Never Ending Tour: the absolute highlights 2: Desolation Row. 1990.

By Tony Attwood, based on the research of Mike Johnson

Dylan’s driving force in relation to his own music is, I believe, to see where his songs can go.  And that driving force continues long after each song has been written and recorded.

This is a different drive from one that involves listening to the music and thinking, “this ought to be a blues” or “I’m losing the love interest, let’s slow it down” or even “it sounds too sad, let’s put it in a major key.”

Such changes by a composer are basic – the sort of things that the singer in a band might say to the rest of the band about a performance while ignoring the composer totally.  “Let’s beef it up a bit,” is what I’ve had the group’s leader say.  “Give it a bit of oomph” (which is probably a very English expression, but I’m sure there must be an American equivalent).

However, on the musical re-arrangement front, my guess would be that from around the time of “Times they are a-changin” no one could (or would probably dare) tell Bob what to do.  They might make suggestions perhaps, but if Bob said “no, I want to do it like this,” then who could stop him?

Take “Desolation Row” – it is about the collapse of everything, your personal life, your heroes, your friends, our elected leaders.  Everything is hopeless, everything has gone wrong, everything is lost.  Somewhere along the line we really did take the wrong turn.

So you might expect slow and desperate – but to keep us on our toes in the original recording Bob gives us delicate and gentle, while indeed keeping the lilting gait.  But now, in 1990, 35 years later, Bob says, “the collapse of everything has happened; let’s see how fast this can go – so fast in fact you can’t move to it, it is high-speed express blowing us all away.”

And what is the point of that?   What does it say?   In one sense that’s fairly obvious; everything is moving at hyperspeed, and we’ve lost control.  As a result we are all there, rushing forward, hurtling onwards.


When we get to the traditional place for the harmonica solo – one verse before the end – it doesn’t happen.  The harmonica solo comes at the end, and the harmonica doesn’t rush.  The guitar might still be powering along at hyper speed, but the harmonica will none of that.  It is a reminder of how things were.  How it used to be.  How we were able to reflect on times past…

The lyrics are of course still there, but having lived through those 35 years, the meaning is utterly different.  This is the express train driving through reality heading straight at the brick wall, or if you prefer over the cliff edge, and it all comes from that relentless acoustic guitar.

So we are no longer thinking about now, about everything being desperate, looking up and down the street to avoid the junkies and the wild taxi drivers, and the dead beta poets.  Instead, this is about the process of society and our government as it runs out of control and destroys the lives of everyone who is still there, just trying to survive, just trying to hold on.

Thus the lyrics are the same but the meaning evolves from a description of what is, into a painting of what we have crashed into.  It’s all gone; we lost, there’s no going back.

And it doesn’t matter that we know the lyrics and have taken other meanings from them, the power and the driving force is so great that the old meanings are left behind; all that we now have is this drive towards that brick wall.   Suddenly the rearrangement of faces takes on a new, ever more frightening meaning.   They’re not even human anymore.

As a performance, I find it awesome at every level.  It is phenomenally difficult to perform at that speed for a verse, let alone a whole song, and as a result of that speed, it is very powerful indeed.  And above all, a totally unexpected vision from a piece that we know so well.

This is Dylan the composer-performer-reinventor at his very, very best.

Never Ending Tour – the absolute highlights. 1: John Brown 1987


  1. The New Historicists assert that a piece of art like a song and it’s music are affected by the social happenings at the time in which it’s written, and so too the reaction of critics thereto.

    The historical environment outside the work must be looked at, they say.

    That is, the upping of the tempo of Desolation Row above, and leaving out many of the allusions that there are in the original version, is a consequence and reflection of the faster-paced culture of today – alienation from everything quickens, there’s no time to think.

    However, with Dylan there’s still the memory of the then, of when the song was written.

    Emptying “Desolation Row” of it’s original sentiment and meaning, critics can claim makes the lyrics with its music better for these modern times.

    But they’d be wrong.

  2. Though there’s no real need for the critic to go outside the original recorded version of ‘Desolation Row’ in order to realize that it’s a timeless masterful song in and of itself.

  3. Certainly doesn’t mean that Dylan received the original song out of the blue.

    Nor do critics finding that the singer/songwriter reworked the song in a notebook (scratched out some lines, added others) matter. The song as finally recorded matters.

    How long does it last, how long it live. The listener matters.

    You can tell old Bill that when he comes home – sometimes the writer himself does not realize how good a song is until it’s revealed by one means or another

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