|Song by Bob Dylan from the album Highway 61 Revisited|
|Released||August 30, 1965|
|Recorded||August 4, 1965 at Columbia Studios, New York, Studio "A"|
|Highway 61 Revisited track listing|
"Desolation Row" is a 1965 song written and sung by Bob Dylan. It was recorded on August 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.
Although the album version of "Desolation Row" is acoustic, the song was initially recorded in an electric version. The first take was recorded during an evening session on July 29, 1965 with Harvey Brooks on electric bass and Al Kooper on electric guitar. This version was eventually released in 2005 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.
On August 2, Dylan recorded five further takes of "Desolation Row". The Highway 61 Revisited version was recorded at an overdub session on August 4, 1965, in Columbia's Studio A in New York City. Nashville-based guitarist Charlie McCoy, who happened to be in New York, was invited by producer Bob Johnston to contribute an improvised acoustic guitar part and Russ Savakus played bass guitar. 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." Outtakes from the August sessions were released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 in 2015.
Release and interpretation
When asked where "Desolation Row" was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: "Oh, that's some place in Mexico, it's across the border. It's noted for its Coke factory." Al Kooper, who played electric guitar on the first recordings of "Desolation Row", suggested that it was located on a stretch of Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, "an area infested with whore houses, sleazy bars and porno supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption". 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.
"Desolation Row" has been described as Dylan's most ambitious work up to that date. In the New Oxford Companion to Music, Gammond described "Desolation Row" as an example of Dylan's work that achieved a "high level of poetical lyricism." Clinton Heylin notes that Dylan is writing a song as long as traditional folk ballads, such as "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves", and in that classic ballad metre, but without any linear narrative thread.
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, some historical (Einstein, Nero), some biblical (Noah, Cain and Abel), some fictional (Ophelia, Romeo, Cinderella), some literary (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and some who fit into none of the above categories, notably Dr. Filth and his dubious nurse."
When Jann Wenner asked Dylan in 1969 whether Allen Ginsberg had influenced his songs, Dylan replied: "I think he did at a certain period. That period of... 'Desolation Row,' that kind of New York type period, when all the songs were just city songs. His poetry is city poetry. Sounds like the city."
The south-western flavored acoustic guitar backing and eclecticism of the imagery led Polizzotti to describe "Desolation Row" as the "ultimate cowboy song, the 'Home On The Range' of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America". In the penultimate verse the passengers on the Titanic are "shouting 'Which Side Are You On?'", a slogan of left-wing politics, so, for Robert Shelton, one of the targets of this song is "simpleminded political commitment. What difference which side you're on if you're sailing on the Titanic?" 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."
The song opens with a report that "they're selling postcards of the hanging", and notes "the circus is in town". Polizzotti, and other critics, have connected this song with the lynching of three black men in Duluth. The men were employed by a traveling circus and had been accused of raping a white woman. On the night of June 15, 1920, they were removed from custody and hanged on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. Photos of the lynching were sold as postcards. Duluth was Bob Dylan’s birthplace. Dylan’s father, Abram Zimmerman, was eight years old at the time of the lynchings, and lived only two blocks from the scene. Abram Zimmerman passed the story on to his son.[a 1]
Dylan premiered "Desolation Row" at the Forest Hills Music Festival in Queens, New York on August 28, 1965, after he "controversially went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. It was part of the acoustic set Dylan played before bringing on his electric band. The displaced images and Kafkaesque cavalcade of historical characters were at first greeted with laughter.
My Chemical Romance performed a cover of "Desolation Row", for the 2009 soundtrack of Watchmen. The song peaked at #20 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks in March, 2009. The first chapter of Watchmen ("At Midnight All the Agents") takes its name from a line in the song. This line is also quoted at the end of the chapter. The music video, also directed by Zack Snyder, features references to and imagery from Watchmen, such as the band playing at the fictional "Pale Horse" concert from within the comic. It was the last My Chemical Romance music video to feature Bob Bryar as the band's drummer, prior to his departure from the group.
According to the Grateful Dead website, the Dead have performed a cover version of "Desolation Row" since the mid-1980s. The song is included on their 2002 release Postcards of the Hanging (which, in itself, is an allusion to the lyrics of "Desolation Row"), which features a recording from March 24, 1990, at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York. The song was frequently included in Dead set lists and is often abbreviated as "D-Row."
Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio de André wrote "Via della Povertà", an Italian translation of "Desolation Row", and included it in his 1974 album Canzoni. In Norway, Åge Aleksandersen recorded his version called "Nederst på Karl Johan" (on Fredløs: Dylan på norsk, 1997). Dan Tillberg made a Swedish cover version called "Hopplöshetens gränd" on the "Kärlek minus noll" ("Love Minus Zero") cover album.
Chris Smither recorded the song on his 2003 album Train Home with Bonnie Raitt providing backup on vocals and slide guitar. It has also been recorded by Robyn Hitchcock on the album Robyn Sings.
Old 97's singer Rhett Miller borrowed "Desolation Row"'s melody for a new song, "Champaign, Illinois". It was recorded with Dylan's blessing and appears on Old 97's 2010 album The Grande Theatre, Volume One, with Dylan and Miller sharing writing credit.
- Explanatory notes
- In The Bootleg Series Volume 7 recording, Dylan changes the lyric "On her 22nd birthday she already is an old maid" to "On her twentieth birthday she was already an old maid." Irene Tusken, the supposed victim of the alleged rape that was the catalyst for the Duluth Lynchings was 19 years old at the time. (Fedo, Michael (2000). The Lynchings in Duluth. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press)
- Heylin 2009, p. 250
- Gorodetsky 2005
- Bjorner, Olof (2010-11-17). "Columbia Recording Studios, 2nd August, 1965". Bjorner's still on the road. Retrieved 2011-02-14.
- Polizzotti 2006, pp. 141–142
- Bjorner, Olof (2010-11-17). "Columbia Recording Studios, 4th August, 1965". Bjorner's still on the road. Retrieved 2011-02-14.
- "Bob Dylan - The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12". Retrieved 2015-11-22.
- Cott 2006, p. 72
- Polizzotti 2006, p. 133
- Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, p. 219.
- Heylin 2009, p. 248
- Larkin 1985, p. 151
- Gill 1999, p. 89
- Wenner, Jann. Rolling Stone, November 29, 1969, reprinted in Cott 2006, p. 148
- Polizzotti 2006, pp. 139–141
- Shelton 1986, p. 283
- Gunderson, Edna (2001-10-09). "Dylan is positively on top of his game". USA Today. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
- Polizzotti 2006, pp. 134–135
- Hoekstra, Dave, "Dylan's Duluth Faces Up to Its Past," Chicago Sun-Times, July 1, 2001. "The family lived a couple of blocks away from the lynching site at what is now a parking lot at 221 Lake Ave. North." The connection is also made by Andrew Buncombe in a June 17, 2001, article in The Independent (London): "'They're Selling Postcards of the Hanging...': Duluth's Day of Desolation Remembered."
- "The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rock List Music. Retrieved 2010-12-09.
- Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, pp. 219-226.
- "The Official Bob Dylan Site". Retrieved July 25, 2013.
- "My Chemical Romance Release Bob Dylan Cover Next Month". Kerrang. Retrieved 2009-06-16.
- "Artist Chart History — My Chemical Romance". Billboard. Retrieved 2009-06-16.
- Choates, Rick (2003). "Chris Smither's Long Train Home". Northern Express. Retrieved 2009-01-01.
- Downing, Brian. "Robin Sings: Review". Allmusic. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
- Ferguson, Jon (2010-09-09). "Old 97s' Rhett Miller found unexpected inspiration in 'Desolation Row'". Lancasteronline.com. Retrieved 2010-09-18.
- Cott, Jonathan (ed.) (2006), Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews, Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-92312-1
- Gill, Andy (1999). Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages. Carlton. ISBN 1-85868-599-0.
- Gorodetsky, Eddie (2005). No Direction Home: The Soundtrack—The Bootleg Series Volume 7 (booklet). Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.
- Heylin, Clinton (2000), Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, Perennial Currents, ISBN 0-06-052569-X
- Heylin, Clinton (2009), Revolution In The Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957–73, Constable, ISBN 1-55652-843-4
- Larkin, Philip (1985). All What Jazz. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-13476-9.
- Polizzotti, Mark (2006). Highway 61 Revisited. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-1775-2.
- Shelton, Robert (1986). No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-34721-8.
- "Desolation Row", complete song lyrics
- Rolling Stone article on "Desolation Row" as the 187th Greatest Song of All Time