All Directions at Once 11: Beyond the remains of Desolation Row

A full index to the previous articles in this series is available here.

By Tony Attwood

After composing “Desolation Row” Bob Dylan might have been forgiven for taking a little break; he had after all created a monument, something that most people would consider to be their supreme artistic achievement of a lifetime.  But he didn’t stop at all, for after a quick side-line with From a Buick 6 Bob then really started to explore the possibilities that Rolling Stone had opened.  The possibilities of the anti-love song, or as I’ve called them on this site, “the songs of disdain”.

And he didn’t hang about, for he was straight into that notion with the next songs: first a quick trial run with “Can you please crawl out your window,” then full-blown disdain with “4th Street”.

But let’s get the perspective right.  By the time Dylan had come to write “Rolling Stone” he had already written 114 of the 600+ songs of which we now have recordings, and none of those 114 songs can readily be counted as a “song of disdain.”  The only contender for such a subject title would be “Ballad in Plain D” but here the disdain is for the sister, while the essence of the song is not his dislike of her, but the love she caused him to lose.  So I stay with the notion of “Rolling Stone” as the first song in this newly invented genre.  And most certainly in “Rolling Stone” we could be left in no doubt as to who in the piece was the centre of his attention, and what he thought of that person.

Indeed, so accomplished is “Rolling Stone” lyrically and musically, that we can easily forget that this was not just a first for Dylan in this particular genre, but pretty much a first for pop and rock music, wherein the songs were fundamentally about love, lost love and dance, as I have mentioned before.  Yes folk songs went elsewhere, most commonly into social justice and being against war, but otherwise, love, lost love and dance held sway.

So it is therefore probably not surprising to recognise that having discovered (or indeed we might say “invented”) the concept of “songs of disdain” Dylan now used it four or five times more (the number depending on what you make of “Queen Jane”) before the year was out.  The songs I put in this genre are

  1. Why do you have to be so frantic (Lunatic Princess). 
  2. Can you please crawl out your window?
  3. Positively Fourth Street
  4. Queen Jane Approximately
  5. Ballad of a thin man

Lunatic Princess is an incomplete song, but there can be little doubt as to the nature of the piece.   There is a link to a recording to it within the article listed above; we may best note it as a sketch preparing the ground for this what was to come in the aftermath of “Rolling Stone”.

And thereafter Bob settled down to continuing the work he had started in Rolling Stone by composing “Can you please crawl out your window.”  And what makes this song so fascinating is that at this point Dylan not only decided to explore this new genre of disdain that he had created, he also decided to explore just how instrumentation and accompaniment could affect the enter meaning of the song – something that he came to develop over and again from 1987 onwards in what we came to know as the Never Ending Tour

What really changes everything in this song is the introduction of the glockenspiel – an instrument akin to a xylophone but with metallic rather than wooden blocks and hammers.  It makes for a much more relaxed sound, as Dylan adjusts the melody to fit to this, with both the glock and the singer producing descending scales in the chorus.

The result is a much more reflective piece than we got in the single that was released… Dylan is almost pleading with the subject of the song to come out beyond the window and explore the world – and the subsequent re-write clearly demonstrated to him (if he didn’t know it already) that melody and instrumentation can be used to change the meaning of a song just as much as words can.

This second version is much more edgy, and that extra edge is achieved entirely through instrumentation and those very slight changes to the melody.   The accompaniment is only just this side of cacophony; now he really is digging into the subject of the song and he really wants us (and the subject of the song) to know exactly how he feels.

So why should I make such a fuss about songs of disdain and changes of instrumentation and melody?  Basically, because through our having access to so much of Dylan’s unreleased material, and through Dylan’s propensity for exploring options and possibilities, and the fact that he wrote so much music, we have what is an extremely rare insight into a composer at work.  For while many short songs can be, and indeed are, written in a matter of minutes (just how long could it have taken to write “Hound Dog” for example?) Dylan was now like a painter wondering just what happens if I change the shade of the picture here, or the put that line just a little further to the left…

To show what I mean by this, we might consider that Wikipedia (at least at the moment I am writing this, on 23 Oct 2020) has an article on the subject of the song, which opens with the statement that, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? is a folk rock song written by American musician Bob Dylan.”   I find this very odd, for to describe the song as “folk rock” is to ignore everything within the song.  The anger of the lyrics, the musical aggression in the version released as a single… This is not folk rock but something far more aggressive.  A expansion of the new form… a song of disdain in fact.

Jochen in his review of this song on Untold Dylan presented us with a version of the song by The Hold Steady, taken from the soundtrack of the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007).  It is a most interesting performance as the band gives us both interpretations of the song – the gentle first verse, and then the full blow disdain.

