|For a Song
At ten 12-line verses one of rocks lengthy masterpieces, Bob Dylans "Desolation Row" occupies the last nine minutes of his classic 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album, which opens with "Like a Rolling Stone," voted the number-one song of all time in a recent Rolling Stone survey. Its modest acoustic-super-ballad form thrills less than "Stone"s driving-drum-soaring-organ sound, but "Row" says much more, with its intricate weave of literary, historical and social references, concrete details, and transcendent wit. Its darned catchy, too, once you give it an attentive listen.
What, exactly, is Desolation Row? At the geographical level, it appears to denote an urban block -- row-houses and small businesses. A place from which, according to verse 1, "Lady and I" can "look out tonight" and see the traditional parade from the point where the circus arrives in town to where it will perform in coming days; "the fortune-telling lady" can "take all her things inside," ostensibly from the sidewalk, in verse 3; and where a figurative human circus constantly parades, a wide variety of people intermingling, many of them anonymous, a handful the degenerate characters of the song.
At the metaphorical level, geography blends with the human psyche, desolation describing the dilapidation of the place, the impoverishment and isolation of its people, and the moral and spiritual decay of a society that simultaneously creates, perpetuates, feeds upon, and acts superior to the place and its people. Thus, "the blind commissioner" in verse 1 reaps his vulgar reward from being with "the tightrope walker" while the riot squad fidgets with nothing to do, while in verse 8 "all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do" and societys rulers, "the insurance men" from "the castles," "Check to see that nobody is escaping / To Desolation Row." I.e., those not familiar with the place are to be kept ignorant of it, and they are to be kept from risking injury or loss from going there, not to mention taking up residence there, since either would sap insurance-industry profits.
The singer-personas female companion, "Lady," unspecified but dignified and respectable, shares his tragicomic observations. This helps differentiate them from a lone madmans ravings -- otherwise a possibility since the Rows "Einstein" doesnt fare well under the pairs gaze -- and emphasizes the moral burden on the listener to find the songs shocking and often mystifying comments reliable rather than incoherent. They "look out" rather than merely observe -- a subtle hint that they find what they see alarming, so maybe we should too.
Explaining all of the song's details, particularly in their many dimensions, would require a book. So lets look closely at some key parts that suggest how to view the rest. If you have been noticing these engaging patterns through the years, your observations are certainly legitimate regardless of whether you would phrase them as I phrase mine. Whether you have or not, I hope youll enjoy struggling with this lyrical puzzle and will find yourself all the more in awe of this tour de force for seeing how the nearly infinite interconnections among its parts -- and the elegant wit -- and ultimately compassion shining through, hint at the genius rather than mere craftsmanship behind it.
Strange fruit, anyone?
A quintessential American moral disaster opens the song: a lynching -- and whats more, the celebrating and commemorating of lynchings popular when these atrocities were frequent. Many people today dont realize lynchings were festive public occasions complete with postcards for out-of-town friends and relatives. "Painting the passports brown" in the next line? Perhaps "they" of the postcards are making passport photos of white people look as if of blacks to ship the latter out of the country, since they obviously would not apply for their own passports for such a purpose? Though public discourse has long since shed that sort of thinking, it was very prominent in years up to and beyond the initial recording of this song.
"The beauty parlor is filled with sailors" -- back in harbor, they arent at the barbershops, bars and brothels as we might expect. Is the navys gay element being suggested here long before "dont ask, dont tell"? The fourth line, "The circus is in town," is literal, as we soon discover, while also suggesting activities referred to in the preceding and subsequent lines resemble entertainment. Desolation Row itself is a show.
"Here comes the blind commissioner" -- apparently the police commissioner since the riot squad is mentioned a few lines later. In the traditional parade from the point where the circus arrives in town to the arena where it will perform in coming days, he escorts the tightrope walker -- the sexy girl the official local hero should ostensibly be seen with. He is so conspicuously vulgar and governed by his sexual impulses as to have one hand in his pants while the other is "tied to" the girl. Huh?! Well, although I take his blindness to be metaphorical -- he "turns a blind eye" on the murder of black folks, is in denial about who many criminals are -- theres considerable humor in its being literal as well: He couldnt keep to the parade if not tied to someone. Implicitly, the mayor appointed him -- and got away with it -- because this is Desolation Row and he prefers a police commissioner unable to see evidence of certain crimes. And this comes in handy in verse 8, when "agents" et al. commit certain crimes well look at further on.
