Reviews for Desolation Row LyricsPerformed by Bob Dylan
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Desolation Row | Reviewer: Glory Cloud Revelation | 3/2/14
DESOLATION ROW Reviewer:Glory Cloud Revelation @2014
Very imaginative and poetically outspoken which of course are Bob Dylan’s special gifts of expression to make his lyrics exceed the ordinary. However, as far as the words go, because we prefer the beauty of faith, hope and love. Desolation Row is not one of our favorites.
Therefore we nominated and liberated Cinderella into being the princess she really is, (not the cinders she was named after by her wicked step sisters) and through her emancipation we see this desolated place redeemed from disgrace. Yes, we know this may start a riot with those who love darkness, but we really don’t care. ‘Cause we love Jesus, the Messiah who our sins did bear. So we looked for Him there:
This is Cinderella, I had to write again, 'cause when an Italian
said, "Don't send me any letters from Desolation Row.
He meant, “NO! NO! NOT FROM DESOLATION ROW!!!"
Please tell Juliet, I'm sorry she slipped and fell, Going Going to the hospital is better than going to hell.
Romeo was playing blind man's bluff, and couldn’t see very well.
I’m stuck inside a mansion at Desolation Row,
Wanting to get out of hear, wanting to go!
Which way, I don’t know.
Only if there’s love, there a home;
Without love, I’d rather be alone.
So I did what I must do, I forgave those to blame,
Called on Jesus’s name, and His Holy Spirit came.
Darkness dispersed in the early morning rain,
Colorful rainbows, after the storm, came,
Bob Dylan was singing like a bird,
The best love songs ever heard!
Desolation Row wasn’t the same....
Treasures out of darkness called on Jesus's name.
Now, the moon that was hidden, shines with a smile,
The stars sparkle like diamonds in the sky,
All the angels in heaven went wild dancing and singing while,
Prodigal Sons and Mary Magdalenes came home
‘cause God’s son came down from His throne
To die on a cross for our sins, to make us His own.
Jesus shines brighter than the diamonds of Lucy in the sky
In that place called “heaven” where we’ll never say, goodbye.
Fullness of joy in the HOLY GHOST
Manifests as HE's worshiped and adored.
Nobody is sad, depressed or bored;
We’re all happily singing, Jesus is Lord!
THROUGH OUR GOD WE SHALL DO VALIANTLY, FOR IT IS HE, WHO SHALL TREAD DOWN OUR ENEMIES. Psalm 108:13
My favourite Bob Dylan song | Reviewer: Paul | 9/12/13
I remember my dad playing this song for me for the first time at age 11. Sitting beside him in them middle of the room. Four large stack speakers in each corner. A complete wall of sound. The hypnotic almost Spanish sounding guitar. And the lyrics. Of course I didn't understand them at all at the time, but my dad tried to explain to me what he thought they meant.
I am 44 years old now. I still listen to this song and blast the volume. The guitar and the haunting harmonica solos. And the lyrics. They go into so much. They say so much. The references to Einstein and TS Elliot and Ezra Pound and Ophelia. Who do these figures really represent. The line about the Titanic and "which side are you on". Does the phrase "if you're not with us your against us ring a bell?" The song was written in 1965 and still as relevant today as then. I am not saying I am anti American. Far from it. But, it's amazing how events like 911 can lead to the polarizing feelings of "which side are you on?". It's almost like Dylan was fortelling not only what was happening at the time, but looking into what he foresaw for the future.
This is one of the songs, along with "Needle and the Damage Done" and "City of New Orleans" and "Early Mornin Rain" and "Sister Golden Hair" and "Norwegian Wood" that made me want to play guitar. I can even play the harmonica solos and play the guitar to Desolation Row, but I still need to have the lyrics in front of me. I can't remember them all.
This is music at it's very best. I guess my dad spoiled me. I listen to most crap on the radio and I think "it really is quite lame."
Desolation Row (from Cinderella) | Reviewer: Chaplain Marilyn | 1/28/13
This is Cinderella, from Desolation Row;
You said you wouldn't read my letter unless I'm here, you know.
Yes,I'm in the wrong place,and I believe I"ll gladly go...
Just wanted to say hello to Bob, "Hell-lo!"
You're still one of my best inspirations of my younger days;
I wouldn't have grown up so fast to find Salvation's ways
Without stumbling through darkness to find the LIGHT...
I know you know what I mean, 'cause you've also seen
What I'm talk'n about, when you surrendered your trembling heart.
When you picked up that cross in Phoenix that night...
And the Blood of JESUS made your soul whiter than white!
Oh, what a wonder! Oh, what a sight! That God HIMSELF would give
HIS SON (Isaiah 9:6, and Isaiah Chapter 53) that we could live
Happy and free throughout eternity!
Oh, I'm expecting rain, showers of blessings for us from JESUS the KING of kings!*Ephesians 2:8,II Corinthians 5:21,I John 1:9
P.S. Some day soon, I'd like to send you some of my songs I wrote for Israel, if you'd like to hear them, only I don't know where to send them to. I guess I'll try sending them to where that long haired girl in black was standing in the rain with her wolf dog as the old year rolled into the Sea,and the tide rolled back (she looked a lot like me)Goodbye from Cinderella on her way out of Desolation Row,happy to come,happier to go But before I leave, I want you to know, some of that satire in Desolation Row made me laughso hard, it felt good. Thankyou, Bob, you've certainly got a great imagination. Please stay healthy and persistant in "Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven's door. Remembering to keep JESUS in first place according to Revelations 2:1-7 and I'll see you in Heaven. May GOD bless you.
Curious? | Reviewer: Anonymous | 11/29/12
Im 65 and i bought the hiway 61 album right after getting out of the usmc in 67. I bought it just for the song Desolation Row.
I would listen to it for hrs trying to figure out "his message".
I really love the song and do think its his best, but as far as a message, I cant help wonder why, but at the very end, you hear laughter in the back ground. curious?
He wrote it about me! | Reviewer: Lynn | 4/20/12
I believe that Dylan wrote this song as a stream of consiousness that he didn't censor. It just flowed out of him, as most poetry does. He wrote it quickly I believe, in the back of a NYC taxicab. The words describe my life as if it were playing it back to me on a big movie screen. Exact descriptions of people I've known including a few of their names and each verse describes a different scene that holds together as a specific event. I'm not crazy! I just know that this was channeled by him. There are two verses that haven't happened yet. It's amazing.
its easy | Reviewer: Anonymous | 9/20/10
dylan was writing from the point of view of an mentally ill person living in an area that he could only afford and watching the world as it is in such an environment. Realize the shutting out of the world, "yes i got your mail yesterday..." It is partly truth and partly fiction...
live a lie and you will live to regret it | Reviewer: Larry Nelson | 8/7/10
Having read most of the postings here I wanted to express my thoughts. First of all I'm 61 and bought "Highway 61" when it first came out. I like most other peple I knew at the time could not understand the meaning of this song. I was 14 at the timeand knew very little about the emotional torment one can go through with a breakup when you are in deep love. this I think was the catalyst for this song. Don't misunderstand this for this song has much more meaning than that. I simply mean that it brought to the surface other issues that were on his mind at the time. I came to this conclusion because of the ending. "I received your letter yesterday about the time the door knob broke means to me that Bob got a letter telling him that some girl couldn't be with him anymore because of what here friends thought about him. To me changing your thoughts,ideas about life, and personal beliefs for the benefit of others is the cruelist thing one can do to themselves. So in conclusion I say that desolation row is being who you really are and having the courage to live that way regardless of the outcome. Having said that how many of us really can do this? I think in this song Bob was telling us not many. And that is the social comment he was trying to protray.
Fantastic Reviews | Reviewer: HoosierDONK | 6/25/10
Thanks people for some great insight and your personal interpretations on this greatest Dylan tune.
I highly recommend the Highway 61 Revisited version of this song... it's hypnotic. Beautiful acoustic lead not to mention that bellowing harmonica rips chills up your spine. Don't get me wrong I haven't found a bad version of this song but ya ever burnt one song to a cd then put it on replay... :) It's like Dylan get's your attention with the first word and doesn't let go for eleven minutes.
I don't think there is anyone who has influenced my life more than Bob Dylan. I was introduced to his music when I was maybe twelve and many times his words have been there to strengthen me.
Keep on rockin Bob.. Maybe I'll greet you one day on Desolation Row.
Still lost | Reviewer: Anonymous | 6/13/10
I'm 61.I really discovered Robert in 1967 when I graduated military school. I'm still lost but I remember my first thought was this song is about the world as seen through the eyes of an adolescent (me).45 yrs later not much has changed in the world however I've changed a little
If I Ever Meet Him I Will Ask Him | Reviewer: Faith Brigham | 3/29/10
Bob Dylan is one of the few famous people I would regret not having met should I die any tme soon. I am a die-hard Dylan fan, who was intrigued by the song "Desolation Row" from the moment I first heard it. If I ever meet him, I will ask him if he meant for the song to be taken at face value or if it actually has some deeper meaning. Regardless, I feel the song is the greatest song ever written.
Amazing! It's been 50 years ...... | Reviewer: Scott K. Smith | 3/23/10
Funny how some things endure. Bob Dylan was certainly not fully appreciated by those who lived in him time. I was one of them. This song was written nearly 50 yerars ago (Now I'm feeling OLD !) and after reading "Jens N.'s" review I feel like I have rediscovered an old part of my life again. I guess we all had personal interpretations of the many metaphors in this song. It is refreshing to read other comments and interpretations relative to Mr. Dylan's work. Thank you. Thank you VERY much!
HELL YES! | Reviewer: Jens N. | 1/20/10
Robert Zimmerman! There are no words to describe how immaculately inspiring you are. I'm only 15 and I'm living in the days of shitty music on top of shittier music and I just think, this isnt music! I hate the new crap people call music! Now Bob Dylan on the other hand, is amazing! Every time I listen to a Bob Dylan song, I'm filled with overwhelming joy! It's hard to describe what his music means to me and how it makes me feel! I wish everyone could see what an amazing songwriter Bob Dylan was and is! But people are so ignorant and insist on listening to HORRIBLE music like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Dylan's music is so inspirational and meaningful. He actually has something to sing about, unlike Cyrus' song Party In The USA. Where she is arrogant and quite frankly a bitch.
I love older music. I love Dylan, Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Neutral Milk Hotel and a lot more. It's just so stupid when people say, hey listen to this awesome song by T Pain and I just cant help but laugh at them and say, Thats not music! That is shit and I would rather not put myself through the hells of listening to that!
So to sum up, the music of today is horrible, and Bob Dylan is the best musician/songwriter ever and he is a living LEGEND!!!!
The Whole Enchilada | Reviewer: Matthew Palmer | 10/18/09
The following is my interpretation of Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. I view this song to be Bob Dylan’s crowning achievement in songwriting. The question could be asked ‘Why should Desolation Row should be given special consideration among the many classics that Dylan composed?’ The answer to this question is that Desolation Row moves beyond the poetic folk anthem (which it certainly is) in becoming an apocalyptic epic poem in the tradition of the modernist literary movement. Although many of Dylan’s best songs are poetic, few contain the depth of metaphor, and none contain the carefully structured depth and allusions of Desolation Row. Both through its lyrics and through its structure it resembles the writings of the epic poems of the modernism movement, and it is no coincidence that both T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are alluded to during the course of the song.
T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Poems should communicate before they are understood.” This is precisely what Bob Dylan does in Desolation Row. Desolation Row perhaps most closely resembles T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In this poem, Eliot comments on what he sees to be a world in social and cultural decline in response to the horrors of World War I. The structure of Eliot’s masterpiece is broken into five highly metaphorical segments, each portraying a different scene. Eliot, working in the modernist tradition, requires the reader to interpret the text that is laced with metaphors and strewn with cultural and literary allusions. Eliot expected the reader to struggle with making sense of the piece, and counted on fact that a meaningful interpretation of the poem required immersion of hundreds of the classic texts of western culture. Although Dylan does not seem to share Eliot’s elitist vision for poetry and the arts, he was highly educated, he clearly read Eliot and Pound, he uses metaphoric allusion in Desolation Row, and he was reacting against what he saw to be a troubled society mirroring Eliot’s own reaction against his society. Like Eliot in The Waste Land, Dylan tells of a world in confusion. Dylan portrays the world through metaphors, and reacts against the flawed philosophies in the world that are held out as panaceas (i.e. materialism, religion, and science), and calls for a new enlightenment or awareness, through the use of a number of unrelated scenes that each reinforce his central theme.
I believe the ‘Desolation Row’ that Dylan refers to in the song is actually a metaphor for an enlightened state of mind or awareness of the world as it is, not as it is presented through the false lenses of religion or science. ‘Desolation Row’ is clearly represented as a place that some characters are at, “peeking into”, “trying to escape to”, or are “punished for going to.” However, this place should be seen as more than a physical place, and seen as a new state of mind, or way of thinking. It also should be clear that this state of mind, while enlightening, carries burdens with it. For Dylan, it appears that seeing the truth is not necessarily a ticket to happiness. In fact, the truth is often highly troubling. Dylan suggests that seeing reality as it really is, or reaching ‘Desolation Row’, is necessary to avoid impending disaster, but that it can be depressing because it involves the realization that many of the things that we have believed in or sought after are actually not the panaceas they appeared to be.
This can be seen in the first verse by Cinderella’s cynical response to the speaker saying “it takes one to know one.” Clearly Cinderella is no longer waiting for Prince Charming, but instead is taking matters in her own hands. She flirts rather than remaining passive and waiting for Prince Charming. The romantic conception of Cinderella is somehow perverted, and she has a new awareness of the world as she is left “sweeping up on Desolation Row’. The ideal image of romance is defeated, and there will be no storybook ending, but life goes on as she sweeps up the mess. Romeo enters and again is challenged by a speaker. Romeo, like Cinderella, also is in the wrong place because he also represents ideal notions of romance. Rather than speaking sweetly in verse he moans and chases Cinderella, rather than Juliet as he should. Things are not as they should be according to ideals. Conventions are being upset. ‘Desolation Row’ is not place where conventional endings are brought off, instead it is a place where there are recognitions of harsh realities. Romeo either cannot understand this or cannot accept this. He promptly takes the speakers advice and leaves by committing suicide, hence the sound of the ambulances. Romeo is an example of how there are painful realizations that come with the enlightenment found at ‘Desolation Row’.
The third verse gives a clear warning of what is to come if society continues on its current path. The “moon is almost hidden” and “the stars are beginning to hide.” This foreshadows a storm, which is a metaphor for the problems the world will encounter on its present course. “The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside” because she recognizes the pending storm/disaster. Those who are paying attention are taking precautions and shielding themselves from the coming problems. Cain and Able are not because they are too busy being involved in conflict to notice. This is brother against brother. It also may allude to war or conflict generally. Everyone else is “making love, or else expecting rain” because they are either too involved in their lives “making love” (or seeking personal gratification) to notice or see the storm brewing or “else expecting rain”, i.e. the fortune telling lady, and they are running from the coming storm. “The Good Samaritan” from the Biblical parable who represents the good, wise, and just person who is generally spat upon by society is getting ready for the carnival that he is going to attend on Desolation Row. The Good Samaritan is going to go into the approaching storm and deal with it in some way. Perhaps this suggests we should too, if we are doing the right thing. Rather than not realizing the problem, or running from it, we should acknowledge it and deal with it in some way.
The fourth verse tells us about Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover in Hamlet. Ophelia hopes that Hamlet will marry her, but it is not going to happen. Ophelia’s peeking into Desolation reveals that marriage to Hamlet is impossible and she contemplates suicide. It also may suggest that her religious beliefs do not provide the answers she always believed. The “iron vest” she wears symbolizes enclosure, as well as her fate; she drowns herself in a river in Hamlet. Ophelia clings to hope symbolized through “Noah’s great rainbow” that represented God’s promise to man that he would not bring another great flood. It may symbolize hope through Hamlet’s promise to marry Ophelia, as well symbolize the hope of her religious beliefs. The problem for Ophelia is that the promises don’t add up with reality as she sees it when she peeks into true reality on Desolation Row. This verse also develops a theme of sin and dealing with sin. Ophelia breaks God’s law by having premarital sex with Hamlet. This guilt weighs heavy on her throughout Hamlet. This problem is subtly suggested by the phrase “her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.” Ophelia’s only profession prostituting herself to Hamlet. The verse hints at the church’s inability to successfully address man’s problems in reality, a topic that will be revisited later. Things don’t look good for Ophelia, she contemplates her fate, while we know what will happen to her. Ophelia is another example of how Desolation Row can be destructive as well as enlightening.
