‘Desolation Row’

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row”…

— Singer/Songwriter: Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan

AND IT CAME to pass Moi was in Starbucks one rainy morning having an early caffeine fix with the music of Bob Dylan on the iPhone as soundtrack. Somehow it seems de rigour we revisit and pay homage to what is probably his masterpiece, one of the greatest songs ever written in the 20th century.

Firstly, for the uninitiated: Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 50 years. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964) became anthems for the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement. His lyrics during this period incorporated a wide range of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defied pop-music conventions and appealed to the burgeoning counterculture.

Incidentally Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 13, 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

It’s ironic that for all that influence on popular music and lately literature Bob Dylan is almost unknown in the Philippines save for a few enlightened souls.

As writer Eric Carruncho wrote and lamented, “and yet, it seems he’s hardly made a dent in Filipino pop consciousness.”

Why not? It bugs me — big time.

Maybe, according to Carruncho, this partly explains it: Activists dug Dylan the protest singer, but they didn’t quite get Dylan the surrealist poet.

One activist friend’s reaction was typical: “I liked Bob Dylan when I could understand what he was singing about.”

Dylan’s voice, memorably described by writer Joyce Carol Oates as “frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing,” is also an acquired taste.

I first got acquainted with the music of Bob Dylan during the late 1960s, they were quite popular amongst college students during the First Quarter Storm.

A personal favorite Bob Dylan song, All Along the Watchtower, has always been identified as a Jimi Hendrix song and a lot of people will swear on it as most of them are not even aware that this was originally written and performed by Dylan.

And we segue to Desolation Row, our featured Bob Dylan song, from that free online encyclopedia a.k.a. the internet:

Desolation Row is a 1965 song written and sung by Bob Dylan. It was recorded on Aug. 4, 1965 and released as the closing track of Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. It has been noted for its length (11:21) and surreal lyrics in which Dylan weaves characters from history, fiction, the Bible and his own invention into a series of vignettes that suggest entropy and urban chaos.

“Desolation Row” is often ranked as one of Dylan’s greatest compositions.

Author Mark Polizzotti suggests that both the inspiration and title of the song may have come from ‘Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, and ‘Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

When he reviewed the Highway 61 Revisited album for The Daily Telegraph in 1965, the English poet Philip Larkin described the song as a “marathon”, with an “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words”.

For Andy Gill the song is “an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters.”

From www.songmeanings.com:

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. 

Desolation Row is a state of mind representing the developing counterculture of the 1960s that is outside of the establishment, convention, and the mainstream culture. The artists, free thinkers, and misfits congregate on Desolation Row to strip away the false illusions of society.

I’d like to describe Desolation Row as another form of Theatre of the Absurd to fully appreciate the lyrical genius of the man who renamed himself after Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas and perhaps feel the angst of the song. Check it out on YouTube.

By the way, when trying to understand this song, keep in mind that Dylan was experimenting with LSD around the time he recorded it. ([email protected]/PN)

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi and thanks for writing abour Bob and specially Desolation row. I am Austrian but visiting Phil every year. I agree with you. Only elder people lke me know about Bob. Mostly bc of Blowin in the Wind etc. My first “meeting” Bob was in Boracay 2003. Simple twist of fate from some cd or ..then 2003 in Bulacan where some young guys practised Knockin on heavens door. They told me its a guns and roses song. I explained who wrote it. Some years ago Hobbits house in Manila a singer guitarist announced a Dylan song Dont think twice….okay. I am on my way to Cebu. Arriving Monday 25….best regards. Ronny

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