Saturday, May 9, 2015

Desolation Row

Famous pop figures
Get up to no good on a
Surreal skid row

I could spend the rest of my life picking apart and stitching back together the themes, actions and characters who fill up the 11 minutes and 21 seconds of "Desolation Row," which closes the 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited" with a big, long bang. The Wikipedia entry on the song refers to Dylan's weaving of characters from "history, fiction, the Bible and his own invention into a series of vignettes that suggest entropy and urban chaos." I wonder if that's giving it a more academic polish than the woodwork deserves. You can spend the rest of YOUR lifetime reading interpretations of the song, but I think of it as a long wind-up to a punchline, which you get at the end, as Dylan goes bitter:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Whatever Desolation Row might be -- the place across the border in Mexico with the Coke factory (ask Dylan about that), or Eighth Avenue in 1960-whatever -- it sounds to me like a state of mind, a place that Bob might prefer to wherever he was stuck at the time he wrote the song. Whatever the song is about, it has produced snippets of pure genius, including the brilliant opening line: "They're selling postcards of the hanging."

The people of Desolation Row:
- "They" (who sell postcards at the hanging and paint the passports brown)
- Beauty parlor/sailor
- Circus
- Blind commissioner (in a trance. One hand on tightrope walker, other in pants)
- Riot squad
- Lady and Bob
- Cinderella, acting like Bette Davis
- Romeo
- Someone who cautions Romeo
- Moon and stars
- Fortune-telling lady
- Cain and Abel
- Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Everybody who is making love or expecting rain
- The Good Samaritan
- Ophelia
- Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
- Dr. Filth and his sexless patients and his nurse
- The Phantom of the Opera, as a priest
- Casanova
- Skinny girls
- Agents
- Superhuman crew
- Everyone who knows more than the crew does
- Insurance men
- Nero's Neptune
- Everybody on the Titanic who asks you your political affiliation
- Ezra Pound
- T.S. Eliot
- Calypso singers
- Fishermen with flowers
- Lovely mermaids
- You
- Lame people with new faces and names

1 comment:

  1. Hello Robert, yes another bite of history. Come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song