Minnesotans are a strange bunch: they have a certain self depreciating sense of humor borne out of the harshest winters that the USA has to offer, that combines with an intense kindness forged through enduring extreme climate hardship. People help one and other out, over there in the mid west. Things are calmer, quieter, smaller and gentler than New York has ever been. Summer life is a slow parade of hot humid days by lakes, fishing, cooking out, camping and enjoying the fresh air. You can’t keep a good Minnesotan inside once it thaws. Winter is bitterly cold, with International Falls vying with Embarrass for the coldest place in the USA title. You can’t keep a good Minnesotan inside in winter either – the fishing is all ice, the skates get strapped on and people develop a strange and sometimes deadly obsession with shoveling snow.
In fact things are so frozen down there that trends and culture reaches Minnesota at a slow pace; what is happening in New York City or the wild west environs of California trickles down so slowly to Minnesota that by the time the new trend reaches there, it is either established or else on its way out to make way for something new. Dylan might have taken it upon himself to ‘bring it all back home’, but by the time he got to revisit that old section of Highway 61, back in the loon-filled boondocks again, he was already a legend and Minnesota was still listening to doo wop and Frankie Valli. Yet the key to highway 61 is not to be found on the Iron Range, nor on the streets of New York. Dylan takes us to Juarez to visit the ghosts of road trips past with Kerouac and Cassady, in Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, but it is not there either. The seed for those Lost Highway thoughts can be reached via the legend and the tragedy that was the life and works of Hank Williams.
That lost highway is the same one that Kerouac and the beats travelled on and immortalized, it is crisscrossed with train tracks where you ‘can’t buy a thrill’ according to Dylan. This is the boxcar life, the highway existentialist dream where ‘life and death are memorized’ as Dylan later sang in Dark Eyes. Still, we are not talking about car crashes and those ‘falling gods of speed and steel’ that later haunt Dylan, but instead different devils haunt the crossroads. There are still tolls to be paid for travelling that lost highway right down to New Orleans and her “Rue Morgue Avenue”, where the ‘hungry women’ will sure make a mess out of poor country boys like Bob and Hank.
Like A Rolling Stone kicks off Highway 61 Revisited. The Rolling Stone reference is not a nod to the British Invasion, (though the Beatles get their dues along the way in Tombstone Blues, but more of that later), but rather a nod to Hank William’s beautifully haunting song, Lost Highway, which opens with the line, “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost.” Seeing Dylan in the same year he put out Highway 61 Revisited, 1965, covering Lost Highway with so much passion and emotion, sets off a chain reaction in the soul. Dylan’s album about that lost highway, the one that Hank died on (or at the very least very close to), and the rolling stone that Hank named himself to be in the song of the same name, has to be seen through the lens of the life of Hank Williams, and its parallels with Dylan’s own life at the time the album was recorded.
I often wonder how Minnesota treated their most famous son when he returned to visit. By the time he got around his gloriously electric return to Highway 61 he had already changed from that record stealing folk singing sensation into a much stranger beast. Minnesota is used to cool, but not the brand of cool that Dylan was selling. Dylan pretended to be Bobby Vee as a kid. I can only imagine how that little heart-throb wannabe was seen by people back in Duluth, at that section of Highway 61, when he returned with electric, Rimbaud hair and a thousand yard stoned stare. He had become quintessentially New York, irretrievably beat and was returning to the Midwest as an insider, now from the outside looking in, looking back out, as only a prodigal son can manage to do.
