Life at 33 1/3: A nerd at large in the Dylan box

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Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (Addabbo-version) (Columbia)

Released: Maybe one day.

“Highway 61 Revisited” is one of the greatest albums ever made.  I touched it last week when I did my story on the 18 CD, 379 track box “The Cutting Edge” that collects everything put on tape during the 14 eventful months in 1965-1966 that brought us the “Bringing It All Back Home”/”Highway 61 Revisited”/”Blonde On Blonde”-trilogy.

And now I’m at it again.  The reason being that “The Cutting Edge” includes the original takes that ended up on these three original albums.  But they have been remixed by Steve Addabbo.  For better or worse?  I am not the one to decide.  Of the three titles mentioned, “Highway 61 Revisited” is the one that’s gone though the most dramatic audio changes.

I have compared the three available CD versions of “Highway 61 Revisited”: The 2003 stereo-edition (a remaster of the original 1965 stereo album), the 2010 mono-edition (a remaster of the original 1965 mono album) and the 2015 “The Cutting Edge”.  Please have in mind that I’m no hi-fi buff; I know as much about audio technology as a seven year old kid knows about quantum physics.  In other words, what follows is subjective guesswork and must be taken for what it is worth – very little.

But, when it comes to the sound level, i.e. mastering, the 2003 stereo CD is particularly powerful: The original positioning of the individual instruments is odd and very 60’s, the drums in “Tombstone Blues” for instance are placed over on the right hand side, but there’s reverb at work cascading across the stereo soundscape, creating a tremendous thunder.  On “The Cutting Edge” the drums are moved into the center, and they no longer dominate the recording.

The new mixes might at least partly have used the warmer timbre of original mono album as their reference.  On “The Cutting Edge” everything seems more balanced , elements that snapped at your eardrums – piercing harmonica, the metallic howls and rattle of electric guitars, the overwhelming drum sound – it’s all muted, balanced out and sewn into a tapestry that makes the sound experience more pleasant to the ear, also in relation to the mono LP.

There’s space between the instruments and around Dylan’s voice.  But hence Steve Addabbo’s mixes removes the untamed, slightly out of control attack of the 2003 version.  The music now sounds temperate, balanced, almost dainty.  This applies particularly to “Like A Rolling Stone” which emerges considerably less wild and threatening on “The Cutting Edge”.  Comparing it to my original American 1965 vinyl pressing, the difference is still very noticeable (it also becomes all too obvious that the 2003 remaster has been manipulated to boost the sound level).

I’m not sure what I prefer: The jangling extremes of the original mix, or the balanced beauty created by Steve Addabbo.  Addabbo’s made some courageous choices, I’ll give him that.  Presumably he considered it necessary to adjust the previously released versions so they did not differ too much from the work he had done with the enormous pile of outtakes.

As Addabbo’s mission was to present absolute everything that was captured on tape, he hit some unexpected ethical problems as quite a few of the original released takes had been faded before the actual recording stopped.  He decided to include what had originally been edited out.  In most cases this means that the songs are slightly extended, but not really for the better as they either just keep going a bit longer before they fade, or come to an abrupt halt.

We are in a gray area.  But it can be justified because “The Cutting Edge” is “The Cutting Edge”, and not “Highway 61 Revisited”.  It becomes a problem if one chooses to replace the original mixes with these on a later version of the album.  It is not unthinkable that Sony will do just that, relaunch “Highway 61 Revisited” on vinyl with the Addabbo-mixes.  Would you appreciate a “Like A Rolling Stone” that doesn’t fade out with a haunting, angry rattle but rather disintegrates into a single hovering Al Kooper organ note and a short, bark of Dylan-laughter?

As for “Tombstone Blues” it would lose some of its momentum if culminating in some free form honky tonk piano after the rest of the band has stopped playing.  But it fits into the context of “The Cutting Edge”.

You may well ask why I use all this space on an album that doesn’t exist.  The Steve Addabbo “Highway 61 Revisited” is a construction, a fantasy, based on what can be extracted from a 18 CD box into an iTunes library on the personal computer of a nerd who calls himself Carl Meyer.  But nerding is fun, and I have to admit, that yes, I would buy that album if it ever is made available on vinyl.  It couldn’t replace the original.  But it’s a new and fresh angle to the same story.  It sounds good, and I love the story.

I conclude with a list of the total playing time of each track.  “The Cutting Edge” listed first, then the 2003 stereo version and finally the 2010 mono version.  Deviations of a second or so does not necessarily mean that there are differences between the versions.

1) Like A Rolling Stone – 6:27 (6:06 s) (5:56 m)

2) Tombstone Blues – 6:11 (5:55 s) (5:51 m)

3) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry – 4:12 (4:03 s) (3:24 m)

4) *From A Buick 6 – 3:39 (3:15 s) (3:05 m)

5) Ballad Of A Thin Man – 5:54 (5:55 s) (5:48 m)

6) Queen Jane Approximately – 5:23 (5:26 s) (4:55 m)

7) Highway 61 Revisited – 3:33 (3:25 s) (3:13 m)

8) Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – 5:32 (5:26 s) (5:06 m)

9) Desolation Row – 11:16 (11:19 s) (11:16 m)

*If you can take any more nerd information: The version of “From A Buick 6”| that was included on the first few copies of “Highway 61 Revisited” back in late August, early September 1965, was by accident the wrong take.  It was replaced with the right one very quickly, but some albums were already out there.  And I’m the lucky owner of one of them.  The playing time of this wrong take is 3:10.  More or less identical to the playing time of the right take, but they do differ.  Ho hum.

Good luck.

Kind regards

The Nerd