By Tony Attwood
The choices in this series of “Absolute Highlights” are mine, made without reference to anyone else, and selected by looking at the notes I have made while publishing each episode of the Never Ending Tour series and then going back and listening again to the recordings Mike Johnson has provided.
Then having made my selection I do have a look at what Mike said in his commentary. Sometimes I agree, sometimes not: this is as I’ve always tried to say a totally personal choice of the “absolute highlights”. They are the recordings I would put on a box set of CDs if I was ever given the chance.
So quite often I pick recordings that Mike has not particularly singled out, apart from the fact that he has chosen them in the first place. But here, with Desolation Row, I find we are in absolute agreement. This is what Mike said.
“What makes this Bethlehem performance of ‘Desolation Row’ so special is the inclusion of that which over the years has become the missing verse. Why Dylan chose to drop this verse will remain a mystery I guess, but I always thought it was one of the best verses of the song. In it, Dylan the post-modernist reflects on the two great modernist poets of the early part of the 20th Century.”
‘Praise be to Nero's Neptune The Titanic sails at dawn And everybody's shouting "Which Side Are You On?" And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot Fighting in the captain's tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row’
“Interestingly, ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is a pro-union song by Pete Seeger. Dylan may have been taking a sideswipe at Seeger, but his real aim is at the increasing polarisation of political attitudes, the sense of battle lines being drawn. In Desolation Row (the place) you can hear them all playing their penny whistles.
“You can hear a few members of the audience react when Dylan begins the verse.
“Listening to that, I can’t help but reflect on Dylan’s acoustic style. I don’t think there is that big a difference between his acoustic and his electric playing, but the effect is sure different. I have suggested that Dylan’s guitar playing is percussive rather than melodic or lyrical. It’s there to drive the beat and build up the tension as the song progresses, not to sound pretty. This ‘Desolation Row’ is a particularly good example of how he pushes the song along with the guitar. With Dylan’s singing it’s all about phrasing; with his acoustic guitar it’s all about timing.”
So yes, I am there with Mike all the way through. He’s even beaten me to my usual commentary on which verses of the long songs are missing.
And as maybe you can understand, to write a piece like this I do listen to the recording several times, and what really strikes me here is the gentleness of the opening verses, compared to where Dylan gets to at the end. Indeed if all we had was a recording of the opening verses, I’d still include this recording in the series. This for me is a superb reflection on all that has gone wrong – rather than what is wrong now.
Quite how Bob manages to keep that gentle approach going is beyond me. Indeed it is not until the “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood” verse that we start to get a sense of where this version is going to end up. And that is for two reasons: one is the increasing volume and stridency of the vocal, but there is also the insistence on abandoning the original melody and repeating the same melodic line over and over. In a way it is painful, but then it is a painful message that is being delivered.
After that comes the first instrumental break, which takes us back down slightly but the insistence of the instrumental breaks as we pick up on the last verses gives us the power of the song.
I find it hard to imagine any Dylan fan not being overwhelmed by the last vocal verse, and so on first hearing what happens next is a surprise; taking the song back down for two more instrumental verses. But this too builds and builds; there really is no way out of Desolation Row.
One final thought. Why would anyone shout or whistle during that final instrumental part? I couldn’t; I’m just sitting here in amazement with my mouth hanging open. But then, I’m sitting at home, and outside the sun is shining.
The Absolute Highlights series
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation – Gates of Eden
- 8: Girl from the North Country.
- 9: When He Returns
- 10: It’s alright Ma
- 11: Satisfied Mind
- 12: Visions of Johanna
- 13: Dark Eyes
- 14: Man in the long black coat
- 15: Don’t think twice (2000)
- 16: Silvio (1998)
- 17: Gates of Eden (2000)
- 18: One Too Many Mornings 2001.
- 19: It’s all over now baby blue 1994
- 20: The Wicked Messenger
- 21: Positively 4th Street (1994)
- 22: I and I
- 23: Restless Farewell
- 24: Botony Bay
- 25: Blind Willie McTell