Desolation Row


desolation row

You learn all kinds of strange things doing a project like this one. For instance, today at lunch I learned that “Desolation Row” is funny. I certainly never knew that before. I always considered it the dark, brooding, beating heart at the end of Highway 61 Revisited – a typical Dylan apocalypse straight out of a Dutch painting.

To the earliest crowds hearing the song, however, it was a laugh riot.

Dylan started playing “Desolation Row” as part of his tour of the United States with The Hawks in the fall of 1965. On that tour, he would open with seven or eight songs sung alone and acoustic (almost all from his more recent albums – the protest stuff, even “Blowin’ In the Wind”, was gone at this point), and then after intermission he would return to the stage with The Hawks and play most of Highway 61 Revisited. “Desolation Row”, having been done acoustic on the album, was played that way live (an electric version of the song was recorded for Highway 61 and can be found on Bootleg Series 7 – it’s not a whole lot different, but in some ways it may be better than the album version).

I only have two bootlegs with “Desolation Row” from 1965. The first is a poor quality recording (likely from the crowd) of his show at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York. The crowd laughs – loud and long – after virtually every single line of the song. This crowd thinks that this song is hilarious. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” and they laugh. I always thought that was a pretty sombre image, myself, but what do I know?

The far better recording I have is of his Hollywood Bowl concert in August. This is a high quality version, and just before “Desolation Row” Dylan tells the audience he can’t hear them (presumably in response to a song request). Even here, though, from a soundboard recording, you can hear the audience laughing – though not as clearly.

It seems to me that Dylan’s obscure non-sequiturs – which comprise such a huge percentage of the lyrics on Highway 61 put the crowd at a loss. How to take this protest singer, whose language had once been so clear and direct, now that he has embarked into this uncharted new territory? Dylan’s audiences would be negotiating that right through his UK tour of 1966. I guess I knew that they found him frustrating – I just never knew that they found him funny.


Highway 61 Revisited



Rolling Stone magazine named it only the fourth greatest album of all time, even though they were named (in part) after its first track. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is that seminal piece – the combination of bluesy rock and roll with the fiercely poetic lyrics that would redefine the face of rock music. To me it unquestionably Dylan’s best album, and it is the one I have listened to the most times, by a wide margin.

I can remember being in the ninth or tenth grade and coming home from school for lunch and listening to Highway 61 day after day after day. The length of the album plus the walk to and from school was precisely the length of my break. When I’d hear the opening phrases of “Desolation Row” (“They’re selling postcards of the hanging….”), I knew it was time to pack up and get ready to head back to class. For probably weeks on end I listened to this album day and night.

And why not? There’s not a single bad song on it, and quite a few (“Like A Rolling Stone”; “Ballad of a Thin Man”; “Queen Jane Approximately”, and the aforementioned “Desolation Row”) are strong contenders for ‘best thing he ever did’. Dylan recorded “Like A Rolling Stone” in mid-June 1965 (it was released as a single, with “Chimes of Freedom” the next month), and then Dylan got booed off the stage at Newport. The electric material that he played there was mostly from Bringing It All Back Home, but the experience seemed to have steeled his determination. Four days after Newport he recorded “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, “Tombstone Blues”, and, most importantly, his defiant blow-off to the folk scene: “Positively 4th Street” (left off the album, and about which more in a day or two).

Over the course of only four recording sessions Dylan would bring his masterpiece together. Many of the songs are rough and ragged, the result of constant tinkering and experimentation. There is a howling rage to a song like “Ballad of a Thin Man”, in which Dylan is writing protest music – by his protests are personal: he doesn’t like the way that he himself is being treated now. This is an album that very much announces the birth of a brand new version of Bob Dylan, one that is beholden to no one.

Up to this point, Dylan had mostly ended his albums with songs of farewell, and this one is no exception. “Desolation Row”, at almost eleven minutes in length, is the sole acoustic song on the album. A classic anti-folk song on an album of rock material, it is a nightmarish parody of the songwriting that Dylan had seemingly grown tired of. Late in the song Dylan writes:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody’s shouting

‘Which side are you on?’

It seems a pretty clear indictment of the politics and the commitments of the folk scene that he was placing in his rear view mirror: what purpose is there to take sides on a sinking ship? Dylan knew his own ship wasn’t sinking – it was a rocketship, and this album would head him towards the stratosphere.

I’m still not tired of this album – I’ve been looking forward to this week, and I’ve listened to it every day so far.

Oh, by the way, the three albums that Rolling Stone placed ahead of this one: Revolver by The Beatles, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, and Sgt. Pepper’s by The Beatles. I’m not going to bother to argue that. But I will note that Dylan has eleven albums on the top 500 list, one more than each of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And, on a separate but related list, the number one song. But more on that another day.

My copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” has these same pops in it. Played it too much!