The fifth verse brings in a discussion of the failings of modern science to resolve society’s problems. “Einsten disguised as Robin Hood” symbolizes modern science’s attempt or tendency to be hailed as the answer in our times. Robin Hood is the classic hero, while in addition, it is not insignificant to note that he ‘stole from the rich and gave to the poor.’ His friend the “jealous monk” symbolizes religion, Christianity, or perhaps more specifically Catholicism. Religion is jealous of science. Science has gradually replaced religion as the relied upon source for explaining the world’s problems. In the metaphor, science gets to play the hero, while religion merely tags along trying to keep up. The “memories in a trunk” may represent the past scientific tradition where science actually contributed to man’s enlightenment. However, now these times are in the past. Today, science “looks immaculately frightful” suggesting the potential dangers that science offers the world. The ‘He’ in this verse, goes off acting like a bum, rather than a hero, by “bumming cigarettes”, “sniffing drainpipes”, and stating its dogmatic findings in “reciting the alphabet.” It is unclear whether the ‘he’ is referring to “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” or the “jealous monk”, but in either case the speaker suggests that he sees the flaws of science or religion, not the idealic image that they would like us to see. The speaker comments “you would not think to look at him that he was famous long ago, for playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.” This suggests that you would not by looking at science or religion today that once it did a great deal in contributing to man’s enlightenment. The music of the electric violin on Desolation Row is a metaphor for something contributing to enlightenment. This verse clearly leaves us with the impression that science and religion will not resolve all of society’s problems.
The sixth verse is a fairly nebulous verse. Dr. Filth is a reference to an actual holocaust official who cut off the genitals of patients and put them in a pouch made of skin. Presumably, ‘the world’ inside the cup represents the perverted worldview of Dr. Filth. The victims are trying to blow it up in order to defeat a morally bankrupt reality, but of course they will fail because they do not have the power to do it. “The nurse, some local loser” represents the common average person who collaborates with something that is wrong, rather than standing up to it. The nurse aids Dr. Filth, rather than standing up to what is wrong. The nurse “keeps the cards that read ‘have mercy on your soul’”, rather than playing them. The nurse has the ability to take a stand, to ease pain, but chooses not to out of self-interest. The verse ends with another reference to Desolation Row as a place of awareness, suggested that you can hear the music ‘if you lean your head out far enough on Desolation Row’
The seventh verse talks about “the agents” and the “superhuman crew”, probably references to agents of the establishment and religious leaders, “rounding up everyone that knows more than they do” and punishing them. The instruments of punishment are “brought down from the castles” which seems almost like feudal imagery, the establishment attempting to control the masses. The insurance men, are those making sure that “no one is escaping to Desolation Row”. This suggests once again, that Desolation Row is a place (or more precisely a state of mind) where people learn the truth about the world, which is dangerous to the establishment that benefits from people buying into the status quo.
The eighth verse gives us the images of unpredictability and impeding doom on our present course. Nero was the insane Roman Emporer. Neptune was the changeable god of the sea. The Titanic, the ship destined to sink, is sailing on these unpredictable waters. The people on the Titanic (society today), are too busy worried about their position on the sinking vessel to take notice of the bigger picture, until it is too late. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were two modernist poets who wrestled with the problems of their time and tried metaphorically through their poetry to call for the enlightenment of the masses to address the problems of a harsh reality. Desolation Row in many ways mirrors key works of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, especially T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. These visionary poets (who may or may not have all the answers) are fighting for control of the sinking vessel, while everyone else is oblivious to the situation. While Dylan mirrors the style of Eliot or Pound in this poem, he does not have the elitist bent of them. He may, in fact, be taking a jab at these poets by suggesting they are on the Titanic and too busy fighting over which elitist apocalyptic metaphor for society is correct to be helpful in finding a solution. Regardless, what is clear is that nobody is thinking about going to Desolation Row (or gaining true awareness) because they are too distracted by what is going on in their lives.
In the final verse, the speaker addresses an unnamed person saying that he received a letter from the person yesterday, “about the time the door knob broke”. The door knob represents the way out of Desolation Row, they way back to the conventional way of thinking, the way not concerned with the new awareness of reality. Now that the door knob broke, there is no going back to the conventional way of thinking. “When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” shows a general disdain for the conventional unenlightened way of thinking. The speaker is not interested in how he is doing according to the conventional way of thinking. The speaker is struggling with all of the problems of the world, and likely isn’t feeling too good about things, but above all else, he is uninterested in how he is doing in the conventional way of defining well-being. “And all these people that you mention, yes I know them they’re quite lame” also refers to this change in the speaker’s priorities. The speaker does not care how people are doing in the conventional way of thinking (whether they bought a new car or house, or are happy according to the conventional way of thinking, etc.). “I had to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name” may be a veiled reference to including them in the ideas found in the song. “Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters, no” refers to the fact that the speaker doesn’t want to hear any more about the concerns of the conventional way of thinking about life. He’s not interested, his perspective has changed, it’s no longer relevant to him. “Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row” means that the speaker is only listening to the enlightened perspective or awareness found in the state of mind of Desolation Row. It suggests that the writer has the ability to go to Desolation Row himself if he wants to. It hints at the spiritual journey that the speaker thinks people need to take to get to Desolation Row.