Now as we all know the song ends with the opening line of “Positively Fourth Street” which, at least according to such records as exist, Dylan wrote after “Please Crawl.”   And we note that both songs are unusual musically in that they neither of them resolve the song back to the chord that is the foundation (the key chord) of the song.  Pop, folk, rock and songs from similar genres in western music are each in a key – usually written as being “in C” or in “D minor” etc.  There are 24 keys, half of them major and half minor ranging from A to G, and incorporating keys that start and end note just on the seven white notes of the piano keyboard (A to G) but the five black notes (B flat, C sharp etc, normally written Bb and C#).  Most people hear songs in a minor key as being inherently sad, although skillfull writing can change that.

When we say a song is “In C” it not only tells us which notes are primarily used, but also what chord the song generally starts and finishes on (leaving aside songs that fade out on the record of course).  But both these songs abandon this rule, and that adds very significantly to the edginess that we feel.  I am not sure that Dylan wrote any other songs that used this technique, but I think these were the first two where he tried it out.  (Do correct me if I’m wrong).

So these are two songs of real disdain (something I think that was new in popular music) are linked by an even rarer musical experiment of ending each verse on an unexpected chord.  But then, having tried that Bob set these ideas aside to think instead about “Highway 61 Revisited”.    Not just as the title of his next album but also a song that he has played and played on his tours, over and over again.

Indeed at the moment of writing, “61” is the third most often played song by Dylan in concert, beaten only by the Watchtower, (mostly as an encore) which was finally dropped from the schedules in 2018, and “Like a rolling stone.”   Up to November 2019, “Highway 61” had notched up a very pleasingly round total of exactly 2000 outings.   It clearly still means a lot to Bob.

As I think we all know Dylan has expressed an affinity with the road saying in Chronicles “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

For a man who has almost certainly done more full-scale professional gigs to significant audiences than anyone else, that is quite a statement.

As for the highway itself, this is the road that ran through Duluth, the road that connects with everyone from Muddy Waters to Charly Patton via Elvis Presley.  Bessie Smith died in a car crash on Highway 61.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil on Highway 61.  And Dylan uses the song to say “only the blues makes any sense”.  It’s another Dadaistic vision of the world.  Art for a world that makes no sense.  It’s about his home, his father, the blues, the road, weird people and … nonsense.

In the late summer of 1965, Dylan did an interview with the New York Post in which he is quoted as saying, “folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s never been simple. It’s weird, man, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts. I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs. They were out of sight.”  Which suggests that this was Dylan drawing on the traditions of folk, by inventing his own weirdness.

Which goes someway to justify my one line entry for Highway 61 as I tried to represent every song’s subject matter in just one line: “The world makes no sense, except maybe the blues; Dada.”

Now part of the definition of Dada is that it negates traditional values in art, and this is where Dylan most certainly was; the creating of a new set of values (which is something we are most certainly going to have to face when this series reaches the Basement Tapes).  Traditionally art is about beauty – but the songs of disdain such as “4th Street” and “Window” have nothing to do with beauty. They are of portraits of nasty people, self-centred people, people gone very wrong.  But not necessarily real people, for with “Highway 61” Bob starts to create his own myths, legends and ghosts exactly as folk music (at least in Bob’s view) does.  Indeed this song can be seen as the foundation stone of the 1967 songs from John Wesley Harding.

But was he right about folk music?  Yes in the sense that folk music, like folk tales, was not about the world as we know it.  Consider Nottomun Town…

Sat down on a hard, hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me yet I was alone
Took my hat in my hand, for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drowned that never was born

But before that Bob had another idea in his mind.  He had written some outspoken songs of disdain and he was about to write more.   So the pattern continued with the absolute nightmare and despair of Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues.   Indeed one could argue this is not so much disdain but self-loathing.   And just in case we hadn’t got the message Queen Jane Approximately opens with, “When your mother sends back all your invitations…”

And even then after that round of negativity Bob is still not ready to stop, for the next song is another song of absolute disdain, Ballad of a thin man.   Indeed Dylan seems to want to present us with negativity from every angle; despair at ourselves, dislike of everyone else, from the intellectual through to the common man; in fact pretty much everyone.

It therefore seems inevitable that he would want to compose an overarching piece which put all this into some kind of unity.  But before he could do that he needed to get a few more thoughts out of the way.

And I should add that it is completely wrong to say at this stage that Bob Dylan had abandoned folk music and gone across to pop and rock music.  In fact the reverse is true, for he had mined the folk traditions ever deeper and brought them into a rock music accompaniment through which he could reach a wider audience.

Although I must admit there is just a chance that at this moment Bob was actually thinking that he’d pushed things too far.  He was still with Dada, but in Jet Pilot we do get a moment of humour…  Nottamun Town having a laugh….

Well, she’s got Jet Pilot eyes from her hips on down.
All the bombardiers are trying to force her out of town.
She’s five feet nine and she carries a monkey wrench.
She weighs more by the foot than she does by the inch.
She got all the downtown boys, all at her command
But you’ve got to watch her closely ’cause she ain’t no woman
She’s a man.

Indeed what we have is yet another preview of the Basement Tapes.

