Desolation Row, that crazy poem, is perhaps the most thoroughly satisfying song in all of Bob Dylan’s songbook. It was first released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisted and that studio version seems to be a perfectly realized work of art. You’re hooked from the opening lines; Dylan’s quiet, clean guitar introducing a melody that within seconds has you expecting something, it feels ominous, and you are swept along by the ambling bass.
The sound is so compelling that you don’t notice how nutty the lyric is; rather the neatly-knit lines drown one’s sensibility with slug after slug of sensual imagery.
By the time we’re half-way through the song, by the fifth verse, not only have we been introduced to an improbable cast of characters, including:
- the blind commissioner,
- the tight-rope walker,
- the riot squad,
- the hunchback of Notre Dame,
- the Good Samaritan,
- and Einstein,
but Dylan’s singing has become a mnemonic pattern buttressed by his own insistent guitar strumming that lopes along atop rumbling waves of bass notes, all accented by sweet little mandolin-sounding riffs that lurk just beneath the surface.
I am confident that if I awoke some day totally ignorant of the English language, I still could be amazed by the power and beauty of Desolation Row.
Most of the tricks in the poet’s bag are designed to get your attention; after all he has given you a piece of his art and left you alone to ponder it.
Bob Dylan is not limited to the poet’s bag. They’ve got onomotopaeia, synechtoche, rhyme, meter, and consonance, etc. Bob Dylan’s got all that PLUS a fantastic collection of fancy western hats and suits and a half-dozen musicians on retainer so that it seems natural for him to give a hundred shows a year where he presents fifteen or sixteen of his songs, some of which could stand alone on the page and have a poem’s way with you.
And if you’re a faithful fan, sometimes you get lucky and catch such a show as the one August 17, 2008 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Sometimes wildly lucky, like you’ve been singled out as a special beneficiary.
I’d been anticipating the trip to SPAC all the rainy Berkshires’ summer and that morning rifled through my collection to find the CD with a dozen versions of Desolation Row bootlegged by anonymous BobCats accross the decades. Couldn’t find it.
If memory were a better friend than it is, I could’ve retreived a few versions I’ve been present for: last June at Pines Theatre in Northampton, or the summer before at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, or even 2002 at Newport.
Perhaps it was his cognizance of the fickleness of memory that impelled Bob Dylan to give the unforgettable Desolation Row the reading he did at Saratoga. It began familiar enough, in the fourth slot of a setlist that already contained a stunning rendition of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, another song from 1965 that hardly ever gets performed.
To digress just a bit, hearing … Baby Blue recalled the comment 2 hours earlier by Glen Hansard of the Swell Season who enthused about being on a bill with Bob Dylan, one of his personal Holy Trinity along with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison. The connection is that one of my favorite Dylan covers is the one of Baby Blue done by Van Morrison and Them.
So Dylan and his superb band get in to a bright and lively Desolation Row, have the audience bobbing and weaving along, when, way before the time the door-knob broke, he suddenly morphs into a nursery school teacher and starts singing the song as clearly as he can in a melodic yet metronomic manner.
I got the feeling that, although there was affection for the audience, it was colored not a little by frustration that they’re not quite ready for the show.
The beautiful thing of it is that you can get an idea of how this version sounded by listening to the original studio cut. On it, each verse has two places where the lyric gets special emphasis, in the middle and at the end, where it changes from narrative to exhortation.
At this show, after following that pattern for the first five verses, Dylan goes for all exhortation (and also repeats a few couplets, intentionally or not).
This is his genius, to fashion fresh art on the spot, to the delight of old fans who now can feel more assured as well as to new ones, who would not think, to look at him, that he was famous long ago…
P.S. At SPAC, that was Donnie Herron playing electric mandolin (not violin)!
Setlist (thanks to Bill Pagel at BobLinks):
1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Bob on keyboard)
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on keyboard)
3. Rollin’ And Tumblin’ (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on electric mandolin)
4. Desolation Row (Bob on keyboard and harp, Donnie on electric mandolin)
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob on keyboard and harp)
6. Million Miles (Bob on keyboard and harp)
7. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) (Bob on keyboard)
8. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
9. I Believe In You (Bob on keyboard)
10. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on banjo)
11. When The Deal Goes Down (Bob on keyboard)
12. Thunder On The Moutain (Bob on keyboard)
13. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob on keyboard and harp)
14. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)
15. Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on keyboard and harp, Donnie on violin)