By pretty much unanimous consent, the 33 1/3 Series of books about classic albums is pretty spotty. That said, I’ve only read four of them and enjoyed them all.
Bill Janovitz’s in-depth analysis of Exile On Main St. was the best of the bunch, and will be tough to beat. However, this look at Bob Dylan’s masterwork, Highway 61 Revisited by Mark Polizzotti, isn’t too far off that mark.
The premise of these short books (most are under 150 pages) is not to provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of recording, or to expose anything new. These books are really little more than comprehensive reviews of the album in question. Everything from the cover art to the individual songs is dissected. In some ways, these books are the literary equivalent of the great Classic Albums series of DVDs.
For Highway 61, the author examines not only the songs that appear on the album, but also the two songs that were recorded at the same time but released only as singles (the vicious “Positively 4th Street” and the equally nasty “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”). Bob’s electric machine-gunning of the folk and toke crowd at Newport is also discussed.
All of the legends of the recording are written about in depth…how Al Kooper slipped into the studio as a guest and sat behind the organ and ended up creating the organ sound that defined the mid-Sixties music scene; how Dylan hired one of the best blues guitar players in the world to play on the album only to tell him that he wasn’t allowed to play “any of that B.B. King shit”; how Dylan played the original acetate version of the album featuring different songs in a different order for the Beatles, and then hurriedly changed it when the Fabs didn’t think it was all that good.
The lyrics…those magnificent, complex, stream of consciousness lyrics…are also discussed in depth, and placed into their proper place in the canon of folk music. Dylan’s folk music was an older, surreal brand of American music, murder ballads, beat poetry, and fantasy. He was never a part of the “I gave my love a cherry” crowd, and even his most bizarre lyrics sit squarely inside the older tradition from whence he came.
Think of this book, and the others I’ve read in the series (Exile On Main St., The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and Murmur) as being lengthy magazine articles that simply tell the story of a classic album, and there is much to enjoy here. If you’re looking for information about guitar pedals, stories of wretched drug excess, and wholesale groupie shenanigans, then stick to quickie biographies by hack writers. The 33 1/3 Series of books are written by fans about their favorite albums. As such, they speak to the fan in me that loves to sit up all night talking about music with friends.