Desolation Row

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

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15 Responses to Desolation Row

  1. patsludden says:

    Hi Tony,

    Your interpretations are amazing. Whilst I don’t understand the musical, the lyrical content is very interesting and gives a different viewpoint as to what we in Bobland already have.

    One small point view, when we discussed Mississippi recently I mentioned that Bob wasn’t from there but from Minnesota

    See you soon. Keep up the good work

    Pat

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/149/Desolation-Row (Additional Information)

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    The Hangman’s card, a symbol of regeneration, is missing from the deck in Eliot’s Wasteland, but is on sale in Desolation Row. It’s not a dystopia, but a place to escape to, not from, if you’re an artist looking for kindred spirits unhappy with mainstreet society.

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    Mr. Attwood, Dylan rebuts TS Eliot perception that
    America is ‘a total dysopia’; the singer is not talking about the blandless of small country towns, but the impersonal, noncaring hustle and bustle of the big city in which there are enclaves to which though who reject that style of life can escape to; yes, there are problems, the, but threats come mostly from the oursde:
    “At midnight the agents and superhuman crew/
    Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do/
    ………….
    Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation
    Row’.

    That’s ‘to’, not ‘from’; for example, artists and musicians escaping to Greenwich Village to find a creative atmosphere.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    * corrections: where those who reject/there are problems, but…
    from the outside

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    dystopia….good grief!

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    dystopia….good grief!

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    Feel free to delete this technopeasant’s duplicate posting.

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    *blandness of small…

  10. Larry Fyffe says:

    * from the outside…good grief, sorry about the typos!

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    Scarlet Town that uses the traditional ballad Ode To Barbara Allen as a template depicts small town USA as somewhat of a dystopia but even that song ends with a message of hope. As reviewers have noted, Dylan draws upon the Quaker abolitionist poet John Whittier:
    “How blessed the swineherd’slow estate/
    The begger crouching at the gate”.
    (Whittier: Chapel Of Hermits)

    Beggers crouched at the gate/
    Helps comes but it comes to late”.
    (Dylan: Scarlet Town)

    Dylan lyrics, always two-edged….better late than never.

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    *too late

  13. Larry fyffe says:

    “I touched the garment but the hem was torn/
    In Scarlet Town where I was born”
    (Scarlet Town: Bob Dylan)

    refers to Matthew 14:36:

    “And besought after him that they might only touch the hem of his garment/
    And as many as touched were made perfectly whole”

    Dylan instead finds that everything is broken; that Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.

  14. Larry fyffe says:

    In the US, government employees and military personnel are issued special brown passports.

  15. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks for that Larry. I’m showing my Englishness again – didn’t know that

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