Desolation Row

In 1963, the director Federico Fellini released his film 8 ½ with the following scene opening the movie:

The scene depicts a man feeling a panic attack come over him during a traffic jam in the inner city. Smoke or steam pours into his car. He struggles to leave the car while faces from the other cars stare at him, stone-faced. He escapes the situation by floating away. The film cuts to another man riding a horse on the beach with yet another man holding a rope. The film cuts to the first man’s perspective from high above the beach, fastened by the same rope around his foot. One of the men yells, “Down! You come down!” They pull on the rope before one says, “Down for good,” and the main character loses the ability to fly and plunges down into the water.

This opening scene of 8 ½ establishes the jarring, surreal, and comic tone for the rest of the movie, depicting a movie director having a personal and artistic breakdown while attempting to make a film. 8 ½ shifts between the perspective of the main character/director and the movie he is directing, combining memory and “real-life” occurrences in a swirling, kaleidoscopic portrayal of this man’s existence. The sensibility and surreal nature of 8 ½ — represented best by the shot of the main character anchored to the planet by a rope — is a good starting place to consider Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row”:

It is the last song in sequence on Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, and also the last song recorded for the record. The rest of Highway 61 Revisited is a full embrace of the rock ‘n roll sound which Dylan had established on his previous album, Bringing It All Back Home, while “Desolation Row” is a shift to a different sound. Dylan’s acoustic guitar provides the musical foundation along with subtle bass playing courtesy of Russ Savakus, but it’s the lead acoustic guitar by Charlie McCoy that provides the dominant sound for the song. McCoy was a Nashville musician who happened to be visiting New York City and producer Bob Johnston urged him to join the recording session as Dylan was searching for a specific mood for “Desolation Row.” McCoy — who would be a key contributor on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde which was recorded in Nashville — weaves in and out of the song, seconding Dylan’s playing at times while also venturing into a lonesome prairie sound, not dissimilar to the lead guitar part on Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso”:

McCoy’s guitar sounds as if it is straight out of a Western reflecting the “El Paso” instrumentation despite the lyrics presenting an urban impression. Dylan would tell Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone in 1969 that “Desolation Row” for him was part of his “New York type period, when all the songs were just city songs.” This clash between an urban setting within the lyrics and McCoy’s border guitar along with the mesmerizing, almost trance-like melody by Dylan creates the singular and mythical sound of “Desolation Row.”

Despite saying that the song is “just a city song,” Dylan later told USA Today in 2001 that the inspiration for the song came from an early memory:

“‘Desolation Row’? That’s a minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up, and it had an effect on me, just as much as seeing the lady with four legs.”

This is reflected in direct references in the lyrics. In establishing the setting of the song, Dylan sings the following in the opening verse:

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town.

Additionally, he says later in the song that a character is “getting ready for the show / He’s going to the carnival tonight / On Desolation Row.” As Dylan remembers getting to see the lady with four legs at the circus which celebrates freaks and the bizarre, so too does “Desolation Row” center on the grotesque. This can be seen right from the start with the unforgettable opening line: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Immediately, Dylan establishes the character of this place as people attempt to monetize from one of the most gruesome images that one can imagine. Furthermore, it’s a postcard which are usually depictions of a scene of natural beauty or an architectural landmark. Instead, the community in this song thinks that a hanging is the appropriate and distinctive photograph to send to a loved one. 

“Desolation Row” is filled with depictions of the circus-like images teeming with absurdity. Take the “blind commissioner” who has been put into a trance and seen with a hand “tied to the tight-rope walker / The other is in his pants.” It’s a carnival trick which is immoral and dirty, yet outlandish and comic. It’s hard not to laugh.

The sense of place is important in “Desolation Row” as Dylan enacts a form of world-building. The out-of-place and out-of-time nature of the song gives the sense that Dylan is describing a legend rather than an actual location. Circuses usually situate themselves on the edge of town, not quite urban and not quite the country, so too is “Desolation Row” situated in that in-between zone, blending the urban poetic images with the border guitar sound to create a singular setting.

Each verse ends with Dylan using the sense of place represented by Desolation Row as a way to convey a universe of different themes. Sometimes he wants to emphasize certain emotions, such as a tone of wistfulness of a love affair in the past when he sings, “As Lady and I look out tonight / From Desolation Row.” Or, in the second verse, Dylan presents a heart-breaking illustration of Cinderella’s lack of agency in her own life:

And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row.

In other instances, Dylan uses Desolation Row as a metaphor for artistic creation as when he sings about Einstein disguised as Robin Hood who has found himself in hard times. His “memories are in a trunk” as he is “sniffing drainpipes / And reciting the alphabet.” But Dylan ends the verse by singing:

Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row.

In this verse, the character’s hardship is not happening on Desolation Row, but instead it was the place where he was most successful, in the past, at the peak of artistic powers, “playing the electric violin.” In this usage of the sense of place, Desolation Row represents artistic fulfillment for an individual. (Side note: the electric violin reference always makes me think of the electric violin featured on the one-off brilliance of Houndog, made up of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Mike Halby of Canned Heat, whose blues-on-Quaaludes vocals and tempo manages to convey the paradoxical feel of both the bottom of a swamp and a dusty road at the same time.)

On the other hand, Dylan also sings:

They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row.

