Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers

Like most people, when asked, my father’s favorite Dylan record was Highway 61 Revisited.  It was, for him, a landmark.  While he definitely liked certain tracks from earlier records more, this was the album that he felt most comfortable listening to from start to finish.  My father was definitely much more of an album over singles person than most people that I know, and so it was the album that I spent so much time listening to when my father chose to play Dylan.  I can remember sitting on the floor, next to the speakers, wondering what on Earth might be going on in all of that “noise.” This song took years to make any sense to me at all – and now, well, it’s strangely the shortest eleven-minute song I know.  I never feel that it takes very long to run its course, and I’m always a little sad when I’ve finished shaking hands with all of these characters.

From a very early age, my parents and family members gave me books.  Lots of books.  And, as a child of two-and-a-half, I learned to start reading those books.  I loved to read, and did so voraciously until my mid-teens. (1)  I had a wonderful set of books, when I was a child, that contained Grimm’s stories, Twain, Dickens, Malory, Cervantes, and so on.  They opened wide worlds to me, and offered me so many intriguing possibilities. (2) This song, for me, was a world full of new and strange people, only some of whom I’d met before, and it was just waiting to be decoded.  Setting aside its great verse structure, and simple, singable melodies, “Desolation Row” captivated me for the things it elicited from my father.

I remember sitting on the couch one Summer afternoon when I was about eleven, and listening to my father explain the song to me.  My father did not read – well, ever.  But he must’ve at one point, or he listened to those that did, because he told me lots of things about the characters in the song.  He even told me credible things about the later debates between Pound and Eliot.  This was not my father on a normal day, mind you, but a person brought out only by the literary quality of Dylan’s songwriting – and the curiosity that quality could inspire. (3) And when I think hard about who I am, and why I write these things on this page, I know that I am channeling that person.  My father loved to tell me the stories of the songs we listened to – where they came from, why they were written, and how they fit into his life.  This was his biography, and it’s certainly mine.  I tell these stories often, and without being asked, and my friends and loved ones kindly oblige.  And if I am to have children, they will certainly learn these songs and stories.  My life is inscribed in them in ways that I am only just beginning to understand, and I know that the best record of my life and feelings is there.

For my father, sitting there on that Summer day, the song was part of a longer narrative.  He would inevitably get up to go and play Pink Floyd or Clapton just after, and it was his way of continuing the chain of thought that began with this song.  For him, it was a song about transition – coming during Dylan’s own transitional period from Acoustic to Electric – and the inevitable conclusion was Floyd, Dylan, or late Beatles. (4) This was partly chronological, but I think it shows something about a change that my father lived through.  My father was first-hand witness to a period that saw rock music evolve from something that was the exclusive province of “girls, guitars, and greasers” to something that could fuse poetry and rhythm into a more powerfully literary form of expression.  Dylan drew upon folk and literary traditions of personal narratives, and fused those things with his own unique sound and poetry.  The result changed rock music forever, and gave us a figure of the stature of Shakespeare. (5) It’s not surprising, then, that my father – who loved music and storytelling – was taken in by these things.  And so his musical transition from Dylan to Clapton never surprised me, as the stories would inevitably shift from “what Dylan meant” to “what this means to my life.”  This song, and those like it, were to my father what Mayonaise was to me.

When I get right down to it, this is why I’m doing what I do with this site.  Whether most of us realize it, or not, the choices we make about the art we involve ourselves in says something about who and what we are. Our aesthetic choices reflect our personalities – our dreams, desires, fears, regrets, and favorite brands of toothpaste (6) – and they can leave a real impression of us for those that come after.  You all have the opportunity to leave a tangible, historical record of your life to those that would listen.  You really can say something about yourself with a good mix tape. (7) You can tell us something about the people you loved, and the things that matter.  All it takes is a moment of starting a record, being still, and telling a story.

I’m still not sure I could give you a useful, cohesive narrative of “Desolation Row,” even if I’m now very well acquainted with its characters. What’s particularly beautiful to me, though, is that when I met these characters for the first time – be it in Denmark or Venice – we had a mutual friend in my father.  This is the power you have when you offer to share your stories with those that you know and love.  You can take these abstract things – songs – and make them into personal testimonies.  I really believe that you can make the world so much more wonderfully connected just by unfolding these narratives to each other, and that this will result in greater understanding and mutual appreciation.

Why not try, anyway?

Go ahead.  Find someone you love and listen to a good song, or a great record, and talk about what it means to you.  Maybe even come back here and tell us.  For now, head over here and have a listen:

  1. I’m a casual, recovering reader now. With the help of my Ph.D., I’ve lost my desire to consume more than maybe one or two books a month.  Possibly three, if I’m on a bender… [Back]
  2. Strangely enough, it was only after I went back to check that I realized that odd feeling of déjà vu I got while reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at Oxford was because of these same books.  Translated, of course, but still! [Back]
  3. And yet, remember: TV and Rock Music are not suitable for teaching children anything. Ever. [Back]
  4. That’s late-period Beatles, even if my father was quite fond of George Harrison and John Lennon. [Back]
  5. Yeah, I’d probably fight you on that one. [Back]
  6. All right, I might have made that last one up! [Back]
  7. Even if that something is: “I don’t know how to talk to girls, but I think you’re neat.” [Back]

5 thoughts on “Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

  1. I guess I’m your father’s age or about. I’m 56. Like your father, my favorite Dylan album is Highway 61 Revisited, and Desolation Row is my favorite Dylan song, not only of the album, but of all his songs. It’s one of the deepest songs ever written. Some people complain it’s too long. Twits! Not for me, it’s not too long, no. Whenever I listen to Desolation Row I live 11 of the fullest minutes of my life. You compare Dylan to Shakespeare. I will not argue there. With Desolation Row, a tragic view of the human condition, I compare him to Dostoievski.
    People have complained about a lot of things concerning Dylan. When he switched from acoustic to electric. When he became “religious”. When he turned country. Whatever. Like I said, they’re twits. They don’t understand that Dylan is a true artist, one of the great American poets, and as such lives on his own creative terms.
    This being said, what’s the album that changed my life, you ask? Or saved me? Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love. It literally blew my mind. It opened up the whole Universe to my imagination. From then on I became a die-hard fan of Hendrix. I’d say, whereas Dylan keeps me rooted in reality, Hendrix flies me out to space.

    • Thanks for that, Jean! I don’t know that Hendrix album (*ducks*), but I’ll certainly give it a try. It’s funny, as you were saying, about people complaining that this song is too long. I’ve actually never noticed, and it remains the “quickest eleven-minute thing I’ve ever done.” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is another one like that. They really just fly by… I suppose this is yet another characteristic of great art.

      In any case, thank you so much for sharing here. I’ll check out that Hendrix and get back to you. 🙂

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