The opening line of Highway 61 Revisited, “God said to Abraham, kill me a son”. Dylan is that son facing spiritual and physical death. The opening line takes our sacrificial folk hero, the spiritual son of Abraham, the Jewish Dylan, and puts him in extreme peril. Where is he to go? Down that lost highway 61, that’s where. To stay in Duluth would be a living death, with its limited options and restricted possibilities. It is either the ‘subterranean’ mines for him, or else ‘join(ing) the army if (he) fails’. Instead a merciful God sends the son down the road to Highway 61 to be killed out there instead; God sends Dylan straight to the route out of Duluth and down to the home of the Delta Blues and therefore to artistic possibilities, where there is still peril, he might still die without divine intervention, but at least it is not a living death. Highway 61, before the section in Duluth was renamed in the ’90s, used to run right through Duluth, starting at Grand Portage, Minnesota, all the way down to New Orleans. In fact it is known as the Blues Highway, part of it running right through that Mississippi Blues Trail. Dylan’s mission to write songs as set a missive from God himself. Going down Highway 61 is pictured as a holy escapade set in motion by a higher power that does not ask when the killing is to be done, only where. Many a runaway has thought ‘my parents are going to kill me for doing this’, and perhaps Dylan was not so different to the rest of us after all.
Highway 61 is Dylan’s escape route, and he ran right towards the blues, taking folk detours along the way to becoming a protest civil rights song-slinger, and then blossoming into the self assured Dylan of 1965, who gambled all his success on his ability to make change work for him and to get others to accept his electric developments and desire for artistic freedom.
It is not just Dylan that is escaping down Highway 61, the eponymous song details the exodus of various innocent and not so innocent souls on that southern route out of the hills of old Duluth. Some run away from Duluth because like ‘Georgia Sam’, ‘welfare and poverty’ won’t ‘give (them) no clothes, and Duluth is poor and the work is scarce. If you want to find work, you gotta go out of town, down Highway 61. Dylan had to leave Duluth in order to make his fortune, and he is not alone.
Like the great Mississippi River anyone who wants to make a better life has to go with the flow and head out of town. There is ‘only one place I know’, says Poor Howard – down Highway 61. The sellers of things people don’t really need, useless luxuries such as ‘a thousand telephones that won’t ring’ and ‘red white and blue shoestrings’, have to hawk their wares out of town, and take it down the Highway where Poor Howard and Georgia Sam become rich enough to make money. Dylan had to leave in order to come back, what he brought home was a new perspective. The next verse finds a girl who knows ‘complexion is much too white’, and there is no relief from the relentless whiteness of Duluth. She is sent out to the Blues Trail for some perspective in color, only to find the mother and her brother are already out there, living a more integrated life. Dylan does not show much affection for the home he brings it back to, only a sense of hopelessness and the realization that the only way forward was out.
The ‘roving gambler’ of the final verse is Dylan. He is accused of ‘trying to start the next world war’, but all he wants to do is put some electric onto his blues driven folk. He wants a cultural revolution, not Armageddon, though it must have felt as if he was being accused of trying to end the world when the shouts of ‘Judas’ started up in earnest when he floated his new electric sound and his focal shift from protest and folk to pure poetry in electronic motion. Where is a poor roving gambler to sell his wares and play his music? Why, ‘put some bleachers out in the sun’ and take it down Highway 61! Duluth might not be ready for Dylan, but Dylan was ready to go a roving like the heroes of the songs he cut his musical teeth on, and what a more natural home for Dylan’s blues-infused fusion of 1965 than that old Blues Trail?
After Bringing It All Back Home took that homesick journey back to Duluth, Highway 61 Revisited is left to look at the social whiplash of a Dulthian Rimbaud symbolist poet using a stolen name getting used to New York City, and what happens when you try to go back. Dylan learns some useful lessons, which the Shangri La’s could have taught him: “you can’t ever go home anymore” once you leave. “If you gotta go, go now” Dylan sang, in a song which did not make the Bringing Back Home cut, but was recorded in those glorious 1964 session. “I am just a poor boy, just trying to connect” he sang, hanging on that groove he found. Dylan had to go in order to find his way to his future, which lay down Highway 61.
From A Buick 6 brings us back to Hank Williams who died somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill, West Virginia in January 1953 on the backseat of a Cadillac on the way to a show. Hank was already in rigor mortis when the driver noticed he had passed away when he stopped for gas in Oak Hill. The refrain of From a Buick 6, “If I go down dying you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed” brings to mind the testimony of the college student who was driving a drunk and drugged up Hank. Carr, the young driver, stated to journalists at the time:
“I saw that the overcoat and blanket that had been covering Hank had slipped off,” Carr told yet another reporter. “When I pulled it back up, I noticed that his hand was stiff and cold.” When he tried to move his hands, they snapped back to the same position the hotel porters had arranged him in.”
