The term “dad rock” seems to get thrown around a lot these days, seemingly applied to every band from Wilco to Dawes. If an indie record has a touch of country and some well-placed electric guitar, chances are one of your favorite media outlets has slapped the moniker on it like a warranty label on a lawnmower.
But let’s face it. That term, at once loving and derogatory, should be reserved for one band and one band only: The Traveling Wilburys. Was there ever a band assembled more perfectly for the tastes of my generation’s dads? Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, pear-shaped and gray-bearded, shuffling around and singing about being pear-shaped and gray-bearded. It is the very definition of baby boomer dads. Not fathers. Dads.
And why not? The band—which was reduced to a quartet between its two albums, following Orbison’s death in 1988—was lovable and self-effacing, well aware that they were older than everyone else on MTV. They probably had no expectation that they’d even be allowed on MTV, but there they were, singing about how the “end of the line” was approaching. They also won a Grammy. Ah, the eighties.
My favorite Traveling Wilburys song is “If You Belonged to Me,” which finds Bob Dylan in fine form. It’s an age-old concept—“You’d be happy as you could be if you belonged to me,” goes the chorus—but it’s also typical Dylan. “The guy you’re with is a ruthless pimp,” he sings in one verse, “everybody knows. Every cent he takes from you goes straight up his nose.” Like the best Dylan songs, it’s prickly but not alienating; in its gentle ribbing of the subject, it’s “Like a Rolling Stone” Lite.
I’m not always a fan of Jeff Lynne’s production. He’s done some great work—Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and especially “Free Fallin’,” for one thing—but I generally find it too polished, too fussy, too shiny. It’s an odd fit for the Wilburys, a band whose informality was central to their appeal. But I love his work here, especially on that “ruthless pimp” verse, on which the mandolins chug while the drums thump and clack like a train. It’s an ingenious combination.
So now that I’m becoming (more) pear-shaped and graying, has my love of the Traveling Wilburys grown? Yes. There’s something to be said for knowing how old you are, and though I’m still a ways from the fiftysomething Wilburys, I’m a dad with a receding hairline, and my love for puns and middle-of-the-road rock songs finally has a logical place. I’m growing into my age, just like a Wilbury.
Where to start with Bob Dylan? I have nothing new to add about his greatness, and I’m not sure I could dig up any information that would be too new to you. Instead, I’ll tell you what I love about Highway 61 Revisited, and about this song in particular.
I wrote in my last post about “chaos barely contained” (or ugh, put less pretentiously, “barely contained chaos”), and I have a feeling I’ll be writing about that a lot here. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, whether in a feedback-addled Wilco song or an almost-too-drunk Replacements performance. I love the tension that results from a song sounding like it’s teetering on the edge, like it’s about to fall apart. There’s something beautiful about that.
That’s the way I feel about this era of Dylan. Highway 61 Revisited has been described as Dylan’s first rock album, even though “Desolation Row” is entirely acoustic and the record’s predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home, had plenty of electric guitar. But it’s true: Highway 61 just sounds like a totally different ballgame in Dylan’s evolution; everything sounds electric, even when it’s not. Dylan referred to Blonde on Blonde as “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” but I think that description applies more to Highway 61. The songs, though beautifully arranged and impeccably written, sound unpredictable and unstable.
So why “Queen Jane Approximately”? I love every song on Highway 61, but this song never gets its due. Sure, it’s kind of a rehash of “Like A Rolling Stone,” but it’s a little less direct, a little more sly. And the sneering of “Like A Rolling Stone,” though brilliant, is a bit much sometimes; on those days I’d rather hear the sarcastic questions of “Queen Jane.” And I love how, when Dylan sings “won’t you come see me” the first time in each chorus, the chord is the root (the key that the song is in), but the bass is playing the fifth instead. It’s playing a different note than the chord normally requires, giving that section a feeling of anticipation, a tension that finally releases when Dylan sings “Jane.” Then there’s that piano, which seems to be doing a call-and-response game with Dylan, joining in the mockery with a few asides.
There are moments on Highway 61 Revisited when it sounds like the band isn’t sure whether Dylan is about to sing a chorus, verse, or bridge, and that works to the record’s advantage. There isn’t much dependable about a thin, wild mercury sound, and that’s what we love about Bob Dylan.