Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #67: Desolation Row

In my senior year of high school, I shared a class with my Dylan-loving friend (yes, the same friend whose life I apparently ruined in the "LARS" entry), a class on art history. This dovetailed nicely with both of our interests, as we were/are both huge art fans. I tend to run more towards modern art, in all its thought-provoking, silly, and occasionally frightening forms, while her tastes run more towards guys like Goya and Gauguin. At any rate, one of the assignments for that class was to tape an oral presentation matching a piece of art to a piece of music, in terms of how the tones and themes match up with each other. All I can remember about my choices was that I picked Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase No.2", but the song I'd paired with it escapes my memory. However, I still perfectly remember the choice that my friend made: Vincent Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters", and "Desolation Row".

I remember when she played me her presentation, and being blown away - I mean, they really fit well together. For those that have never seen "The Potato Eaters", it's one of Van Gogh's first major paintings and not what you'd expect from anybody who's seen "Starry Night" or one of his more famous paintings. Far from the kaleidoscopically bright works we all know and love, "The Potato Eaters" is a dour affair, all browns and greens, depicting a traditional Dutch scene of peasants having a meal of potatoes. Van Gogh stated that he used uglier models in order to keep things as realistic as possible, and he succeeded in spades - the lumpen and downcast faces hammer home the weariness Van Gogh wanted to convey. You can see flashes of his later genius in the painting, but in this case the emotion comes less of the famous thick-paint trademarks and more from the poignant subject matter.

This will probably sound hack and I'm cringing writing it, but here goes: you could probably see a scene like that in the world Dylan created in "Desolation Row". This is the only acoustic song on the album, and it's a damn good thing as well - not only would the song not have worked with the aesthetic the rest of the album created, but the two acoustics working together help set the mood for the song, a combination of dreamlike and world-weary. And that mood perfectly matches the mood of the painting, where the peasants sit by candlelight, their gnarled hands and dark eyes haunting us long after we're done looking at the tableau. And all throughout "Desolation Row" are images of heartache and woe, of once-famous violin players sniffing drainpipes, famous poets duking it out on the Titanic, and Hamlet's Ophelia romanticizing her own death (not to mention the song's title, itself - it's not like the song's called "Sunshine and Lollipops Row"). Dylan noted in 1965 that "Desolation Row" was somewhere in Mexico, which actually might make sense; it ties in to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", like the first song is an episode from Desolation Row that sets us up for the grand finale.

Or maybe not. I'm a big fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen*, and to me there's something kind of perfect about the fact that a quote from "Desolation Row" (the "all the agents and the superhuman crew" - a perfect quote for the story) is used in the story, along with Nietzsche's famous "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you". I wouldn't go so far as to call "Desolation Row" an abyss; there's so much to the song and its staggering wordplay that it's kind of like gazing into a Bosch painting or "The Waste Land" (supposedly an influence on "Desolation Row", although "Desolation Row" stays within a traditional lyrical structure, instead of tearing it apart like "The Waste Land" does). But "Desolation Row", like so many great Dylan songs, acts like a Rorschach test for the prejudices and intellectual theories that the listener wants to bring to the table. You see literary influence? There it is. Or do you see a big jumble of words? That's just as correct. Maybe you see Dylan's reaction to what he perceived as a cultural wasteland, or a nightmarish carnival vision he had one day when he couldn't sleep. All of that is in there, waiting to be found by those that want to look.

And by that same token, the flipside of the Nietzsche quote is just as true. What you take out of "Desolation Row", one of Dylan's most challenging songs from a lyrical standpoint, says a lot about what you feel about Dylan, and specifically about his most famous period of songwriting. I take it for granted that anybody that's a fan of his will most likely enjoy the song, so we'll leave that aside. But you can still see different sides of Dylan in this song - the poet, the storyteller, the visionary, the drug addict, a man in love with the English language, a man bound by no sense of pretentiousness (I mean, honestly, you could make a case for calling this song "pretentious" if you so choose), or just a man who knows how to write a good tune. And it's not an accident which side you see in the song, because that's the side you want to see. Dylan was all of these things, and he made no bones about that fact, even when reporters or critics or his audience wanted to pigeonhole him into one little box to make things easier for them. Nothing in the real world is easy, and nothing that really matters can be defined in one solitary way. If that were true, the world would be a lot less interesting than it actually is.

When you get down to it, "Desolation Row"'s greatness lies both in those majestic lyrics, lyrics that have teased generations of listeners, and in the many faces that those lyrics wear. We all can agree that Dylan's disconnected phrases, strung together the way he did, create something full of sadness and gloom, and yet never fail to be stunning or emotionally powerful. And yet, for many of us, that is where the agreement ends. Many songs are cut-and-dried intellectually and emotionally, even the great ones, and there are precious few that can reflect in different ways when you take the time to shine some light on them. "Desolation Row", the finale to one of Dylan's very best albums, is one of those songs. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to it again - I'm just this close to figuring what all that moaning Romeo business is all about.

Thank you all so much for reading! We've come to the end of the line on Highway 61 Revisited, and in the next post I'll take the plunge into the wonderful and frightening world of Blonde on Blonde. Join me, won't you?