Dylan is linking his possible death, on the backseat of a Buick 6, to Hank’s actual death 12 years earlier. Dylan had a self-admitted heroin habit at this time. It was not beyond the realms of possibility that Dylan was indeed going to ‘go down dying’ like so many of his addicted contemporaries did. The scores of artists who use drugs in some way tend to distance themselves from their habits and the creative inspiration that is held within them once they find success, yet the imprint of opiate inspiration is found all over Dylan’s work from this period. Any person who uses opiates has to confront their own mortality. In From A Buick 6, Dylan looks at the possibility that he is going to die, and sees himself going out like Hank Williams, on the back seat of a car on the way to another show. Hank died from ‘going down’ too far on choral hydrate, a hypnotic sedative also known as the active ingredient in a ‘Mickey Finn’ or ‘knockout drops’, a prodigious amount of booze, and the attentions of a doctor that saw the state he was in, had mercy on him – a little too much mercy as it turns out, and gave Hank a shot of vitamin B12 plus a quarter grain of morphine. He was discovered to be dead, (and not only that, dead for long enough to be a state of rigor mortis) by the college kid he had hired to drive him. Chance, bad weather but mainly opium, alcohol and sedatives led to Hank being the first really rock n’ roll death by over-indulgence in things that made him feel good.
Dylan sings about his drug buddy, his ‘junkyard angel’. Junk is a common slang word used to describe heroin, hence the moniker for heads of that particular trip being known as ‘junkies’. His ‘junkyard angel’ always ‘brings him bread’ – the day to day sustenance that any junkie needs to stave off sickness and function. Dylan uses this rollicking high energy song to confess his dangerous habits and how his drug buddy, his woman, keeps him well. He compliments this angel of mercy as being attentive. Hank’s blanket might have slipped, but Dylan knows if he ‘goes down’, goes under, overdoses, his Angel is ‘bound to’ make sure that Dylan has a ‘blanket (on his) bed’.
Dylan isn’t lucky enough to even get a brand new caddy – like the ’52 Convertible Hank died in, and has to make do with an ancient 1920s Buick 6. Dylan, the ‘walking antique’, is anchored in a past before Hank Williams, a past of Rimbaud and Verlaine, the start of the Delta Blues and Robert Johnson, and that procession of roots and folk music that his sound and vision was built upon.
Hank Williams could have died on the 19, he could have died on Highway 61. As we can see a section of the 61 lays between Mount Hope and Oak Hill. To get there down the 19 from the north, you have to cross the New River Gorge Bridge to the north, but Hank was being driven from the south, on Highway 61 when he died, somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill. Dylan, in the final verse of the song sings:
Well, when the pipeline gets broken and I’m lost on the river bridge
I’m cracked up on the highway and on the water’s edge
Dylan is putting himself in the vicinity of Hank Williams’s death from overdose. He is not positioning himself so close, that he is down there in the realms of rigor mortis in Oak Hill, but just north of there, lost on that ‘river bridge’. Hank died travelling to perform in a show, and Dylan puts himself in that position. When his ‘pipeline gets broken’, he is ‘cracked up’ on that lost Highway 61, on the ‘water’s edge’ staring into the horrific abyss of withdrawal and starting to kick, and he does not have the heroin he needs to be well enough to perform or even function, his ‘junkyard angel’ comes through and cops for him. There she is, she:
She comes down the thruway ready to sew me up with thread
She is there with a needle, ready to poke him, shoot him up and get him well. Dylan uses this junkie code of sewing with needles, junkyards and lost highways to both confess and hide his habit, and ‘if (he) goes down dying you know’ from this shot she provides for him out there on the road when he has failed to get the good himself, she is ‘bound to put a blanket on (his) bed’. She ‘brings (him) everything and more’, and not only that she is good company. This is a love song to a woman that cares about him immensely, brimming with nervous energy and an undercurrent of fear. Thankfully Dylan did not die on the backseat of a Buick 6 driving on the way to a show in West Virginia. Our intrepid traveler to the coast of artistic perfection made it through where many had failed and were going to fail after him.
