Thursday, August 02, 2007

Desolation Row

One of my favorite Dylan songs for its William Burroughs like poetic imagery. And it still influences folks today, see here and here.

"Desolation Row" is the ninth and final song of Bob Dylan's sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited. This eleven minute song contains lyrics full of evocative imagery, poetry, and cultural references. It is the album's only purely acoustic track, in contrast to the thunderous electric rock and roll sound that Dylan was completely embracing for the first time with the album. It was recorded in New York City, New York on August 2, 1965; the take on the album was the second time Dylan had sung the song. Charlie McCoy plays the lyrical acoustic guitar passages throughout the song.

The songs of this period received wide critical acclaim. In the New Oxford Companion to Music, Gammond used Desolation as an example of Dylan's work of the mid-60s that achieved a "high level of poetical lyricism."

In 1969, Dylan told ROLLING STONE
he wrote this song in the back of a New York cab. Since it is 659 words and clocks in at more than eleven minutes, that's a long cab ride. It was spliced together from two consecutive takes during the last sessions for Highway 61.

Desolation Row

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning
"You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says," You're in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave"
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing
He's getting ready for the show
He's going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid

To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They're trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She's in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
"Have Mercy on His Soul"
They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they've nailed the curtains
They're getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They're spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they'll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words

And the Phantom's shouting to skinny girls
"Get Outa Here If You Don't Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row"

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Copyright © 1965; renewed 1993 Special Rider Music

Columbia Records

Commentary on Desolation Row, Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.

In this song, Desolation Row, Dylan is warning people that society is heading for destruction, an apocalype, if it continues in its then direction. With the US locked in a deadly embrace with Russia, teetering on a knife-edge of mutually assured nuclear destruction, it was reasonable for people to be concerned (more like scared half to death), but governments of the time characterised anyone who spoke out against the Cold War as unpatriotic, even traitorous. When we read the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it is horrifying to realise just how close the world came to letting the generals on both sides unleash a nuclear holocaust that would have likely destroyed much of the world as we know it.

In this song, Desolation Row, Dylan uses cultural and religious stereotypes as metaphors to describe this lunacy of main stream 1960's American society. Desolation Row is the name he gives to the place where people have gone to opt out of the lunacy, and who are being punished by society for not wanting to participate in the lunacy. For example, the lines "They're spoonfeeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured. Then they'll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words. And the Phantom's shouting to skinny girls "Get outa here if you don't know, Casanova is just being punished for going To Desolation Row"

Desolation Row is a counter-culture destination, though more a state of mind than an actual place. In this example he is referring to the average wage slave who is made to work long hours doing dehumanising work until they have a heart attack and die: Now at midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew (the FBI and other covert agencies looking for un-American activists), come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do (and who are therefore dangerous). Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine is strapped across their shoulders (the yoke of dehumanising work) and then the kerosene (to burn the midnight oil, to work long hours) is brought down from the castles (capitalist corporations) by insurance men (Actuaries who calculate how long someone is likely to live under these circumstances) who go check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row (no-one is opting out of the system)

The name Desolation Row may have been derived by combining the best of Desolation Angels (Kerouac) with Cannery Row (Steinbeck).

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, and wrote The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels from his life transforming experiences on the peak. On the other hand, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is a place where the outcasts of society found a home. Cannery Row is an actual place in Monterey California. It refers to the derelect sardine cannery whose close environs was occupied in the book by homeless men and the town brothel. The cannery was derelect because the sardines had disappeared through a combination of over-fishing, agricultural run-off and unspecified pollutants from a nearby army base. For Steinbeck, what happened to the sardines was symbolic of the ruthlessly exploit until exhausted attitude that society and the military-industrial complex had for the environment and ordinary people. Wring all the goodness out of something, then when it worthless, toss on the rubbish-heap and give it to the worthless people who are no use to us.

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