The Never Ending Tour Extended: Desolation Row beyond imagination

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

The Never Ending Tour Extended: Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions across the years.

This series uses recordings selected by Mike Johnson in his inestimable masterpiece The Never Ending Tour, and looks at how those performances change as time goes by.   The selection of songs from the series, and the commentary, is by Tony Attwood.


I am not sure what I expected going back to some of the earliest recordings we have of Desolation Row on the Never Ending Tour, but I am sure I didn’t expect this version from 1992.  Of course by the time of that concert the song was over a quarter of a century old, which is a long time for a composer to be not just contemplating one of his greatest ever works but constantly re-imagining it.

And equally “of course” I listened to this when Mike first presented the article in 2020, and was knocked out then.  But then 2020 was the time of the pandemic in England, where I live, and life was weird, disrupted, and a case of somehow just hanging on as my normal life which I was rather enjoying was utterly torn to pieces within one afternoon of insane government diktats.  I was left alone, isolated, bereft.  I turned to Dylan and came across the NET recordings of Desolation Row.  Talk about music that fits life at that moment.

Now four years on, I still think of Desolation Row as sad and sedate, a desperate shaking of the head as one moves away to look elsewhere.   Yet turning back to Dylan’s live presentations of the song that we published in the “Never Ending Tour” series, the song is nothing in any way like that: it is, well…, “explosive” is the only word that comes to mind.

But explosive without the explosion.   Not explosive because of a full-band treatment; that would be far too obvious, but explosive because it just hits me on the face like a punch that sends me reeling backwards, and leaves me wondering where on earth that came from, but perversely wondering, could we do that again?

And if you are not convinced that there is something here that demands your attention, please don’t move away but give yourself time and go on to the instrumental sections.  For example try 6 minutes 25 seconds of this first example, and just let it roll on.  Remember this is planned but nonetheless improvised, and yes the various instruments tangle themselves up, undoubtedly because Bob changes what he is doing each night… but please stay with it.  This instrumental section lasts and lasts, going through multiple chasms… and the first hint of the harmonica doesn’t come until past the ten minute marker.

It ends at 11 minutes 30 seconds, and my goodness does the audience know that it has been witness to something utterly amazing.   If I was looking to write a “highlights of the highlights of the highlights” series (which I am not, so I’ll leave that to you – email your copy to this would be right there.

1992 part 3: All the friends I ever had are gone

So what would Bob do next?   Cut it down to size maybe?  Make it more pleading?  More emphasis on the key issue of how we are all just looking out on the ever increasing wreckage of… well, everything.  Our personal lives, our civilisation, everyone else’s civilisation, our humanity…   Well yes, but that’s all a bit obvious isn’t it?  (At least it is from where I am sitting, beautiful, peaceful and calm though the countryside is around here).

But does it need 11 and half minutes to express disaster?   Actually, yes it does if one is trying to express both the universal and personal catastrophes at the same time.   In fact in that case 11 and a half minutes might not be enough.

Indeed that turned out to be the case, because the following year the performances were even longer, showing that one can never accuse Bob of not taking an experimentation as far as anyone could imagine and then going further.

Now I appreciate that if you have been following me this far you have just had 11 and a half minutes of Desolation Row, and as I tell you that by the following year the performance had got even longer, you might feel you want to leave this for another day.  And of course it is your computer, your life, and your partner asking if you’ve cleaned up the bedroom yet, and isn’t it time for a coffee?  Yes, you choose.

So you might want to wait.  But let me tempt you slightly.  If you thought that 1992 was of a certain interest, this is going to blow what is left of your mind even further than you could possibly imagine.  I can’t say this is the ultimate highlight of the Never Ending Tour, for there is just so much of it, that I can’t hold it all in my head to make a comparison.   But if nothing else take in the harmonica solo around 9 minutes 45 seconds.

And oh yes I should have warned you.   This piece lasts over 13 minutes.

1993 part 3: Mr Guitar Man Goes Acoustic

Of course there are many more Desolation Row performances to contemplate, and I could imagine writing a whole website on the live performances of this song alone.  But I am going to offer you just one more and leap forward 14 years to 2017.   If you are still reeling from the two versions above you might want to take a few deep breaths before pressing the button again.   Not because Bob is about to take you down even more, but rather the opposite.

And that’s the point.  This magnificent work of genius can be worked in any way Bob wants it.   But as you listen to this, just imagine what it must be like to have performed it previously as we have heard above, and then come up with something so utterly different, and yet still so meaningful.  This time we have wrecked the world, as ever, but now it is met by a shrug of the shoulders.  I mean, that world’s gone, but there are a billion others out there, aren’t there?

So he slings his guitar over his shoulder, takes his lady by the hand, and walks off over the hill, just to see what’s on the other side…

2017 part 2:  The Moveable Feast

Other articles in this series…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *