I’ll admit I was more daunted to write about this song than any other. I’m still none the wiser where to go with this phenomenal piece after letting it sit with me a number of days. To subject your interpretation to Desolation Row seems futile. Most of all to Dylan, who when asked at the famous ’65 San Francisco press conference – ‘Bob, where is Desolation Row?‘
Bob Dylan: ‘Where? Oh, that’s someplace in Mexico. It’s across the border. It’s noted for it’s coke factory. Coca-Cola machines are… sells -… sell a lotta Coca-Cola down there‘.
As reported here and collated in my poll at the Bob Dylan community web site – Expecting Rain, Desolation Row was voted his 5th favourite song (18 votes). What makes Desolation Row and the No 1 voted song in that Poll – Visions of Johanna one of Dylan’s greatest compositions is his surrealist lucid dream-imagery which suggests entropy and urban chaos. It’s analogous to seeing German’s Ludwig Boltzmann’s scientific results about the entropic nature of particle-energy in the 19th century applied to the literary realm.
My two favourite versions of Desolation Row are as follows:
1. The original (August 4, 1965 audio below) for his superior harmonica playing and the improvised guitar backing by Nashville-based guitarist Charlie McCoy. I haven’t heard more impactful harmonica solos in any song by Dylan or anyone else like he did in that version (listen from 8:30 until final). Author Mark Polizzotti credits some of the success of the song to McCoy’s contribution: “While Dylan’s panoramic lyrics and hypnotic melody sketch out the vast canvas, it is McCoy’s fills that give it their shading.”
Thank God we have this version available free online to the public.
2. The MTV live unplugged release version (1994) which I believe is unavailable online due to copyright reasons. There is another ‘unplugged’ version online, but it doesn’t capture the coalescing force and climax like the officially released version. The rollicking guitar and emotion in his voice is a great force of music here.
There were many initial out-takes of the song even including Al Kooper on electric guitar now available on The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966. Robert Shelton, wrote that one of the targets of this song is “simple-minded political commitment. What difference which side you’re on if you’re sailing on the Titanic?”
“Praise be to Nero’s Neptune,
The Titanic sails at dawn,
“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”
In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, the day before the release of his album Love and Theft, Dylan claimed that the song is “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‘.
What more can be said about this freak song that hasn’t already been discussed in the annals about the most influential western music? I’ll leave it to your ears to make your own assessment. Personally, each time I hear it, it feels like learning to appreciate music, history and poetry anew at its most rudimentary, but potent-best. I feel fortunate to have lived in the same epoch as Bob Dylan.