Desolation Row Revisited: making sense of the masterpiece now we live there

By Tony Attwood

“Desolation Row” was subject to a brief review in the early days of this website; brief because I found it hard to say anything that had not been said 1000 times over about this masterpiece.  But then a comment about that review was sent in from Mike Reynolds in 2017 to the effect that  “The song is loosely based on Tennessee Williams’ ‘Camino Real’.”

It was not something I had considered at all because I’ve always found Tennessee Williams’ work hard to approach (perhaps because of my Englishness), and indeed no one else had ever mentioned it, but I was really glad of the insight, and it gave me a completely new view.  Hence a second review of the song.

Heylin, in his fulsome review, notes that Dylan draws on Nietzsche, Kafka and Kierkegaard to “fuel a bleak, dystopian worldview”, but says that “references to the likes of Ophelia, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound in his oral epic in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or the authors of The Waste Land and The Cantos respectively.”

He adds that at this time Dylan “drew more from the world of painting than from any extra curricular reading.”

I had no grounds to argue with this at the time, but became increasingly uneasy about the commentary as I have followed Larry’s pieces on this site, in which he has repeatedly shown the depth of knowledge that Dylan has of writers past and present.  But it wasn’t until the comment about Camino Real was made that I decided to return to the song.  The knowledge of Camino Real takes me in such a different direction that I felt the need to write a totally new review, rather than to add to the old one.

Camino Real is a play written in 1953 relating to El Camino Real, a “dead-end place” in a town surrounded by desert with only occasional ways of reaching the outside world. The playwright described it as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in.”

You can see at once where this is going, I’m sure, and there are so many links with Dylan and “Desolation Row” from this play that the link to the play seems to me to be a key to understanding not just this song but a lot of Dylan’s work, and I am horrified by the fact that it has taken me so many years to find it.

The play contains Gutman, named after Sydney Greenstreet’s character from The Maltese Falcon and Signor Ferrari (again played by Greenstreet this time in Casablanca.  (Taking characters from movies, messing them around a bit and putting them in an new art work is so very Dylan, I feel, and something that again helps convince me that we are on the right track here).

There is also a range of literary characters who pop up including  Casanova, Lord Byron, and Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.   So yes it is possible that as Heylin suggests  “references to the likes of Ophelia, [etc]… in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, [etc]” but I don’t think this is the point.  The relationship with the world portrayed in Camino Real and its isolation from all these points of reference, is I suspect, the starting point of the song.

Camino Real has a storyline that is generally described as illogical and impossible, and focuses in fact on the point that there is no plot, because ultimately all these people and all their situations are irrelevant to anything else, (which in itself is ironic because the play closed on Broadway after just 60 shows).  The NY Times called it “a strange and disturbing drama.” 

That, I believe,  is what Dylan was expressing – the irrelevance of everything within the world we live in.  Even the horrors expressed in the opening lines which remind us of what actually did happen in the US, cannot burst through in a world where all these events just explode around us; there is so much out there nothing has a chance to make sense.  Indeed, too much of nothing.

We can perhaps also understand more about the song by considering Dylan’s writing in the months before and after the song including Subterranean Homesick Blues and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream in both of which he invented a way to take Beat Poetry into rock music.  These are not songs of explanation or insight, save the insight that nothing makes sense any more.

Also in this year Dylan gave us It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry which ends with the thought of the entire train getting lost – even having a set of rail tracks can’t actually help us find a direction or purpose.

At the same time Dylan was developing what I’ve called the songs of disdain – such as Like a Rolling Stone and (subsequent to Desolation Row) Can you please crawl out your window? and Positively Fourth Street.  What he has done with “Desolation Row” it now seems to me, is shown us that just as personal interactions with the world and the people we know within it, all break down, so the world itself in terms of being something that we can understand, also breaks down.  There is no makingssense of what we now see around us, be it on a personal level or with a broader perspective.

The theme is now of the familiar characters in disturbing and different places, slightly familiar events but not the right events in the right time or place – like a nightmare where nothing is quite what it should be, and nothing can ever be resolved.

That is Desolation Row.

If you found this article of interest you might also like to read Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

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4 Responses to Desolation Row Revisited: making sense of the masterpiece now we live there

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘Well, they’re going to the country, they’re gonna retire
    They’re taking a streetcar named desire’ (Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dee: Bob Dylan)…another Tennessee Williams reference .

    The development in the desert of nuclear bombs, like the ‘Fat Man’, with the breaking of the atom, gave Reality the final blow, and victory over the Fantasy expressed in the myth of the American Dream; with the sign at the entrance to the street reading ‘Dead End’ where the bus stops –
    Desolation Row with its circuses, theatres, music and drugs, an escape, an exile, for many from a broken world, a dystopia, into a world of dreams and desires.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Blanche: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them.” (A Streetcar Named Desire)

  3. pete says:

    Also: “Take what you have gathered from coincidence”

    Not what you have learned, or been taught, or deduced; just gathered by chance.

    And yet a deep morality is part of living in this distinctly weird world. In my opinion, Dylan expresses and resolves this apparent dichotomy throughout his career; many artists have, but none better.

  4. Mark T says:

    I always assumed the last verse explains his tactic, that these are all people, personal acquaintances, a friend had written about in a letter, and the singer “had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.” More a personal iconography than a universal one. Replying to a letter from a friend.

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