By Tony Attwood with help from Pat Sludden.
This review was one of the first ones I wrote in 2008 not long after conceiving of the idea of this web site, and while I was still trying to work out how best to approach songs which had been reviewed a million times before I decided to write my own comments.
In 2018 two new articles were added to the site which you might also enjoy in relation to this song.
- Desolation Row Revisited: making sense of the masterpiece now we live there
- Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape
Here’s the original review…
Returning to the original version of Desolation Row after years of hearing it in live performances, is quite a shock. I recall a performance at Wembley where suddenly it became a dance number – and none the worse for that, because once again it woke us all up to the terrors portrayed in the song.
In the original there is something so gentle and clean about the opening bars with the sweet continuing melodic guitar in the background, and then across it comes that line: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” and you know that in and around Dylan’s home town they were still doing that when he was a kid. The album is named after the highway that passes near his home town – this is Dylan talking about home but not quite home – it is that mix of real and unreal that Dylan was developing at this time.
Unhappy men, living in attics and also listening to Visions of Johanna have used lines from the end of the song to explain their feelings and emotions over the breakup of a relationship (especially the last verse), but “I received your letter yesterday” is more about the isolation of the singer from a world gone very wrong indeed, rather than anything else. It is the ultimate reflection on the decline of American idealism into an anti-intellectual fascism that protects those with against those without.
It is the most powerful attack Dylan made on his society – but it not as many claim, a surreal song. Rather it is a science fiction story of the Philip Dick genre – a total dystopia. To have added jagged guitar and pulsating drum would have been too obvious – this is peaceful music for a world that has collapsed. It doesn’t have to rain to show you the world is a miserable place.
Likewise the chord sequence is kept simple, like the accompaniment, which makes the horror of the lyrics all the more real.
There are lines here for everyone – you choose the verse and it gives you the horror show. It is The Waste Land for those who don’t read Eliot.
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
It doesn’t get more frightening than that, does it?
What else is on the site
1: Over 470 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews