Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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The impetus of On the Road is always to go further and deeper into the mystery of America until the border with Mexico is crossed in a moment of supposed transcendence that is the climax (as well as the anti-climax) of the novel. The furthest point Sal Paradiso and Dean Moriarty reach in their travels is Laredo, and across the borderline they find an impressive array of pharmaceuticals, easy-going poverty, sexual license, the blurring of genders, and a cultural richness and authenticity arguably absent from nineteen-fifties America. It is no accident that ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is set in Ciudad Juarez, the other great Mexican border town, and that the song seems consciously to allude to Sal Paradiso’s disappointing experiences in Laredo. The influence of Kerouac on Highway 61 Revisited runs deep in many respects. The phrase ‘Desolation Row’ itself combines the title of Kerouac’s 1965 novel Desolation Angels with either Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or the ‘Skid Row’ evoked in the writings of Woody Guthrie and elsewhere. Indeed, although the town or city that has Desolation Row within its bounds includes some elements that suggest it is a surreal portrait of Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, as Sean Wilentz writes in his book Bob Dylan in America, it is just as ‘reminiscent of Kerouac’s Mexico’, also noting that: ‘asked at a press conference to name Desolation Row’s location, Dylan replied, “Oh, that’s some place in Mexico.”’

But the most important aspect of the liminal in the songs of Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan’s use of the concept in defining individuals. Almost all of the songs on the album circle around this idea in one way or another. In ‘Desolation Row’, the singer satirises those on the Titanic who shout out ‘which side are you on?’, but the notion of division – the ‘sides’ one chooses to be ‘on’ – is key both to that specific song and much of the album. In the much later ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ from Blood on the Tracks (1974), Dylan uses a trope in which characters resemble playing cards dealt out in a game of poker. All the characters of ‘Desolation Row’ especially, with their ‘names’ and ‘faces’ rearranged, can be seen in the same way: as playing cards dealt out on either side of a ‘dividing line’ that runs ‘through the centre of town’ like the proverbial train tracks with their ‘right’ and ‘wrong sides’. Some characters move from one side of the line to the other, like Miss Lonely in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; some find themselves stuck on the wrong side of the divide, like ‘Romeo’ from ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘Mr Jones’ in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. In other songs, the idea of the liminal is used to both condemn and affirm (‘Like a Rolling Stone’); to plead and persuade (‘Queen Jane Approximately’); to express a world-weary cynicism (‘Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues’), but always the fundamental metaphor is the same.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul