The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #6, “Desolation Row”

highway 61

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.”

“Desolation Row” is a true listening “experience.” By the time the song’s 11-plus minutes end, you feel like you’ve just seen a movie. Melodically, it’s a fairly simple song, yet it’s overstuffed with panoramic, awe-inspiring imagery. Dylan’s cast of characters are crammed together, but get along fine. The Phantom of the Opera communes with Casanova, Einstein disguises himself as Robin Hood, and Cinderella, who flirts with Romeo, resembles Bette Davis. Even the harmonica blast at the end is pure poetry.

Special mention must go to Charlie McCoy, whose fluid, almost classical guitar fills will forever be associated with the song. McCoy’s is one of the stranger stories in rock history, as he’s better known as an accomplished harmonica player, having backed up Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Paul Simon. He was also the longtime musical director for the show Hee Haw. McCoy’s guitar playing also features prominently on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Contrast a song like “Hard Rain” or “Desolation Row” with a later-period song like the minimalist “If Not For You,” and you’ll understand the casual Dylan fan’s dilemma: “didn’t he used to write really wordy songs? What’s this moon-spoon stuff all about?”

In his recent, revealing interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan gave an answer that seems to point to the forces that lead him to create “Desolation Row”:

BF: Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?

BD: A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.

“Desolation Row” is thought to have been inspired by T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land” (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are name-dropped in the 9th verse.) Or, as Al Kooper asserts, it could have been Dylan’s poetry-infused interpretation of the Greenwich Village block he lived on (the song was written in the back of a New York City taxi cab.)

This Australian website breaks down the meanings behind each verse, offering some hard-thought interpretations. Here’s some interesting excerpts:

– Fishermen’s flowers may be a reference to honest artists offering their works to the world. The sea may be a metaphor of the working class, and mermaids are committed members of the social justice movement.

– The letter is probably the Open Letter to Bob Dylan written by Irwin Silber in Singout Magazine condemning Dylan for betraying the left-wing cause. The broken doorknob may refer to the Left no longer having access to the meaning contained in Dylan’s work.

(The site also features an interactive mural depicting the song’s lyrics, where you can click on each section to read the corresponding lyric.)

“Desolation Row” ends with a verse that could be taken from a passage straight out of Dylan’s only “novel,” Tarantula, which is written in letter form:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob 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.