That all of this is visible to anyone whos "looking out" is important. As we begin to see Desolation Row as American society writ small, we get the uneasy feeling we are all acting blind, accepting or denying blatant crimes and immorality honoring and empowering perpetrators. This predicament isnt for the police to remedy. If, instead, we would just smash some windows and bash some cars, theyd know what to do. As it is, they "need somewhere to go." They would prefer to be someplace where they can restore order.
Which story are you in, man?!
The second verse debunks the Cinderella myth. Life is no fairy tale on Desolation Row as perhaps it is in the castles of verse 8. Here it is mundane, sordid, or violent. The young woman whose lot is constant drudgery "seems so easy" -- sex might or might not get her a man, but forget the royal ball and Prince Charming. Her quip, "It takes one to know one," is probably her answer to a woman who called her a "slut" or the like. This "Cinderella" isnt unique on the Row. Not buying the fairy-tale magic that says remain passive under oppression and youll live happily ever after, she learns alluring behavior from movies -- "puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style."
Making a cameo appearance in our desolate version of Cinderella is Romeo. This is no masked ball, and Juliet aint here. Romeo wouldnt know from Cinderella -- wrong story. So hes simply "in the wrong place" and must leave. But not without "moaning / You belong to me, I believe." Its supposed to be romantic love, stupid, not a chattel relationship! I picture a young man overdressed in a bygone style and reeking of aftershave -- fancying himself a ladys man but lacking Romeos aristocratic "pedigree," etiquette, style and poetics. Not only would Juliet not be enchanted by his claim on her, but we understand "Cinderella" is not even Cinderella, let alone Juliet.
Ambulances, not horse-drawn carriages, take people where they are going. And when the evenings activities end, "Cinderella" doesnt rush to meet any pumpkinhood-preventing curfew but just keeps sweeping up. At the end of the day, nothing has changed, and it probably wont the next day either, or the one after that. No cruel stepmother is needed; this is just the way people live on Desolation Row. And two ambulances have probably come and gone specifically to pick up "Romeo" and the guy who told him hes in the wrong place -- after theyve fought. On Desolation Row, thugs replace Prince Charming as Cinderellas suitors. She cleans up after them. They intensify her drudgery rather than free her from it.
You aint seen nothin yet!
We see similar patterns in subsequent verses. People indulge their baser impulses, pursue empty illusions, and suffer meaninglessly. Every ostensibly respectable title turns out to be cover for corruption or degeneracy. Every literary character, hero, or larger-than-life person turns out to be a fraud, a has-been, or a cheap celebrity.
Glancing at some examples, in verse 3 everyone is making love "or else expecting rain" -- worrying about their future? Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame are reduced to guys who cant get laid. The Good Samaritan isnt looking for someone to serve but readying himself to attend the carnival. In verse 4, Ophelia is a voyeur, "Noahs great rainbow" an empty abstraction as she is lifeless and "already is an old maid." In verse 5, Desolation Rows "Einstein," the neighborhood smart guy, apparently homeless, carries a trunk full of mementos with him as he has nowhere to store them. His being "disguised as Robin Hood" probably means he pretends to serve the poor by dispensing information and advice -- they think hes a genius, but "reciting the alphabet" is the best he can do. He really just wants their cigarettes.
His friend of the spiritual realm is "a jealous monk" -- not what the contemplative life is supposed to produce. Maybe hed like some of the attention for his pseudo-spiritual humbug that "Einstein" gets for his pseudo-intellectual humbug. The actual Einstein played the violin, but it was an aesthetic pastime, not his main achievement, and not the version of the instrument modified for popularity via the rock-music industry.
Bad place to get sick!
Whos more respectable than a physician? But on Desolation Row, the sixth verse tells us, we have "Dr. Filth," his world "inside a leather cup," an athletic supporter. Apparently he is either seeking sexual gratification through his work that is supposed to heal others, or he feels his masculinity is at stake in having the right answers for his patients -- or both. Do his patients blow up his world -- keep him from fulfilling his needs -- because they are "sexless" and therefore fail to gratify him, defy his proffered cures, or both?
