By Tony Attwood
Updated 7 May 2018 with a link to a version of Desolation Row that seems particularly relevant.
“Desolation Row” was subject to a brief review in the early days of this website; brief because I found it hard to say anything that had not been said 1000 times over about this masterpiece. But then a comment about that review was sent in from Mike Reynolds in 2017 to the effect that “The song is loosely based on Tennessee Williams’ ‘Camino Real’.”
It was not something I had considered at all because I’ve always found Tennessee Williams’ work hard to approach (perhaps because of my Englishness), and indeed no one else had ever mentioned it, but I was really glad of the insight, and it gave me a completely new view. Hence a second review of the song.
Heylin, in his fulsome review, notes that Dylan draws on Nietzsche, Kafka and Kierkegaard to “fuel a bleak, dystopian worldview”, but says that “references to the likes of Ophelia, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound in his oral epic in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or the authors of The Waste Land and The Cantos respectively.”
He adds that at this time Dylan “drew more from the world of painting than from any extra curricular reading.”
I had no grounds to argue with this at the time, but became increasingly uneasy about the commentary as I have followed Larry’s pieces on this site, in which he has repeatedly shown the depth of knowledge that Dylan has of writers past and present. But it wasn’t until the comment about Camino Real was made that I decided to return to the song. The knowledge of Camino Real takes me in such a different direction that I felt the need to write a totally new review, rather than to add to the old one.
Camino Real is a play written in 1953 relating to El Camino Real, a “dead-end place” in a town surrounded by desert with only occasional ways of reaching the outside world. The playwright described it as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in.”
You can see at once where this is going, I’m sure, and there are so many links with Dylan and “Desolation Row” from this play that the link to the play seems to me to be a key to understanding not just this song but a lot of Dylan’s work, and I am horrified by the fact that it has taken me so many years to find it.
The play contains Gutman, named after Sydney Greenstreet’s character from The Maltese Falcon and Signor Ferrari (again played by Greenstreet this time in Casablanca. (Taking characters from movies, messing them around a bit and putting them in an new art work is so very Dylan, I feel, and something that again helps convince me that we are on the right track here).
There is also a range of literary characters who pop up including Casanova, Lord Byron, and Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So yes it is possible that as Heylin suggests “references to the likes of Ophelia, [etc]… in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, [etc]” but I don’t think this is the point. The relationship with the world portrayed in Camino Real and its isolation from all these points of reference, is I suspect, the starting point of the song.
Camino Real has a storyline that is generally described as illogical and impossible, and focuses in fact on the point that there is no plot, because ultimately all these people and all their situations are irrelevant to anything else, (which in itself is ironic because the play closed on Broadway after just 60 shows). The NY Times called it “a strange and disturbing drama.”
That, I believe, is what Dylan was expressing – the irrelevance of everything within the world we live in. Even the horrors expressed in the opening lines which remind us of what actually did happen in the US, cannot burst through in a world where all these events just explode around us; there is so much out there nothing has a chance to make sense. Indeed, too much of nothing.
We can perhaps also understand more about the song by considering Dylan’s writing in the months before and after the song including Subterranean Homesick Blues and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream in both of which he invented a way to take Beat Poetry into rock music. These are not songs of explanation or insight, save the insight that nothing makes sense any more.
Also in this year Dylan gave us It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry which ends with the thought of the entire train getting lost – even having a set of rail tracks can’t actually help us find a direction or purpose.
At the same time Dylan was developing what I’ve called the songs of disdain – such as Like a Rolling Stone and (subsequent to Desolation Row) Can you please crawl out your window? and Positively Fourth Street. What he has done with “Desolation Row” it now seems to me, is shown us that just as personal interactions with the world and the people we know within it, all break down, so the world itself in terms of being something that we can understand, also breaks down. There is no makingssense of what we now see around us, be it on a personal level or with a broader perspective.
The theme is now of the familiar characters in disturbing and different places, slightly familiar events but not the right events in the right time or place – like a nightmare where nothing is quite what it should be, and nothing can ever be resolved.
That is Desolation Row.
If you found this article of interest you might also like to read Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape
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