When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
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.
~San Francisco Press Conference – Dec 3, 1965
Bob Dylan: As I look back on it now, I am surprised that I came up with so many of them. At the time it seemed like a natural thing to do. Now I can look back and see that I must have
written those songs “in the spirit,” you know? Like “Desolation Row” – I was just thinkin’ about that the other night. There’s no logical way that you can arrive at lyrics like that. I don’t know how it was done.
KL: It just came to you?
BD: It just came out through me.
~Bob Dylan – Kurt Loder interview, Oct 1987
“Desolation Row” also focuses on scene, but in a more purposeful way: the images build up powerfully, propelled by the vocal and instrumental performances. The song makes a statement: this scene is important, it needs·to be paid attention to, there is a reality in this life which may not be cheerful but which, once discovered, shows everything else to be a
pose. Desolation Row” is an anthem; it proclaims and forever defines a certain place, certain state of being… ..And finally I can say about “Desolation Row” only that I am in awe of it.
~Paul Williams (Bob Dylan Performing Artist I: The Early Years 1960-1973)
What does one do the month after inventing an entirely new form of popular song? One does it again. With “Desolation Row,” Dylan manages something even he’d never pulled off before—writing a song as long as “Tam Lin” (and in that classic ballad meter) but without any such narrative thread. Instead, Dylan relies almost solely on placing familiar characters
in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, revealing a series of increasingly disturbing canvases. Being Dylan, he unravels no ordinary tale.
~Clinton Heylin (Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973)
Part of the inspiration (and title) might also have come from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (an early Dylan enthusiasm), and some of it was almost surely derived from Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. But as with Juarez, the New York that the narrator has gone back to for this final song is a city of the mind, one that encompasses all of Dylan’s Highway 61 and the terrain surrounding it, a funhouse America that is everywhere and nowhere.
~Mark Polizzotti (Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (33 1/3))
Continue reading August 4: Bob Dylan’s best songs – Desolation Row