by Tony Attwood
Analyses of “Desolation Row” by and large focus on the lyrics. And there are a lot of lyrics to analyse: 670 words or thereabouts. And the key we have to understanding these lyrics is not just “Desolation Row” as a title, but also the music.
For this is a song about emptiness, loss, bleakness, grimness, loneliness, remoteness, isolation, hopelessness… accompanied by a rather jolly fairly simple tune with which, as the examples at the end hopefully show, one can do anything.
But the opening lines are a contrast to this music, they speak of selling postcards, the beauty parlour, and the circus, before we come to a the blind commissioner and the riot squad. And meanwhile into these lyrics there creeps a madness in concepts such as “sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.”
Yet throughout all this the music is, well, fairly positive. Negative emotions such as fear and sadness are normally expressed in minor keys or at least with minor chords, along with dramatic sounds from the band or orchestra, discordant noises rather than the jaunty tune we have here.
But jauntiness is what we get in Dylan’s original recording: it is a very pleasant melody based around the three major chords of the key, no minor chords, no discords, no feedback, no aggressive percussion, indeed nothing sudden at all. It is gentle. Unchanging. And here’s a thing: just to emphasise this point, there is no percussion.
And for me, it is with listening to other people’s versions of the song, where for example sometimes one gets more energy with percussion, and extra accent on certain words, that I can more readily perceive what Dylan has done. So that when we go back to the early acoustic versions we really can hear the essence of what Dylan was aiming for once he dropped the original notion of an electric version. (I think the guitar is re-tuned to “open tuning” get the effect of depth that he delivers here, while in the album version this is not the case).
Wiki reports that “the song was initially recorded in an electric version. The first take was recorded during an evening session on July 29, 1965, with Harvey Brooks on electric bass and Al Kooper on electric guitar. This version was eventually released in 2005 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.” And this adds quite a lot to my understanding of the song – for without this knowledge it could be argued that Dylan always saw it as a gentle non-electric song. Instead, it appears that it was only on trying the song out he perhaps realised the vast contradiction between the lyrics and the music is greatly enhanced when the song is performed as an acoustic piece.
The impression I get is of society (in terms of co-operation, caring for each other etc) having ended, civilisation has broken down, and there is nothing left. No electricity, no support, nothing. It is reminiscent of post-doomsday science fiction stories of the 1950s where human kind is living in the wreckage of the past.
Wiki also reports that “When asked where “Desolation Row” was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: “Oh, that’s some place in Mexico, it’s across the border.” Apparently, Al Kookper suggested it was part of Eighth Avenue, others see it related to Kerouac, “Desolation Angels”. I see it as nowhere and everywhere.
But just as there have been attempts to see Desolation Row as an actual place, so there have been multiple attempts to link the lyrics of the song to real events. Most powerfully, Polizzotti, and other critics, have connected this song with the lynching of three black men in Duluth. The men were employed by a travelling circus and had been accused of raping a white woman. On the night of June 15, 1920, they were removed from custody and hanged on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. Photos of the lynching were sold as postcards. Dylan’s father, Abram Zimmerman, was eight years old at the time of the lynchings and lived only two blocks from the scene. Abram Zimmerman passed the story on to his son.
And that may well be true – but my point here is that the meaning Dylan gives to the piece does not come just from those lyrics, it comes from the gentle, constant nature of the music which tells us that life goes on, and on, and it can be pretty horrifying, but somehow because it is always there, we get used to it. Thus the line that “No one has to think too much about Desolation Row” takes on a powerful central meaning, when the music is taken into account with the lyrics.
And so as the characters slip in and out, but there is a constancy within the song as the music stays pretty much the same, while the horror show slips by in the lyrics. We are made immune to what is happening out there because it is out there every day – but it is still there.
In this view of the song there is thus no point shouting about the life that Dylan describes any more than it is worth my while shouting out about the three giant trees at the end of the my garden that I watch day after day as I sit and write. The sun, the snow, the rain, it all comes and goes and everything is pretty much the same. In such a world one begins to accept everything that is here, and everything that happens. Emotions and energy drift away. The sun rises, the sun sets. It rains, it snows. We don’t particularly notice, because this is how it is.
Change the music however and the song becomes something quite different. Which is to say that the meanings and emotions carried within the lyrics and not just based on the lyrics themselves but are also determined by the music that accompanies them. And indeed it can be argued that the song is thus 11 minutes long in order to express the constancy of a world of horrors sited all around us.
For me the 1966 recording above is superb because the music does give us this contrast between the acceptance of life around, and the life itself. The original album version does the same. Being gentle and pretty much unchanging these two versions say, “there’s the horror show out there, it never changes.”
Which is rather a profound thought given that Dylan was seen as a protest singer, which as I have often argued before, he wasn’t. Indeed as I’ve noted so often, “Times they are a changin'” is not a protest song, but a song that actually says, the world changes, it happens, it’s nothing to do with what people do – it just happens. “Desolation Row” says life is awful, but somehow we just carry on.
Put the two messages together and we have a vision of humans just meandering through a world, letting everything just happen around them. It gets better it gets worse, it’s not much to do with us.
All such meanings however are lost when the song is transformed and the original music is lost. Just try these for size…
In the end Desolation Row is not a place, it is a state of mind, experienced within a disintegrating world. And that is what the original music and the lyrics tells us.