Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Highway 61, Revisited
Bob Dylan

In 1965 when Bob Dylan creates “Highway 61, Revisited” the first rock’n’roll concept album is born, and the well traveled subject of the road trip album is established.

US Route 61 historically traversed from Minnesota to New Orleans, providing a path for much of middle America towards jazz, booze, excitement and escape. The road follows the Mississippi River, so Dylan’s work is immediately placed in the company of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.

Dylan’s trip begins in New York City with Miss Lonely, a New York socialite. As the song opens, Lonely lives a fairy-tale life, “Once upon a time, you dress so fine”, but her tragic fall does not take long. By the end of the first verse, Lonely is “scrounging your next meal”.

The overriding theme of the album– and much of Dylan’s early work– sexual liberation, is developed in the second verse. “You say you never compromise with the mystery tramp, but now you realize, he’s not selling any alibis. As you… say, do you want to make a deal?”  Miss Lonely suddenly must become willing to compromise her social standing and disband societal conventions.  She needs a place to spend the night, and that might include selling herself in prositiution. 

The fourth verse continues this theme.  The Napoleon in Rags figure represents a flirtatious male, and with  “Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse”, Miss Lonely has completed her transformation from uptight prep-school girl to a person with nothing to lose, invisible, but with “no secrets to conceal”. 

By track two of “Highway 61, Revisited”, titled “Tombstone Blues”, we are no longer in New York City, however the journey has still yet to begin. “Tombstone Blues” creates an emotional setting for what we will be journeying away from, and offers a cornucopia of characters, all feeling the blues about death. Whether these blues are due to a fear of death, or a longing for the release of death from the misery of their lives is left open.

The rapid fire lyrics begin non-stop.  First, a through line between the previous song and “Tombstone Blues” is immediately established: “The Sweet Pretty Things are in bed now, of course”.   Miss Lonely has indeed succumbed to Napoleon in Rags, sexually.  This single measure is all Dylan needs to make it clear that he’s not just writing songs, here, he’s constructing something much larger.

Not but two measures later, “the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse” creates this place, this place of emotional blues, as a potential warzone.  The characters are appearing and immediately disappearing swiftly, now, with the ghost of the infamous outlaw Belle Star, false prophet Jezebel and serial murderer Jack the Ripper all confirming that this place is not a pleasant one.

Dylan’s main theme reemerges in verse two, as the Hysterical Bride is advised  to “not let the boys in”– a direct reference to sexuality– but then advised that sex is “not poison”.

By the third verse, Dylan’s just getting wacky.  What “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” could possibly even remotely mean I have long pondered, and never realized.  I describe this type of lyricism as the Fallacy of Rhyme.  Just because a rhyming couplet sounds trippy and deep does not mean that it’s anything more than complete nonsense– utterly devoid of meaning, skippable, and not worth analyzing.

However, by the fourth verse, with barely a breath and a short guitar lick in-between, we return to the realm of powerful, meaningful lyrics, “the Pied Piper in prison”. Let’s dig into this lyric with some close reading.  The Pied Piper is a folkloric figure from Black Plague-era Germany, a magical rat catcher– symbolizing hope, for he rids the town of disease-spreading rats. The Piper then leads away all the town’s children in a merry, fife-lead dance.  Extrapolating, this ender of disease, this childish Pan, this symbol of hope– now in prison– means that that disease will not end, children will die and all hope is incarcerated.

The pan-ultimate verse is extremely tricky to digest, so let’s continue our close reading:

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.

Innocent flesh on the bone would represent human desires, a true geometry, while Galileos’s math book– representing Science with a capital S, a knowledge that Dylan will soon develop as pointless and useless– is thrown away.  Delilah is the target of this removal of Science, Delilah being the cutter of Samson’s hair.  Samson had Herculean strength, but once his hair was cut off, his source of strength disappeared.  Science with a capital S is thrown at Delilah, who takes away strength. Dylan is criticizing the scientific community for suppressing sexuality.

The song ends with a verse containing multiple references to singers and composers, tubas and melodies, all of which “could ease you and cool you and cease the pain” of the aforementioned “useless and pointless knowledge”.

