Desolation Row & The Force of Reality

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“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 sideshow 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 sledgehammer 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.”

— Bob Dylan, to Bill Flanagan, 2009

“Shit, if I just came out and sang Desolation Row five years ago, man, I probably would have been murdered.”

— Bob Dylan, to Nat Hentoff, 1965


When I listen to Desolation Row, I hear the voice of courage. Where others perceive resignation, I see in my mind’s eye somebody who’s ready to risk it all.

Desolation Row is a strange song. Not in a pejorative sense but in the sense that it animates an unusually honest world: A world where people are not privileged enough — spiritually, materially, or psychologically — to escape reality. In being unable to deny the worm at the core of creation, they prove, by their existence, the absence of redemption.

Desolation Row is not Bob Dylan’s densest lyric (take a bow, It’s Alright, Ma), but it is his most definitive. Usually in his songs, Dylan delights in exploring all the territory that he can; in Desolation Row, he keeps his feet planted squarely beneath him. Rather than abandon one thought for the next, he holds onto what matters and stuffs it all together into a single big idea. The result is unified perfection. There’s no dancing around the truth.


“Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.”

— William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


As human beings all of us suffer, in ways large and small, from our collective refusal to affirm failure. To this declension everybody’s been brought, by degrees invisible until they became explicit. We are taught to exalt in victory and to resist defeat, and for this reason we are ill-equipped to cope with the essence of our experience, which is sorrow. We turn life into a struggle against sorrow — and it’s a struggle we cannot win. Unwilling to face where we’re headed, we persist in trying to develop strategies that will bring us back to Paradise. But, to steal a line from a line stealer“[That] door has closed forevermore / If indeed there ever was a door.”

The characters that populate Desolation Row are similarly ensnared; what distinguishes them is that they are forced, continually, to acknowledge the hopelessness of their condition. By doing so, they transcend all superstitions around defeat.


“I don’t believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art. Either a [work of art] has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.”

— Federico Fellini


For me, the journey along Desolation Row is an active experience. It’s a place so realistically unreal, I seem to leave a part of myself there after each and every listen. I’ve heard the song so many times, by now there are more parts of me in that world than I can count. It’s possible there are more parts of me in that world than there are in this world.

I cannot claim to understand Desolation Row, or any other song on a technical level. I failed music class in the third grade because I couldn’t master the intricacies of the recorder. It’s all magic to me. What I do know is this: With any song, if there is wonder to be had, it is in the sensation of feeling like a story is unfolding in front of you, in real time. For that experience to occur, the mind of the singer and the mind of the listener have to coalesce. I know, for me, I cannot force this process. It has to occur naturally, and it’s not something I can detect as it’s happening. But it’s through this process — this subconscious process of letting go and losing contact with my own sense of self for a while — that I find it’s possible to relate to what I’m hearing in a far more direct way. It’s as if I’m no longer standing in my own way.

Desolation Row is the only song which grants me this transformational experience unconditionally and without fail. Up, down, sideways—it takes me in the direction I need to go, and delivers me to where I need to be. Within its boundaries I am unburdened of “outsider” status. It is heartening to know I have another planet I can escape to, whenever earth begins to grind me down. I’m so familiar with every nook and cranny of Desolation Row that I feel the story it tells is my own. Still, the listening experience is ever-changing.

Sometimes I laugh the whole way through the song. Sometimes it makes me feel light, sometimes it makes me feel heavy. Sometimes the song frightens me and leaves me cold.

It fastens me to a position of vulnerability. For 11 minutes and 21 seconds, all things are possible and nothing is safe.

Written by @HarryHew

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5 Responses

  1. I saw this song in a new light as we went through Brexit here in the uk. Apart from the obvious analogies (they’re painting the passport brown/blue) you could easily transfer some of the characters for our politicians; Boris Johnson= the blind commissioner; Theresa May = Cinderella etc.
    Nice piece.
    Thanks

  2. I was a blind commissioner, one hand in my pants, the other tied to a politician, walking his existential tightrope. Geez. How could he have known then what my life would be like? Maybe because he was so much older then, and were younger than that now?

  3. A wonderful trip through the mind-blowing overload of imagery that is Desolation Row. Thank you for your insightful take on this true masterpiece.

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