In this usage, music is being created on Desolation Row, but it’s a chorus of people playing pennywhistles which are usually a musical instrument played by a child. It’s easy to attain a sound from a pennywhistle, but the result is usually grating or annoying rather than musically pleasing. Now imagine a whole group of people playing pennywhistles together and it might be enough to make one go insane. Dylan says this is what you will hear on Desolation Row. In this instance, artistic creation in that space is one to be avoided at all costs.  

In another verse, Dylan sings:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row.

Here, Dylan shares a vision of utopia: “Between the windows of the sea / Where lovely mermaids flow.” It’s a beautiful image with Dylan further asserting an ideal as being a place where “nobody has to think too much / About Desolation Row.” Yet, this utopian ideal of putting Desolation Row out of consideration can only be achieved on the Titanic. We know the fate of those who sail on the Titanic. Dylan seems to be saying that one can never put Desolation Row aside; it must always be with you since paradise cannot be reached without dealing with Desolation Row in some way. 

Dylan’s sense of place for Desolation Row is malleable; it can be different things to different people since it is a place of legend and myth. The world building that Dylan undertakes within the song allows him to populate the world with an array of bizarre and comic characters, some of whom we know as historical figures, others from literature and nursery rhymes, or some that are inventions by Dylan. Some of these characters have already been named, but the full cast from the song includes:  the blind commissioner, Lady, Cinderella-mimicking-Bette Davis, Romeo, the fortune-telling lady, Cain, Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Noah, Einstein-disguised-as-Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, a nurse who is “some local loser,” the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, agents, some sort of superhuman crew, insurance men, Nero, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, laughing calypso singers, fishermen who hold flowers, and lovely mermaids. It’s quite a company of characters who make up this world, the type that one might find at a circus, though it would have to be a circus of the imagination.

Within this world in the final verse, Dylan switches to a first-person perspective:

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.

Suddenly, the world depicted within the song seems far away. Instead, Dylan is sharing the pain felt by the narrator of a lost friendship or a relationship gone bad. The suffering by the narrator is quite acute as he states, “Right now I can’t read too good / Don’t send me no more letters no.” The only way that he can accept any kind of communication from this other person is if the letters are mailed from Desolation Row. It’s as if he is saying he needs documentation from a trusted third-party, in this case, the Postal Service, that this other figure is indeed inhabiting Desolation Row. Perhaps the narrator wants the sender of the letter to feel the heartbreak of Cinderella or the agony of paradise lost, the same pain that he himself is feeling. In this final verse, “Desolation Row” is in alignment with the final scene from Fellini’s 8 ½:

As circus music plays, the main character, movie director Guido Anselmi as played by Marcello Mastroianni, has an epiphany as the entire cast of the movie invades the set and begins to dance around in a raucous celebration. Guido embraces the characters in his life and his movie by joining the dance. Similarly in “Desolation Row,” the narrator joins the characters who make up the world of Desolation Row and fully embraces the grotesque, the bizarre, and the comic of that place. He has joined the dance that is the circus of Desolation Row. 

A few years ago, the musician Nick Cave started The Red Hand Files as a forum for him to interact directly with his fans. In a dispatch from January 2019 Cave was asked about his top five albums. Usually a question like that is responded to with a simple list. As is his wont in The Red Hand Files, Cave went deeper. First, he shares a part of poem he had written previously describing the impact of a Leonard Cohen song: 

“Leonard Cohen will sing, and the boy will suddenly breathe as if for the first time, and fall inside the laughing man’s voice and hide. The boy will grow older, and over time there will be other songs – not many – ten or maybe twenty in a lifespan, that stand apart from the rest of the music he will discover. He will realise that not only are these songs sacred, they are ‘hiding songs’ that deal exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy. He will realise that for him the purpose of these songs was to shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect him from the corrosive glare of the world.”

In the post, Cave expands on the idea of “hiding songs”:

“My ‘hiding songs’ serve as a form of refuge for me and have done so for years. They are songs that I can pull over myself, like a child might pull the bed covers over their head, when the blaze of the world becomes too intense. I can literally hide inside them. They are the essential pillars that hold up the structure of my artistic world.”

A “hiding song” is a beautiful notion and one which perfectly illustrates my own relationship to the song “Desolation Row.” It’s been my favorite song from the first moment I heard it. The melody of the song is absolute, an end to itself, causing me to retreat into the song and lose perspective on the rest of the world in times of joy, pain, or simply as an escape to inhabit its world once again. The meter of the lyrics match exquisitely with the melody and Dylan delivers them flawlessly. Even the harmonica solo in the high register of that instrument affects me while Charlie McCoy plays that otherworldly guitar part. The characters and the images are embedded in me. Each time I listen to the song, a different line sticks out, causing a laugh or jab in the stomach. It’s as if the song itself holds the cards that read “Have mercy on his soul.” I rarely listen to the song as a way to preserve this special relationship. It is indeed a hiding song as I keep it in reserve for when I need to crawl inside that world. Even writing about “Desolation Row” for this blog was a risk as I feared that breaking down its components could minimize its power for me. Fortunately, that is not the case. “Desolation Row” remains an energy source in and of itself. It endures. 

Image: still from 8 ½, directed by Federico Fellini, 1963.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: