Desolation Row (part one): The origins of the title

by Jochen Markhorst


Last December I finally found the courage to sit down and write an article on “Desolation Row”. Against my better judgment – I do know that you can’t do justice to such a monument in the 1400-2000 words an article usually gets. The same goes for songs like “Ain’t Talkin”, “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Brownsville Girl”… too big, too monumental.

But then again; even “No Time To Think” I eventually managed to squeeze into an article (okay, 2500 words, but still), so I thought: who knows.

It went wrong immediately, of course. After the first 1500 words I was not even beyond the title. And then the ten twelve-line couplets with the abundant explosion of colourful characters and bewildering scenes were yet to come.

In short: it has become a book. Available via Amazon, and here on Untold Tony will publish a few chapters. Below, the first. I do hope you’ll enjoy it.

Desolation Row part one: Title

Down at the end of the Lonely Avenue of Broken Dreams

I           Heartbreak Hotel

In September 1955, Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden write “Heartbreak Hotel”. The story behind it has since become an urban legend; an anonymous hotel guest burns his identity papers and jumps out of the hotel window towards his death. His farewell letter only says, “I walk a lonely street”. Tommy or Mae (both claim the idea) is struck by the newspaper report in the Miami Herald about it, renames the hotel to Heartbreak Hotel, and the first number 1 hit for Elvis is in the pipeline:

Well, since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel

A great story, and both songwriters tell it often enough, but it is only half true. Or less than half true, even. Investigative journalist Randy Owen delves into history in 2016 and, to begin with, cannot find that inspiring newspaper report from the Miami Herald anywhere. He does, however, find the tragic story of Alvin Krolik.

Krolik is a petty Chicago criminal who reports himself to the police in November 1953 after a series of armed robberies of hotels, restaurants and liquor stores. He is a Converted Sinner, the police see social value in publicity and call the newspapers. A staged photo of the interrogation is published in the Chicago Daily Tribune and Krolik is quoted. Frustration and heartache about his failed marriage to Agnes, Krolik says, have pushed him into a criminal, downward spiral. But he has anxiety attacks and regrets. And has even already written his memoirs “to save others from this fate.”

The words with which he promotes the autobiography do have a poetic ring:

“If you stand on a corner with a pack of cigarettes or a bottle and have nothing to do in life, I suggest you sit down and think. This is the story of a person who walked a lonely street. I hope this will help someone in the future.”

… and the newspapers gratefully adopt the ready-made headline: The Man Who Walked Lonely Street. The judge is moved too, and Alvin gets off with a symbolic prison sentence.

Two years later, at the end of August 1955, he makes the papers again. On a Saturday evening in El Paso, Texas, Alvin Krolik walks armed into a liquor store. The owner Delta Pinney is an old hat at this. Before Alvin appears on stage, Pinney has shot about eight robbers (the counts vary). The shooting liquor trader reaches under the counter for two of his eight hidden, loaded pistols down there, and peppers Krolik with nine bullets. Alvin dies on the spot.

A dozen American newspapers in Texas, North Carolina and Alabama report on this bloody incident, with headlines and subtitles that vary on Krolik’s own slogan two years earlier: The Story Of The Man Who Walked Lonely Street. Not the Miami Herald though, but somehow songwriters Durden and Axton must have seen or heard it – “Heartbreak Hotel” is written two weeks after this incident.

II          Lonely Street

It is a powerful, appealing image. In the same weeks, Doc Pomus writes “Lonely Avenue”, which is his breakthrough six months later when Ray Charles scores a big hit with it.

About the same time, Baker Knight writes “Lonesome Town” for Ricky Nelson, the song Dylan admires so deeply, and also in 1958 Kitty Wells records “Lonely Street”, with which Andy Williams will score well one year later.

The susceptibility to “lonely street” as a metaphor for desolation, despair, is probably been laid by the hit “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” from 1933. Written for the little impressive film Moulin Rouge, which quickly fades in the shadow of the song’s success, by the duo Al Dubin and the legendary composer Harry Warren (“Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “On The Atkinson, Topeka And Santa Fe”, “Jeepers Creepers”).

It is an attractive tango and a big hit, but the true stronghold is of course the golden find of copywriter Al Dubin. “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” penetrates the daily vocabulary almost immediately as an expression and has proverb status today.

It inspires a series of variants. Hank Williams roams a “Lost Highway” (1949), the Stanley Brothers inspire with an unhappy wandering on the “Highway Of Regret” (1959, borrowed for Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”). In between, the criminal Alvin Krolik introduces his variant, the “Lonely Street”.

And in 1965, Elvis, Stanley Brothers and Hank Williams fan Bob Dylan searches for and finds his own street name with the same metaphorical charge: “Desolation Row”.

III         Kerouac’s Desolation

For the specific choice of words Desolation and Row, most commentators do refer to Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (published May 1965, about six weeks before Dylan does write his song) and to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945).

With some goodwill there are lines to be found from Steinbeck’s work to Dylan’s, but they are not too significant. The multitude of colourful characters, the seamy side of the city atmosphere and the word “row”, that’s about it. On the other hand: the literal appearance of Cannery Row half a year later in “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (“With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row”) is remarkable. Though that seems, according to Joan Baez’s autobiography And A Voice To Sing With (1987), to be an echo of a carefree summer in love:

“When you came to stay in Carmel Valley, we went to coffee houses on Cannery Row, drove up and down the Big Sur coast, and bought an upright piano for two hundred dollars.”

Kerouac is deeper under Dylan’s skin and the influence of the Beat Poet on the bard is well documented. In 1994, Ginsberg analyses: “I know Kerouac was a major inspiration for him as a poet” and since the twenty-first century Dylan’s quote from the Elliott Mintz interview (June ’87) is on the reprints of Kerouac’s On The Road:

“I read On The Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”

Book and poem titles from Kerouac are a common thread in Dylan’s catalogue. On The Road is copied unfiltered (“On The Road Again”, 1965), The Subterraneans echoes in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, poem titles from Kerouac resonate in even more songs and the same applies to specific expressions and several word choices. “Housing Project Hill” in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” literally comes from Desolation Angels, for example.

On his website about Jack Kerouac, Dharma beat, the English Kerouac connoisseur Dave Moore presents more finds. Such as the exclamation in chapter 81, They sin by lifelessness!, which returns paraphrased in Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Dylan borrows the perfect image of a priest from chapter 92, in which, incidentally, the character David is compared to St. Augustine – another name that will resonate with Dylan.

Especially those literal and almost literal appropriations demonstrate that Dylan has Kerouac’s book on his bedside table at the time of the conception of “Desolation Row” and devours it in the weeks between the book’s publication and the song’s origins. In Kerouac’s work the words desolation and desolate appear eighty-five times, so it is quite likely that the term desolation has hooked itself into the creative part of Dylan’s jumpy mind.

IV         Row

Thus, the poet, who is looking for his own variant of Lonely Street, has caught the meaningful part of the street name. After that, only the generic term is missing to complete the name. “Desolation Street“? Or “Desolation Avenue“? Road, Boulevard or Lane? Place, Drive, Way?

For a poet for whom the sound is more important than the semantic content, “boulevard” is perhaps the most obvious choice, but Dylan dismisses that variant. To the delight of The Sweet, the glam rock band that reaches an artistic and commercial high point in 1973 and then can call its third album Desolation Boulevard (with hits such as “Ballroom Blitz” and “The Six Teens”).

The poet is more attracted to “row”, and that can be traced too. In addition to that link to an admired literary work, Cannery Row, the walking music encyclopaedia and jukebox Bob Dylan will have a good feeling about “row” thanks to his song baggage.

Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess visit Catfish Row, for example, but Dylan more likely thinks of Woody Guthrie’s “Buffalo Skinner”:

Our trip it was a pleasant one
As we hit the Westward Row
Until we struck ol’ Boggy Creek
In old New Mexico

… the song he will sing in the Basement (with a different title, “The Hills Of Mexico”) and to which he refers in his Nobel Prize Speech when he reveals which songs have taught him the “lingo” (“you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek”).

On top of that there is probably – after all – the semantic charge. Death Row, the name for the cell block with the prisoners facing execution, is very common and fits in well with the mood that Dylan wants to express in the poem, and Skid Row has long been an established concept in the American vocabulary, a synonym for fringes, for slums, for ghetto. “Skid Row” is also often mentioned in Desolation Angels, by the way – fourteen times.

And with that Dylan is there. He has an original, melodious street name with the desired symbolic charge, with the power of an allegory. And with many rhyme options – not unimportant for a word combination that will close every verse as a refrain line. “Desolation Row”… yes, it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good (as Dylan says in his Nobel Lecture).

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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  1. Very much interesting to read illustrations of chapters from book Desolation Row. Thank you for all embedded uploads, for some especially. Edward Hopper´s paintings very nice, I didn´t know him. Especially the first in the order in video I like. I read about St. Augustine´s life too. Thank you!

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