Desolation Row | Reviewer: JC | 8/3/09
I have thought long and hard about the meaning of this song - is Desolation Row a place where you want to be, or is it somewhere you would like to avoid? Thanks to Steve Borrow for the long review and a few insights I was unaware of.
The answer, I think, is that Desolation Row is a place that conventional wisdom and common sense tell you you should be (hence the name of the place), but everything Dylan says about it makes it more attractive that the reality presented. For example, the insurance men who prevent you from leaving, and Cinderella, who sweeps up at the end of the song.
I'm still not sure what it means. I am sure, however, that Dylan will never tell us.
And, to shadowboxer, the best lyrics ever written, I think, are in another Dylan song...Visions of Johanna.
Dylan’s tarot reading of contemporary culture circa 1965 | Reviewer: Steve Borrow | 5/24/08
Bob Dylan was embraced as the great new voice of the American folk music scene during the sixties revival, and performed at the Newport Folk festivals in 1963 and 1964 to great acclaim. His album "Bringing It All Back Home", released in March 1965, give a foretaste of the direction he would eventually take. He would move away from a standard acoustic folk repertoire and commit the unforgivable heresy of going electric.
On Sunday, 25 July 1965, Bob asserted his independence from the orthodoxy of the folk scene by switching on his Fender Stratocaster and stirring up a violent audience reaction. Four days later he resumed work on on new album, the monumental "Highway 61 Revisited". On 4 August 1965, he recorded the last track, Desolation Row, the first out-take having been made on 29 July.
Looking at the verses closely, you get the sense that Bob composed them at different times. He told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine in a November 1969 interview that he wrote it in the back of a New York Cab. He may not have been kidding when he said that, but the spontaneity of the writing is evident from the jumble of obscure, partially formed images, and the apparent dissociation between the subject matter of each verse as they flicker past the narrator and Lady like shorts at an art film fest. The song may have been reduced to writing quickly, but the ideas were probably incubating for some time. Indeed, this is how the words and music are to be experienced. On first play, the ear picks up a particular reference, cloaked in hypnotic sound, and before it can be comprehended the images following flood through, creating an overall impression of a distorted, chaotic world of transmogrified fables and iconic references transported to this weird landscape where nothing makes sense at all. You get the impression that Bob picked up a pack of Tarot cards, sliced them up with pair of scissors, and reassembled them at random (more about this later). As we move through the verses, our mind is crowded with a whole zoo of mysterious beings. The thread linking the verses is a repetition of the mantra found in the last line of each verse: “on desolation row”.
We should be open to the possibility that Bob didn’t intend this song to have any particular meaning at all. Perhaps he was inviting us to step in and experience the display, as one does after entering an Andy Warhol art shows. He may have been intoxicated by the stream of images flowing through his consciousness at the time he composed it and, like T S Eliot, refrained from later speculation on the subject to ensure that it’s meaning didn’t become fixed. In that way the interpretations are never closed and the work continues as a living, breathing organism capable of adapting to new cultural frames of reference. To give it a particular meaning would effectual drive a stake through it’s heart and hand it over to the taxidermist. Bob has left it to the listener to make of it what he or she will. Isn’t that what happens when we view surreal art in a gallery?
In seeking to extract some meaning from the song, we need to take care not to drift too far from the symbolism employed. Bob Dylan is gifted with an extraordinary capacity to act as a cipher and to synthesize disparate strands of thought into something fresh and interesting. He tells us in “Chronicles I”, ostensibly a memoir of his early years, that he had immersed himself in a lot of great literature at that time (pre 1966). What we can say with confidence is that the songs on "Highway 61 Revisited" were influenced by his exposure to beat literature and a particularly fertile association with the celebrated poet Allen Ginsberg. There seems to be broad agreement that the song title came from an amalgam of Jack Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels, which was published the same year as Desolation Row, and John Steinbeck’s novella, Cannery Row. Bob adds a passing reference to Cannery Row in his epic veneration of womanhood, Sad Eye Lady of the Lowlands, which came immediately after this album on the great Blonde on Blonde. The title, though, is a thinly disguised adaptation of Eliot’s title for The Waste Land.
