Returning to the original version of Desolation Row after years of hearing it in live performances, is quite a shock. I recall a performance at Wembley where suddenly it became a dance number – and none the worse for that, because once again it woke us all up to the terrors portrayed in the song.
In the original there is something so gentle and clean about the opening bars with the sweet continuing melodic guitar in the background, and then across it comes that line: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” and you know that in and around Dylan’s home town they were still doing that when he was a kid. The album is named after the highway that passes near his home town – this is Dylan talking about home.
Unhappy men, living in attics and also listening to Visions of Johanna have used lines from the end of the song to explain their feelings and emotions over the breakup of a relationship (especially the last verse), but “I received your letter yesterday” is more about the isolation of the singer from a world gone very wrong indeed, rather than anything else. It is the ultimate reflection on the decline of American idealism into an anti-intellectual fascism that protects those with against those without.
It is the most powerful attack Dylan made on his society – but it not as many claim, a surreal song. Rather it is a science fiction story of the Philip Dick genre – a total dystopia. To have added jagged guitar and pulsating drum would have been too obvious – this is peaceful music for a world that has collapsed. It doesn’t have to rain to show you the world is a miserable place.
Likewise the chord sequence is kept simple, like the accompaniment, which makes the horror of the lyrics all the more real.
There are lines here for everyone – you choose the verse and it gives you the horror show. It is The Waste Land for those who don’t read Eliot.
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
It doesn’t get more frightening than that, does it?
Revised 22 December 08 – thanks to Pat Sludden for corrections