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues finds Dylan down at the end of Highway 61 and the start of a new lonesome highway expedition. Kerouac and Cassady, the heroes of Kerouac’s On The Road found themselves on an epic journey to Mexico. It was their final destination, a goal without a cause, travelling there just because they could, they wanted to, and that lost highway was pulling them down towards Juarez and beyond to see what they could see. Dylan ties his colors firmly to the Beat tradition with his opening line about being ‘lost in the rain’ in Juarez. Dylan his an uncanny ability to paint images and ideas with a few words and broad impressionistic brushstrokes of sound and image. The rain from his earlier albums is back, and he is lost in it once again. This rain is never a good thing: it is a hard rain, a cruel rain, a rain that brings about hardship, suffering and death. He has followed that beat path down to Mexico, and is hovering at the terminal point of Highway 61: New Orleans.
Rue Morgue Ave is another case where Dylan ‘rearranged their faces and gave them all another name’, as he described the process in an of his other masterpieces, Desolation Row. The French twist to the name signals to the listener that we have reached a destination of sorts and made it to New Orleans, the southernmost point of Highway 61. This street of death could be anywhere, yet since he goes on to advise ‘don’t put on any airs’ when you are down there, that it is based on St Charles Avenue, a street that houses many huge old and opulent mansions. The streetcar runs right down St. Charles Avenue and so it became a hub of sorts. A lot of these historic mansions were pulled down in the 20th century, and what was once a place for the rich and powerful to live and play, became a seedy area that was a hub for the illegal drug trade, only finally being cleared up in the 1990s. In the 1960s, St Charles Ave was apparently somewhere that a man with a need for hard drugs could find the object of his desires. Where there are drugs, there is sex, and Dylan warns the listener about these ‘hungry women’ that ‘sure make a mess outta you’. The faux outrage of the second verse is a charming delight. A satiated Dylan sends his sarcastic thanks to ‘Saint Annie’, procurer or vendor of the shot Dylan describes in horrific detail. He is in a state where he cannot move and his ‘fingers are all in a knot’, claiming that he cannot even find the strength to ‘take another shot’. This is not the opiate he was looking for. Dylan cleverly hides his allusion to injecting heroin behind the word ‘shot’ which can also obviously can also be used to describe a glass of hard liquor. His double entendre continues, with the line ‘my best friend, the doctor won’t even tell me what it is I got.’ Dylan suspects that whatever was in the shot was not what he was expecting since he was paralyzed and in a state of rictus; even the doctor, his best friend won’t or can’t tell him what it was he accidentally took. Thanks a lot ‘Saint Annie’! Perhaps it was the same chloral hydrate sedative that sent Hank Williams ‘down dying’. That backseat of a Buick 6 / Cadillac, just like uncle Hank, possible fate is looking a little closer in Dylan’s rear view mirror.
The song continues with ‘sweet Melinda’, the thief, that is just another drag on the highway. Perhaps Joan Baez would fit the bill as a possible candidate as being this double-edged character. Her devotion to ‘gloom’ and protest was wearing thin on Dylan by 1965. He no longer needed her, and though she wanted him to continue as the ‘voice of a generation’, the protest singer, Dylan was going his own way. Joan does a famously good impression of Dylan, it is not too hard to imagine the scenario where Dylan protested that: “she steals your voice and leaves you screaming at the moon.” Everyone wanted a piece of Dylan, from Joan Baez, to the Mamas and Papas to The Byrds, whether it was to push their agenda, their career or their album, but Dylan is down that highway, looking for a way forwards, a way through, a path to artistic freedom.
The Junkyard Angel of From A Buick 6 floats back into the picture. He picks her up, after she arrives ‘from the coast’ down to his New Orleans terminus. Tom Thumb, the tiny man, is swallowed up by all manner of larger creatures in the story, but continues his adventures despite being overwhelmed. Dylan in the face of the enormity of his fame feels like Tom Thumb, battered on the high winds of fame, art and fortune. His junkyard ‘Angel’ should ensure that there will be no more mystery shots, but even she is overwhelmed by New Orleans, and leaves ‘looking just like a ghost’.
The final verse sees Dylan alone and intoxicated. He starts out on wine, but ‘soon hits’ the presumably much ‘harder stuff’. His companions have deserted him, despite telling him they would have his back, and with the journey down the highway being much more vital to the whole trip, than the destination, decides that he needs to head back up the highway, all the way to New York. Dylan has had ‘enough’. Hank did warn Dylan about that lost highway and what becomes of a poor boy that tries to travel it. In Lost Highway, Hank sung:
Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round
On this road of sin, are you sorrow-bound?
Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
You started rollin’ down that lost highway
Highways are meant to be rolled down and rolled back up again, but the sorrow and the danger of the drink, the women, the drugs, the rock and roll lifestyle, and all that Hank calls ‘sin’ but is just life under another name, gets in the way of the travelling as well as fueling it. Dylan saw the end of the rainbow, New Orleans, and realized it was not the end at all, that lost highway has no beginning and no end. The end is only where the heart stops, the gas runs out and the blanket slips off, only to be pulled up all the way forever more. Bob was ‘looking to get silly’ and had to go ‘back from where (he) came’.
Ballad of a Thin Man sees Dylan back in New York City surrounded by the unhip and clueless. Dylan must have known what it was like to not be hip to the trip, and feel lost in New York City, but this is a returning Dylan, not a new boy in town, and he documents the hapless Mr. Jeffery Jones, a wide eyed ingenue music journalist, as the circus carries on around him. Dylan is experienced, but when someone hands Mr. Jones a ‘bone’ (slang for a marijuana joint), Jones is perplexed. The vibrant sexual freedom where men walk round naked despite no one knowing their name, and ‘sword swallowers’ thank their partners for the ‘loan’ of their throats, sends Mr. Jones off into the realms of shock and confusion. Mr. Jones does not have contacts in New York City, his contacts are rural blue collar lumberjacks. Dylan is as cutting as only a poor boy from Duluth could ever be. He has no mercy, because none was shown to him. You either get hip in New York City, or else, like the advice given in Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, you ‘go back from where you came’.
Tombstone Blues chronicles the British Invasion – how the British music scene came to conquer the USA in the mid-’60s. Dylan cleverly links the previous military invasion of the British to the new, more peaceful invasion, but setting the scene with the ‘reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse’. The English are coming! The English are coming! The messenger this time is the press, and the ‘town’ anxiety is palpable, despite reassurances that NYC has ‘no need to be nervous’.
The song has a revolving cast of famous characters, with their identities obscured by nicknames. There is the ghost of the outlaw, Belle Starr, Jezebel is no longer a temptress, but instead a chaste nun, and Jack the Ripper, serial killer, is representing capitalism as the ‘head of the chamber of commerce’. The refrain is a standard blues lament, poking fun at the Brits mining that Blues Trail that is not their inheritance, for musical lyrical inspiration:
Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley, he’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues
Free love has hit 1965 like the freight train of Takes A Lot To Laugh, Takes A Train To Cry, along with the British invasion. The times have gone and changed whether the ‘hysterical bride’ and the ‘sweet pretty things’ are ready for it or not. The doctor declares that jizz is not ‘poison’ and the bride is not in mortal danger, but advises her to ‘not let the boys in’.
Paul Revere’s horse needs shoeing, and who better than ‘John the blacksmith’ to do so. John Lennon infamously tortured Dylan in a taxi in 1966 as documented in the video below. John is seen teasing the dope sick Bob who had either had not enough or too much smack, and they seemed to have a friendly if adversarial relationship. Dylan is looking dangerously close to that Hank Williams fate, in the back seat of a car, having gone too far and feeling sick. John Lennon was not a stranger to heroin. Dylan has John asking the Devil – the Commander in Chief, Lord of the Flies, who is ‘chasing a fly’ in the song, if there is ‘a hole for me to get sick in?’ The devil does not like wussies, declares death to cowards who ‘whimper and cry’, and even makes a joke about being ‘chicken’. Keith Richards in his autobiography, Life, documents how Lennon wanted to be a drug hero, tried to keep up with Keith and the smack, booze and whatever else was around, but always ended up hugging the toilet, and having to be carried out of Keith’s digs. The great blacksmith of the English Invasion, John Lennon is mocked by the devil. As it was the lines proved prophetic, Lennon was murdered in 1981, and thus one of the bright brilliant lights of the 60’s went out with a ‘cry’ and a ‘whimper’. Dylan also references the Devil as ‘the Commander in Chief’ in a 60 Minutes interview in 2004
Dylan’s ‘magically written’ early songs, his claimed deal with the Devil, the Commander in Chief, and his 2004 assertation that he once could write magically inspired songs, and now ‘can’t do that’ underlines the beauty of this lonesome lost highway album. He had a few more great songs and albums in him in 1965. The Dylan of the future had not yet overtaken this wild mercury boy who was lost on the road, and contemplating his drug use, his fate and his art.
The opening track of the album, the one that launches the listener into this potentially fatal road trip with Hank Williams down Highway 61, Like a Rolling Stone, its opening line inspired by the opening line of Hank’s Lost Highway, is one of these magical songs. It is pure beat, influenced by the poetry of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. It is not just a man’s game, this ‘I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost’ life that Hank Williams sang about, inspiring the young Dylan to write this masterpiece of an album, a trip that started in Duluth with Bringing It All Back Home, and ended up in New Orleans, Rue Morgue Avenue, with addiction to heroin, thoughts of mortality, a lot of road and train tracks behind him, and a long road back to New York City once Dylan had ‘had enough’. Highway 61 brought it back home to Minnesota, to Duluth, and Highway 61 took it all the way to Juarez and New Orleans, at the end of that historic Blues Trail. He lost something along the way – his innocence, autonomy over his body to drugs that demand their priceand his privacy. Dylan gained something too – the gifts of the highway and the train tracks. Trains give him tears, the road gives him inspiration, and the realization that New York was now a home he longed to return to. The road teaches his ‘Miss Lonely’ of Like A Rolling Stone a dose of humility. She learns that it is hard to be proud when you are hungry, and that the circus act denizens of New York City, that populate this song and migrate later in the album to Ballad of a Thin Man and are not there to get her ‘kicks’ for her. The street is no more forgiving than the highway is, and Dylan declares:
Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
That is the trick of heading out of the small towns of America like Duluth, in order to become rich and famous; either the traveler of that lost highway gets hip, or goes back to where they came from, as Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues declares. The highway wants everything the escapee has got: all those diamond rings have to be pawned, and in the end there is nothing left to lose except the life you have. Dylan made it. I wonder if the Rolling Stone girl sank or swam, or learned to fly? Dylan’s search for ‘home’ for a place he fit into, his quest to anchor himself to the beat tradition and the highway it worships produced two of his most brilliant albums, Highway 61 Revisited, and Bringing It All Back Home.
There is nothing to do, apart from bring it all back home, to the place the heart dwells, and then to take it out to the highway again, that lost highway, whichever one the soul is drawn to, whether it is Highway 61, Highway 101 or another road bound for nowhere, put Dylan’s songs on the car stereo and let those magical words drift into the American wilderness. Dylan is timeless, despite being of a place in our shared history where everything seemed more magical and alive, and his quest for freedom, inspiration and the essence of America stands solid as the day it was written. Hank Williams, rock and roll deaths, rolling stone people and highways that demand a high price for their inspiration: Highway 61 Revisited is strong lost highway medicine indeed, and thanks to Dylan we can listen to it if we don’t want to risk trying to survive it ourselves.
(To read part one of this series on Dylan, click below)