By track three we are on the road, indeed.  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” takes Dylan away from “leaning on the windowsill” towards a place where “I wanna be your lover, Baby, I don’t wanna be your boss.”  The Patriarchy of mid-1960s America requires more than an inactive observing to dismantle.

“From a Buick 6” continues the journey by automobile.  With “I need a steam shovel, Mama, to keep away the dead” the song references the death of society of TS Eliot’s “the Wasteland”. “I had not known death had undone so many” is Eliot’s critique of early-20th century mankind, who are concerned with the unimportant things, to their own undoing.  Dylan is surrounded by these internally dead people, but has actively and forcefully found a way to keep them away– running them over with a steam shovel.  Dylan’s next line responds, “I need a dump truck, Baby, to unload my head.”  The construction equipment motif once again shows Dylan creating something very large, indeed.

“Ballad of a Thin Man” takes a closer look at one of these socially dead individuals.  Thin Man does not reference the character’s waistline, but the girth of his quality of life.  

The booming opening minor chords on the piano announce that this is no gay cross country jaunt in an old, beat-up Buick.  The chorus, “something is happening, here, but you don’t know what it is”, references the social upheaval of the Beat Generation in the 1950s that Bob Dylan was helping to promulgate into the 60s.  If you don’t know what it is, then you don’t get it, and are therefor square, not hip, and nowhere close to cool.

The first two verses contain vague references to sexual liberation, “with your pencil in your hand,” and “you raise up your head”, both would allude to penises and sexual acts, however, all the Thin Man can ask is, “am I here all alone?”

Verse four deserves close reading in full:

You have many contacts among the lumberjacks
to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination. 
But nobody has any respect, anyway, they already expect you
to all give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations.
You’ve been with the professors, and they’ve all liked your looks.
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks.
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. 
You’re very well read, it’s well known.

Imagination is here contrasted with facts– facts that are chopped down by lumberjacks in reaction to any attack on imagination.  Tax-deductible charities are an example of societally dead behavior– Thin Man does not donate due to his own good will, but only because he is expected to.  The upper-crust elite of professors and lawyers approve of Thin Man, not based on his merit, but by his appearance.  That crooks are associated with lepers makes a poignant statement, the lower classes are nothing more than outcasts, a problem to be discussed philosophically with a down-pointed nose.  Although Ezra Pound and TS Eliot are later praised in the album, F. Scott Fitzgerald most certainly represent the old guard of literature– stuffy and pompous– and Fitzgerald’s novels of the rich and upwardly mobile are a clear target of the wrath of Dylan.  Once again, Thin Man is not reading for pleasure or enrichment, but only to earn the well-known label of well read.

By the final verse, with “you should be made to wear earphones”, Dylan has solved the problem of the Thin Man.  Tune in to the music, and you might get hip to the social revolution, and might finally know what it is. 

With a spritely, if melancholy, guitar melody, “Queen Jane, Approximately” opens as a less gloomy critique of another sexually repressed individual.  The approximately of the title pronounces this song as a loose portrait of queenly plain Jane.

Once again, the chorus of the song contains the most explicatory lyrics of the song: “won’t you come see me, Queen Jane”.  Intentionality of the pun aside, an unchaperoned visit most certainly alludes to a sexual liaison.

Intriguingly, every verse of “Queen Jane, Approximately” begins with the word when.  This character is located in a temporal space, a situational space– a space of when.

The second verse develops the theme fully.  “When all the clowns that you have commissioned have died in battle or in vain”, presents the character’s– and the society’s– misaligned values in male partners.  At the end of the song, “when you want some body you don’t have to speak to”, Dylan has arrived at both a lusty time period when no speech is necessary, but also a situation when two people can be together in a comfortable silence.

Dylan is cruising at highspeed when we make it to the title track, “Highway 61, Revisited”, propelled by the kazoo-like whistle and the imitating guitar lick.  The song contains a lot of trippy nonsense lyrics, but there are gems of real meaning.  

The concept of the song is that Highway 61– the main drag from mundanities of middle America to the excitements of New Orleans– is a place of ritualistic killings, an ineffective welfare department, complexions that are much too white and also the next world war.

Verse three is of special note: “I got 40 red-white-and-blue shoestrings and a thousand telephones that don’t ring.  Do you know where I can get rid of these things?”  Despite the arbitrary number 40, making shoestrings red-white-and-blue connects the colors of the US flag with, simultaneously, walking and travel– relating to the roadtrip theme of the album– the comfort of shoes that fit– a far cry from Woody Guthrie’s shoes in “Dust Bowl Ballads”– and some notion of security in cinching one’s shoes.  This line is truly open literature, and the subjective interpretations are endless.

The by-your-bootstraps value system of Horatio Alger and 19th century America is equally alluded to in the lyric.  It is a sophisticated reinforcement of do-it-yourself, come-from-nothing, anyone-can-be-president notions of the United States.  However, Highway 61 is– in this verse and in this verse alone– a place to get rid of these things.  Highway 61 is already developed as not so nice a place to visit. It’s a thoroughfare, a wild ride, but not the destination.

But by the fifth word of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, we have arrived, however we have missed our destination by hundreds of miles.  We are lost in Juarez, a boarder town between Mexico and Texas.

By titling the song Just Like Tom Thumb… Dylan is associating himself with the fairytale character– rather, associating the narrative of “Highway 61, Revisited” with that character.  Tom Thumb was a very tiny and mischievous child, baked into a pie and forced to eat his way out to escape.  Dylan’s narrative, well-baked at this point, is quite full, and by the final lyric is tired of this trip. “I’m going back to New York city, I do believe I’ve had enough”.

“Deselation Row” is the final destination, another place of emotional melancholy.  Let’s tour down this emotional street, line-by-line, one at a time, all eleven-and-a-half minutes of it:

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging”– execution is the main tourist attraction of this neighborhood– “they’re painting the passports brown”– brown passports being those used by US diplomats and FBI agents– “the beauty parlor is filled with sailors”– sailors are alone for months at a time, and when they return, are looking for action in the beauty parlors– “the circus is in town”– and what a madcap sideshow this town is turning into– “here comes the blind commissioner”– the authority figure of the town is blind, and for a sight-based species like human beings, blindness can be associated with lack of judgement– “they’ve got him in a trance, one hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants”–  the authority figure is hanging from a narrow tightrope without any control of it, while he seems more concerned with his own sexuality.  “And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go”– bored cops get restless, and often act inappropriately– “as Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row”– Dylan is back leaning on the windowsill, the barrenness of Desolation Row has him so down trodden that his previous active approach to the ills of humanity have been drained.

And that’s just verse one.

“Cinderella, she seems so easy, ‘It takes one to know one,’ she smiles, and puts her hands in her back pockets, Bette Davis style”– another fairytale, Cinderella, who meets the man of her dreams is kinda loose, sexually, but recognizes Bob Dylan as the same.  Bette Davis, spelled with an e in the liner notes, does not refer to Betty Davis, funk singer and wife of Miles Davis, but the black-and-white movie star, a frequently histrionic femme fatale.  “And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning, ‘you belong to me I believe.’  And someone says, ‘you’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave’”.  Dylan always gets the Romeo character right– an otherwise unattained task in most of popular culture– for Romeo has no happily-ever-after tale of true, undying love, he kills himself, and causes his girlfriend to kill herself, too.  It is the possessiveness of young love under critique, here, and Romeo is quietly threatened to get outta town– always the most dangerous of threats, the quiet ones.  “And the only sound that’s left, after the ambulances go, is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.”  Romeo’s been done in, most likely not by his own hand, but for refusing to leave this melancholy place, Desolation Row.

In the third verse, this street becomes highly populated, and the characters are once again appearing and disappearing rapidly.  

“Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide”– an early evocation of a late Dylan lyric, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there– “the fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside”– another TS Eliot reference, “Madam Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, had a bad cold nonetheless”.  However, not all the stars are hidden yet, and celebrities as old as the written word are still hanging around, “All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame, everybody is making love, or else expecting rain. And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.  He’s going to the carnival tonight, on Desolation Row.”  Unless you’re killing someone, being killed or swinging from the bell towers, you have two choices– enjoy sex, or expect a gloomy future.  The Good Samaritan, meanwhile, who clothes a beaten down beggar in the Book of Luke, is dressing himself, now, going to some high class entertainment– the carnival of the first verse.  ”Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid, on her twenty-second birthday, she already is an old maid.  To her, death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest, her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.  And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow, she spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.”  Ophelia, unrequited lover of Hamlet, does not have sex and so drowns herself.  With the iron vest, she locks her heart, and does get herself to a nunnery, where her religion becomes her profession.  Though the rainbow is a symbol of hope, she cannot avert her gaze from this place of emotional despair known as Desolation Row.  “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood”– the acclaimed celebrity physicist is a Robin Hood figure, giving back wealth to the poor, this lyric being a reversal of the previous distrust of Science with a capital S– “with his memories in a trunk, passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk”– herein religion is critiqued, jealous of the Theory of Relativity and advanced physics.  “Now, he looked so immaculately frightful”– still referring to the Jealous Monk figure– “as he bummed a cigarette, then he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.  You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago for playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.””– the Jealous Monk is getting high and spouting meaningless nonsense language, entertaining the masses with a violin show, but no longer the celebrity he once was.

The fourth verse is a jagged criticism of the medical community.

“Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup, but all his sexless patients, they are trying to blow it up”– a clear reference to sexuality and the male organ.  “Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole, and she also keeps the cards that read, ‘Have Mercy on His Soul’”– the nurse, a supposed giver of aid, is in charge of distributing poison, as well as more postcards like those in the first verse, relating to being killed.  “They all play on the penny whistle, you can hear them blow, if you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.”  Once again, music is a performance by the authority figures, a distraction from the misery of the socially dead characters here on Desolation Row.

At verse four, Dylan is returning hard to his principle theme of sexual liberation.

“Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast, the Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest”– the Phantom of the Opera had a disfigured face, so, extrapolating, the Christian priest is also scarified.  “They are spoon-feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured, then they’ll kill him with self-confidence, after poisoning him with words”– Casanova being a womanizer who would not otherwise need spoon-feeding or more self-assurance, were he not on Desolation Row– “and the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, ‘Get outta here if you don’t know’”– a throw back to the “Ballad of the Thin Man” who doesn’t know about the social revolution and sexual liberation– “Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row”– were Casanova not here in this place of emotional despair, he would not be killed or poisoned by the effects of his womanizing.

Verse five is self-explainitory, and no close reading is required. 

at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.  Then they bring them to the factory, where the heart-attack machine is strapped across their shoulders.  And then the kerosene is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

But by verse six, we are back to Dylan at his highest peaks of surrealist language.

“Praise be to Nero’s Neptune,  the Titanic sails at dawn”– Nero, a hedonistic tyrant, when associated with the god of the sea becomes an all-devouring ocean, to swallow the finest constructions of mankind.  “Everybody’s shouting, ‘Which side are you on?’”– it doesn’t matter much, on the Titanic, which side one is on–  “and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, fighting in the captain’s tower”– suddenly the ocean has become the ocean of poetry, with the two Modernists vying for leadership over the vessel– “while calypso singers laugh at them”– for Dylan the poetry of street singers tops that of the Highest Modernists.  Unfortunately, the lyric kinda peters out into cliches at that point with, “and fishermen hold flowers.  Between the windows of the sea, where lovely mermaids flow, and nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.”  There has, to this point, been plenty to think about Desolation Row; flowery language of mermaids don’t demand too much thinking.

It get’s personal in the final verse.

“Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the door knob broke”– it is exactly this sort of tedium of door knobs breaking that Dylan is criticizing in this song about emptiness and despair.  Why would you bother to write that in a letter, Bob Dylan wonders.  “When you asked me how I was doing, or was that some kind of joke?”  Dylan is feeling desolate, obviously, why would you even ask.  “All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.  I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.”  Bob Dylan doesn’t like the person writing this letter, and doesn’t like that person’s friends, either.  “Right now I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no.  Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”  I guess you shouldn’t write Bob Dylan a letter unless you have something melancholy and despairing to write about.

Were I to write Bob Dylan a fan letter, I’d ask him about the prepositional relationships of the characters to Desolation Row. Whether mailing from, thinking about, escaping to, punished for going to, leaning out far enough from, playing on, sweeping up on, or looking out from, some characters appear on or in Desolation Row, while others appear apart from it. I can’t discern a pattern.

Can you?

more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained

more from Defenestrationism.net

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