamber of Commerce? What was so great about having a woman who, if you fell down dying, was bound to put a blanket on your bed?
While I couldn’t rightly say WTF was happening on Highway 61 I knew I’d never heard anything like it; nobody had. There are those, Germaine Greer’s a case in point, who cite pretentiously obscure lyrics and deride the hyperbole on Dylan the poet. From a narrowly technical viewpoint she’s right. (Another North American Jewish musician and wordsmith, a man who also told the story of Isaac, knocks Dylan into a cocked hat in that respect.) But Greer misses the point and will never get why Times They are A-Changin, Tambourine Man and Like a Rolling Stone are played – successive generations finding for themselves the 24 carat wildness that was Dylan – long after Female Eunuch is forgotten. You don’t have to like him. But to deny his place as one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century – easily comparable to Miles Davis as one who changed the direction of his genre not once but several times – makes about as much sense as denying the contribution of Mozart or Wagner.
This week on Radio 4, marking the album’s fiftieth birthday, Andy Kershaw explores why Highway 61 mattered so much. Listen here.