Asked by Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in December 1997 about the genesis of “Highlands” off of Time Out of Mind, Dylan said:
“I had the guitar run off an old Charley Patton record [in my head] for years and always wanted to do something with that. I was sitting around, maybe in the dark Delta or maybe in some unthinkable trench somewhere, with that sound in my mind and the dichotomy of the Highlands with that seemed to be a path worth pursuing…It starts off as a stream of consciousness thing and you add things to it. I take things from all parts of life and then I see if there is a connection, and if there’s a connection I connect them. The riff was just going repeatedly, hypnotically in my head, then the words eventually come along.”
A few years later in December 2001, Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone brought up “Highlands” to Dylan and he provided additional information:
“That particular song, we worked with a track that I had done at a sound check once in some hall. The assembled group of musicians we had down at the studio just couldn’t get it, so I said, ‘Just use that original track, and I’ll sing over it.’ It was just some old blues song I always wanted to use, and I felt that once I was able to control it, I could’ve written about anything with it.”
The Recliner Notes’ “Can’t Wait” post details the use of sampling on Time Out of Mind as well as the large group of musicians assembled to record that album. In the quotes above, Dylan senses that he wants something more basic and stripped down for “Highlands.” A stumbling guitar starts the song off. It takes a short time for the guitar to find the right groove. It settles down starting the loop and the other instruments join and play to that loop. The repetition and the ghostly sounds of the instrumentation create a hypnotic accompaniment for the listener and for Dylan as he says above. He says that with that particular musical bed, he “could’ve written about anything with it.” With the more than 16 minute long “Highlands,” he does.
The Highlands are a specific place in northwest Scotland, sparsely populated by people and abundantly populated by mountains. Many people of the world have a region that they refer to as “highlands,” but we know Dylan is referring to Scotland as he cites “the Aberdeen waters” in the first chorus. As Dylan said above, he evokes a utopian ideal when referring to the Highlands as a counterpoint to his regular, everyday existence. For Dylan, the Highlands are a place of the imagination and romanticism.
Dylan’s Highlands bring to mind a region in the north of England from literature, the moors of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. When Catherine and Heathcliff – the two main characters of the novel – are children, the moors are a place for rambling and play, representing their wild inclinations. Later, it is a place of escape for the two characters acting as the only place they can be free.
“[They] are always invoking the help of nature. They both feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey. They seized those aspects of the earth which were most akin to what they themselves felt or imputed to their characters, and so their storms, their moors, their lovely spaces of summer weather are not ornaments applied to decorate a dull page or display the writer’s powers of observation–they carry on the emotion and light up the meaning of the book.”
This is not dissimilar to how Dylan portrays the Highlands. Dylan tells us repeatedly that his heart is in the Highlands and shares distinctive features of the region: “Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air;” “The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme;” and “Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low.” This utopian vision is what is driving the narrator to get through his day: “I’m gonna go there when I feel good enough to go.” In the last chorus, he sings:
Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day
Over the hills and far away
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
But I’m already there in my mind
And that’s good enough for now
The Highlands is an imaginative ideal for the narrator. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get there, but it’s his already. The yearning for the Highlands is enough to keep him going, to live, endure, and, ultimately, to create.
Though “Highlands” is the last song on an album that has a rather dark outlook at times, the song is awfully funny throughout. The line: “I don’t want nothing from anyone, ain’t that much to take / Wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake” is a perfect example of the narrator’s outlook and a wry turn of phrase through the rhyme. Later, he says,
If I had a conscience, well, I just might blow my top
What would I do with it anyway
Maybe take it to the pawn shop
Is there anything more debasing for an object, let alone a conscience, than to sell it to a pawn shop? How much are you going to get for a good conscience? What about a bad one? Twenty bucks? Ten?
Dylan is at his straight-faced funniest during the narrator’s exchange with the waitress in the restaurant in “Boston town.” She pushes the narrator to draw her; he produces excuse after excuse, and the waitress isn’t haven’t any of it. She provides solutions for every excuse and then is dissatisfied at the final product. The narrator is able to escape when citing Erica Jong as a sole example of his reading of female authors. The whole scene has a “do you see what I have to put up with?” vibe from Dylan, emphasizing the comic nature of the episode. Always good for an unexpectedly funny rhyme, Dylan delivers a whopper: “long white shiny legs” and “soft boiled eggs.”
In “Highlands,” Dylan gives a shout out to one of his peers: “I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound / Someone’s always yelling turn it down.” Dylan has shared mixed feelings for Neil over the years. We saw his distaste for Neil’s song “Helpless” in the post about “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan further expressed his uncomfortable history with Neil to Scott Cohen of Spin in a December 1985 interview:
“The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold.’ I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to
‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ There I was, stuck on the desert someplace, having to cool down for a while.”
Dylan singing in “Highlands” that he’s “gotta turn up the sound” while listening to Neil is acknowledgement of the shaky start to their relationship, but he can’t deny that he loves what he hears. It’s an admirable affirmation by Dylan. Neil returned the favor by giving Dylan a shoutout in 2003’s “Bandit,” one of his best songs of the 21st century: “You’re invisible / You got too many secrets / Bob Dylan said that / Somethin’ like that.”
For all of its humor, “Highlands” includes one of the starkest verses in Dylan’s career:
The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away
Have there been any other words written in popular music that captures the weight of aging more than this verse? Unlike other songs in his catalog which address the end of the world through a thunderous apocalypse, this verse is grounded, very personal, and bleak. Dylan delivers the line “I got new eyes” as if he’s the bad guy in a movie. It’s a threat to anyone listening. It immediately puts us on notice. The use of “new” at first implies that there will be an improvement, but then Dylan reduces the threat and instead tells us that things will be worse when he sings: “everything looks faaaaaar away.” This is a desolate thought indeed. It forces Dylan to the last chorus where he once again returns to his imagination: “I’m already there in my mind.” As we discussed above, the Highlands provides solace and he can find acceptance: “that’s good enough for now.”
There’s one last funny anecdote about “Highlands” to share, this time from musician and producer Jim Dickinson who we previously talked about in the “Can’t Wait” post. Dickinson shared an amazing Dylan zinger with Damien Love for Uncut in 2008 saying that after they finished recording the 16 minute long “Highlands,”
“One of the managers came out, and he said, ‘Well, Bob, have you got a short version of that song?’ And Dylan looked at him and said: ‘That *was* the short version.’”