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joe butler said...

hi tony
the Van Gogh/Dylan comparison seems odd to my jaundiced eye. Yes on the surface Potato Eaters and DR seem to be mining the same desparing vein. But Vincent was, at the time he painted PE , in the grip of religous mania and saw the wretched of the earth being intensely noble beings, closest to God and their back breaking work as a redemptive act. Dylan's DR sees despair as a carnival of grotesques,surreal jokes and cultural allusions. I'm not saying vincent's artistic motives are superior just different.
Charlie McCoy's guitar adds piquancy to dylan's nightmare vision.
keep up the excellent work I'm looking forward to Blonde on blonde

joe butler said...

I've always seen DR more in terms of German expresionist painters Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman, dylan had, after all read and been influenced by Bertholt Brecht when he lived in Grenwich village

Anonymous said...

If I could pinpoint one song that 'hooked' me on Dylan, it'd probably be "Desolation Row." The first time I heard Highway 61 Revisited was about four years ago, and I remember feeling completely exhausted by the end of "Desolation Row." It's one of those songs that had me from the second it started playing. It is also, I would argue, one of Dylan's more beautiful songs, which you really wouldn't expect given what it's about.

Anonymous said...

Your linking of Desolation Row (also in my mind one of Dylan's best songs ever) to another favourite of mine; Just Like Tom Thumb's blues is interesting. Never trust Dylan to tell you the truth but maybe he was thinking of some place in Mexico when he wrote Desolation Row, and maybe that place was Juarez (as mentioned in Tom Thumb's blues). A bordertown like that for sure was a kind of sircus with all strange kind of characters and at the same time a place for all the losers who had tried "to get to heaven" aka. USA. I have been a few places in the world where I have thought "this must be Desolation row", even somewhere in my own city; Oslo and for sure in "Christiania" in Copenhagen. But more than any place I have been, I felt like being on Desolation row (after the festival was over), when I visited El Paso a few years back. And as you might know El Paso and Juarez are like twin-cities on each side of the Mexican-US border. El Paso once was a proad and rich and famous (from western films) city. But today it is just sad. It is like Desolation row have spread from Juarez over the border and made that city even more like Desolation Row. And Is this not the theme of a lot of Dylan's songs through the years: A world gone wrong spreading like a cancer in to our own once so bright world.


LarryK said...

You can't look at the song without referencing "Nightmare Alley", the
1940 (?) Tyrone Power film noir about
a carny who rises to the top of the
spiritualist game and falls to the bottom of the bottle through hubris.
The geek appears in "Ballad of a Thin Man", but other scenes from the movie are paralleled in DR...and the overall
atmosphere of the film is utterly consonant with the song.

Pete said...

Great post, great comments -- yes, it's beautiful, which works delightfully with/against the subject matter. I also love the last line, which sneaks in some overt compassion. Two anecdotes:
At my boarding school, one of the senior boys had to read a passage, usually biblical but sometimes poetry, at the nightly assembly, which was prayers followed by announcements. My trend-setting triumph in late 65/early 66 was to declaim a verse from Desolation Row (probably the third, with it's biblical allusions). I kinda hoped for criticism but didn't get any!
And of course the shanty town at the Isle of Wight in 1969 was inevitably called Desolation Row. Quite right too.
I'm really looking forward to what you have to say about The Greatest Album of All Time ...

John Pilecki said...

When the November 1978 tragedy of Jonestown occurred, in which 918 souls went to their deaths after drinking cyanide-laced KoolAid at the behest of a crazed charlatan - the Blind Commissioner? - the first thought I had was of "Desolation Row" - the kerosene was indeed brought down to destroy the evidence of the death and destruction left behind as a result of the unleashing of demons from the grotesque castle of Jim Jones' mind - a horrid, surreal place where only death was romantic.

andrew! said...

Desolation Row is probably my favorite song, by anybody really. It seems to speak to me in a language I don't really understand, but it doesn't really matter. The images wash over me & I put my own meaning to them that probably don't jive at all with whatever Bob's meaning was, if there ever was one. It's a great traveling song (most Dylan songs are better heard while moving), I always make a point to listen to some version of it on my drive back to the west side of Michigan from the east side. Your posts always give me a side to these songs I hadn't thought of before, thanks for that.

Nicolás Pérez Arce said...

There's a Spanish singer called Joaquín Sabina, probably in the english-language world people don't know him, but he's the closest that we have in spanish to bob dylan (and still far), but he has a song called "calle melancolía" which i memorized long before I heard DR, the song is beautiful also, so if you know spanish or even if you don't you might want to check it out, it obvously is influenced by DR (as i later found out) but it still has an original tone and beautiful verses.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling that Dylan has lately come back to the feelings in Desolation Road. The images are now more sparse, but the surrealistic splashes are still there. Ain´t Talking is the best example.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

Gronk said...

I'm not even going to get into the lyrics; just wondered, how many other people, the first time they heard the final line of the first verse, thought "oh my God that is just bloody perfect"?

Moose said...

This was the first Dylan song I heard that really made me say, "holy shit. Whether did that come from and why haven't I heard it before?"

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, thank you for posting this very interesting analysis. When you are ready come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.