And we must also note that these songs came pouring out from Dylan one straight after another for as far as we can tell it was just one studio session produced a new arrangement of “Can you Please Crawl out Your Window” and “I Wanna be your lover,” plus “Jet Pilot”. along with “Medicine Sunday”, which later became “Temporary Like Achilles”.

Indeed this song is worth considering for a moment for it is very much of a style that Bob Dylan favoured at this time – the surreal characters, some of whom are engaged here in references to myths, some to actual people, the racing rhythm, the restriction of the whole piece to just three chords and hardly any melody, the band at full pelt…  And a fair amount of Verlaine and Rimbaud.

Thus the message is clear: nothing makes any real sense in this world, and leaving aside Medicine Sunday of which we only have an extract, the next two songs retain that vision of nothing being as it should be allied with a certain sense of panic in Long distance operator. And all that before Dylan ends the year with yet another masterpiece

There are thousands in the phone booth
Thousands at the gate
There are thousands in the phone booth
Thousands at the gate
Everybody wants to make a long-distance call
But you know they're just gonna have to wait

Well yes, when you are preparing to write another absolute masterpiece, I suppose you have to do something with that typewriter.  Until you are ready, that is.

So let us just pause and recall that in this year of 1965 Bob didn’t just write 29 songs, these songs included a whole string of masterpieces.  You will undoubtedly be able to create  your own list, but I struggled to get my list of works of total brilliance even down to ten.  Ten songs that would more than do most songwriters for a lifetime, and for Dylan it was just one year.  Here’s my choice with these simple summations of what each is about.

  1. Farewell Angelina (Song of Farewell)
  2. Love Minus Zero (Love)
  3. She Belongs to Me (Love)
  4. It’s all over now baby blue (Song of Farewell)
  5. It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry (I’m so tired of all this moving on)
  6. Like a Rolling Stone (Song of Disdain)
  7. Desolation Row (Political protest; It’s not the world, it’s how you see the world)
  8. Positively Fourth Street (Song of Disdain)
  9. Highway 61 Revisited (The world makes no sense, except maybe the blues; Dada)
  10. Visions of Johanna (Mystical people in the half light, surrealism, Dada)

What I see here is the sadness of saying farewell to Angelina and Baby Blue, being replaced by the love songs (ahead of Bob’s marriage) and then a tiredness of the world and the notion that the world is wrong and the world makes no sense… and finally, that urge at the end to set out for all time what life is like in this twilight world beyond the mainstream, beyond the lights.

A song that says the wreckage of the world is everywhere for us to see, but people still have to live here – they still are living here in these shadows where the night plays its tricks.

To my mind “Johanna” could not have been written without Dylan working his way through a mindset which included the vitriol about “going electric,” the utter disdain of “4th Street”, the mystical love of “Love Minus Zero”, the most heartfelt farewell of Baby Blue, the anger of “Thin Man”…

For Johanna is the ultimate picture of life in the shadows, and before one can see the shadows, one has to see the life in the daylight, and then adjust one’s eyes to settles down and not just see the inhabitants of the underside, but find the words to describe their strange world, their strange half-life.

Of course it is night.  Of course everyone in this crazed world is trying to be quiet.  And yes Louise quite possibly believes she actually is holding a handful of rain.   And yes, all in all there really is nothing to turn off because there is nothing left.  This is not so much a mad world any more but an utterly lost world.  The people in it are lost, as is the world itself, disconnected from the rest of reality.  Everything is tangled, everything is muddled nothing is real, the visions (and they are not even the singer’s visions, but her visions) have taken over.

For me, brilliant as so much of the work this year was, undoubtedly as several of the songs are works of absolute genius, “Visions of Johanna” is the summit of the Dadaistic expression, and the summit of Dylan’s creative life thus far.

Plus there is a moment in the midst of the images where Bob says, “How can I explain, it’s so hard to get on…” and that in itself, to me sums up the whole year.  The year of absolute love and total disdain.  Of marriage and “4th Street”.  Of regretful farewells and turning away.  Of not just writing “Love minus zero” but of also writing “Fourth Street” – and writing them within a few months of each other.

But what this list of my top ten from the year (still retained in the order that they were written) tells me is that the journey of exploration for Dylan was still continuing.  The love songs like “She Belongs to Me” are replaced by the songs of utter disdain (Rolling stone) before we move away from pointing fingers at the people and simply are given the canvas revealing the world in which these people exist.

From 24 September 24 Bob Dylan toured the U.S. and Canada for six months, backed by what became known as “The Band”.

On 22 November Dylan quietly married Sara Lownds while they were (or so we are told) living in the Chelsea Hotel.

On 30 November Dylan made the first ever recording of “Visions of Johanna”.  He had created a bleak landscape, a desolate land, a wilderness in which people live, unsure and unaware that there actually is anything beyond their world.  In all, 14 takes were recorded.

On 4 December Bob Dylan gave the world premier of “Visions” at the Berkeley Community Theatre.   He had looked at the world, and shone a light in the darkened corners which until that moment, the world had chosen not to look at.

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes “ev’rything’s been returned which was owed”
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

12 years of Untold Dylan

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