This kind of doctor naturally hires a nurse whos "a local loser in charge of the cyanide hole" and expects patients to rely on faith -- "keeps the cards that read / Have Mercy on His Soul." Youll fare better with a faith healer than with the "medical science" dispensed here. And maybe the scheme is that whoever fails to recover gets cyanide for ruining the doctors plans.
Or to read anything serious!
We can see pretty well where all of this is going. In verse 8, "all the agents / And the superhuman crew" remind us of the restless riot squad in the first verse. But theres no riot, just "everyone / Who knows more than they do." This is totalitarianism, which abhors the curious, active, justice-seeking human mind.
Why do "insurance men go / To check that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row"? Living in "castles," they rule the realm of which Desolation Row is a part. Insurance companies profit when people pay more in advance to cover costs of calamities that might occur than the companies pay out when calamities have occurred. Desolation Row is more dangerous than places where insurance executives and other affluent people live and work. Not only might someone who goes there get injured or robbed and file an insurance claim, but "escaping" to Desolation Row means leaving the more affluent and sterile middle- or upper-middle-class life that imprisons people intellectually and spiritually by insulating them from struggle and pain. Seeing those things arouses moral indignation like that which informs this song. If it catches on, it threatens the Establishment. And like the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before him, thats exactly what Bob Dylan did, largely owing to songs like this one.
Whos he talking to, anyway?
Whose letter has the singer-persona received "yesterday" in the last verse, and why the parenthetical "(About the time the doorknob broke)"? I think of an imaginary letter representing a composite of epistles Dylan undoubtedly received from people who were taken with and shaken by his earlier songs, when he suddenly and inexplicably burst upon the music scene with "Blowin in the Wind" and other works of genius so many people found hard to link to a wiry kid from Minnesota with little formal education or social connection. People routinely seek to share their thoughts with astonishing people, to be told theyre intelligent, to obtain sympathy, advice or an interview, or to boast of the connection.
In other words, the singer is responding to the us of 1965. To our attempts to grapple with our world as it was suddenly being revealed in songs, in particular those penned by this one peculiar and phenomenal young man. Not just singles on the radio like Peter, Paul & Marys "Blowin in the Wind" or The Byrds "Mr. Tambourine Man" but throughout The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing It All Back Home -- and the first, Bob Dylan, though it included little from his own pen. All of those preceded Highway 61.
Early in the days of Dylans fame, whatever gratification he might have enjoyed, he is well known to have detested the inanities of celebrity: people asking him what his songs meant, trying to hang around his hotel room. Surely many people who did not know him personally wrote to him presumptuously. Some surely included platitudes like, How are you? Perhaps he found them deaf to the content of his songs, which so vehemently and eloquently suggested being well is illusory as long as we rely on white superiority, militarism, age, or title to have our way. So he answers the platitude with the rhetorical question, "Was that some kind of joke?" He doesnt want to hear any more from those who share none of his experience and want to be told about Desolation Row without "escaping" to see for themselves -- he only wants to hear from people who mail their letters "from Desolation Row." Hes stuck there at least for now because his doorknob broke, and it broke because its a Desolation Row doorknob, not a castle doorknob.
So whats the point?
We cant be disillusioned unless we harbor illusions in the first place. Revealing realities hidden by appearance, cant, and conspiracies of silence, "Desolation Row" gives the lie to interrelated social fictions that have been deemed necessary to maintain the social order, and it challenges trivialities we are trained to focus on that distract us from injustice and others suffering. Who cares whether Pound or Eliot propounds the best theory of poetry -- in verse 9 -- as long as humanity is metaphorically on the Titanic? Such trivialities distract us from the icebergs we are assured we will not hit. Isnt global climate change such a one, and arent the vast majority focused on less important matters?
The song ultimately appears to call not merely for a particular easy political position or action but for sustained struggle for human values -- justice over murder & oppression, unconditional love over lust & possessiveness, real faith or belief over obsession, clear perception over denial, genuine intellect and creativity over image, slogan, and theory. In a time when "Which side are you on?" is again in the air, it might be worth our while to keep listening and to look more closely. Is "Rome" burning today, and if so, is Nero here fiddling? If so, is it his Neptune we are relying on for our Titanics safe crossing?
...David J. Cantor
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