Kerouac’s novel was written in his trademark fractured, conversational style during 63 days of isolation when engaged as a fire watcher on Desolation Peak, which is located in Cascade National Park. It is interesting to note that when asked where Desolation Row was during a KQED press conference on 3 December 1965, Bob replied: “Somewhere place in Mexico . It’s across the border. It’s noted for its Coke factory”, which is where an entire chapter of Desolation Angels was set. Of course, it is not set anywhere in particular. It is an idea, an abstract composite of many elements. In another part of his answer Bob replied: “Coca Cola machines, sells a lotta Coca Cola down there”. Beyond the obvious drug reference, I suspect it is also Bob-speak for a pervasive form of corporate American culture: brilliantly packaged and marketed, appealing to the senses, but probably detrimental in the long run. It also a possible aside to Andy Warhol art and his paintings of Green Coca Cola Bottle made in 1962. Bob associated with Warhol for a time and was gifted with a screen print Bob is alleged to have used as a dart board. Bob returned the favour by sending one of manager Grossman’s old armchairs.
Cannery Row is set in a redundant sardine factory in Monterey , which Steinbeck populates with a poor, but dignified community of social outcasts. The key character, Mack, organizes a party for one of the community that gets very raucous, resulting in the trashing of the poor fellows home and laboratory. Mack seeks redemption by organizing a second party, and the story explores the interaction of the support cast of battlers. Steinbeck described Cannery Row as: “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, nostalgia, a dream”.
This provides an extrinsic aid to interpreting the images evoked in each verse of Bob’s epic. The influence of T S Eliot is evident throughout the whole song, which can be seen as a hybrid fusion of these three main ideas, set in the context of a Tarot reading, effectually utilizing a thematic device applied by Eliot in The Waste Land. It also uses Steinbeck’s setting of the outrageous party to present a parade of clichéd literary allusions, displaying them, as it were, through circus glass - twisted and misshapen. They are observed by the narrator and the mysterious Lady from their vantage point in Desolation Row. You see in that a parallel with Kerouac looking for smoke curling up out of the conifer forest from his vantage point near Desolation Peak .
The central meaning of the song seems to be a concern with modernism and the cold, clinical reduction of artistic endeavor, particularly in the case of poetry and song writing, to “a thing pinned and wriggling on the wall”. Poetic expression seemed in danger of become a purely elitist, academic pursuit, lacking a creative spontaneity expressive of the human condition in all of its manifestations. Wasn’t that a concern of the beats? The beat movement, on the other hand, may have been perceived by Dylan as an over reaction to this elitism, abandoning intellectual rigor altogether. And then there is subservience to market demands and the dumbing down that inevitably follows when the bean counters get to stamp the logo on everything. Warhol, in particular seems to be a concern here.
We also sense Bob’s disenchantment with the folk music scene that rejected him after Newport ’65. We know he came to reject the very notion of the protest song per se as an effective vehicle for expressing complexity. They were, he said, dead before they are performed, which brings us full circle to this idea of the poem or song having the character of a living evolving thing with an open, adaptable meaning.
Bob Dylan’s escape from the museum of folk music forms and his adoption of rock as the vehicle for expressing his more profound poetic ideas is consistent with his implied critique of elitism. How he later reconciled such a view with a song like Hurricane is problematic, but he did express it strongly around the time Highway 61 Revisited was released. If a song is given a finite temporal and spatial context, it cannot transcend that space and time. It may serve an ephemeral political purpose, but that is all. “Which side are you on?”, for example, which is mentioned in Desolation Row, was about Harlan County Miners, and in Bob’s has a specific frame of reference requiring a fixed response.
It is possible that the characters named in the song, like Dylan’s own name, are aliases for real people in the contemporary art and music scene. This was, of course, a favourite trick of Kerouac – to give his associates, Ginsberg among them, pseudonyms and write honestly about them. Perhaps he let’s us in on the secret where, in the last verse, he says:
“All those people that you mention, yes, I know them. They’re quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name”.
Bob fuses them composites to deepen the disguise.
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