The following is an essay written by Roy Harper for MOJO Magazine in July 2005.
"Desolation row", I thought, when I first got hold of the record, "That's exactly where we're at." When I listened to it, it contained all the elements of where we'd felt civilization had been for years. It wasn't quite what I'd expected. It wasn't delivered with the same appropriately cynical and overt sense of humour that had written the more accessible earlier songs like Talking World War Three Blues, The Times They Are A-Changing or Masters Of War. But for Dylan himself, times had changed. He was no longer the carefree young vibe thief of the freewheelin' age. Things had become much more serious. He was now almost expected by everyone under 20 to become the next Messiah, at the same time as he was beginning to become more human. There were rumours of hard drugs and self-examination, and a waning confidence. In the end, he wasn't able to realise the mantle he'd set up for himself with his brilliant beat wit. But who among us is/would be up to that?
I was really into the earlier stuff, like Talking World War 3 Blues, but this new stuff was different. It didn't have anything like the swashbuckle of former work. It was far more introspective. Actually, I loved Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde because I realised that, like a lot of us, he'd actually reached a point at which he was on the verge of floundering. There were not going to be any easy solutions anymore. My eyes came down from his former blazing hip comedic horizon. I stared blankly in front of me. I knew that we were all in the same boat. It was homely, it was so far out there that you didn't have to bother to think about former wild speculation any more. The great euphoric human tragedy was unfolding in front of your eyes as you began to think. And there he was again, putting a rough kind of focus on whole spectra.
The more I thought about it, the more Desolation Row appealed to me. It was a collection of impressions thrown at a page. They were brilliant impressions in the spirit of former pictorial masterpieces such as Matisse's cut paper impressions of the late 40s and early 50s, but with the darker edge of a decade later. An edge which was much less comfortable in its outlook for humanity.
At the same time that it was riveting, it was also desperate. And I could very readily identify with that. It called the world to account, but in a different manner than former brash statements. It wasn't anywhere near as bold. It was almost totally withdrawn. The humour was almost hidden. "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, fighting in the captains tower" is, for instance, a bleak reference to two famous poets of the Far Right who regarded poetry as a learned exercise to be gained through reading The Classics rather than as a free form of speech in the Kerouacian mould. The song was a delineation. Like a final notice of departure. My immediate response was to write McGoohans Blues, which is perhaps a more rational evolution of the same kinds of thoughts, but the real riposte came a year or so later when I began to write Stormcock.
It wasn't so much that we were now in different boats so much as that we were all now in the boats, and away from the ship, and cast out alone on the ocean. Adrift. The boson had faltered. It was likely that Bligh was on the horizon and ready to resume control. And within seconds, as it turned out. What a dream we'd had. A wonderful momentary dream. That stream of consciousness poetry could rule the world.
We all know the characters in the song. They surround us every day. In the song, Desolation Row has changed since Einstein first knew it. It's sunk into further decay. And the image of the Millais painting of the drowned Shakespearean Ophelia lingers in my mind. And her dead in the head at 22, living vicariously, peeping into Desolation Row for moments of delicious embarrassment, only to quickly resume her role in some Salvation Army equivalent. Robin Hood, Cinderella, Bette Davis etc., they're all there along with a million inferences about the hum drum of seedy human life. Usually all set at midnight and beyond. While daytime insurance men check that no one escapes to Desolation Row, somewhere they have no control over. And then the last verse. Someone from the outside has written. A token note from someone living in the past, who's no longer part of the scene but who misses the freedom, but who perhaps couldn't handle the hand-to-mouth raw abandonment, or perhaps the grime. We never get to find out. And it doesn't matter. It never did. And it never will.
By 1970 he'd found drugs and Jesus and I was stuck with drugs and humanity and we'd gone our separate ways. He was never again able to consistently reach the heights of '63 to '66. There were occasional songs now and then, and we always live in hope, but that was it.
He's a few days older than me. I loved him. It was a deep, very angry, very emotional brotherly and unconditional love. Somewhere just post-Blonde On Blonde, we all knew that we'd forever exhausted the possibilities of ever having a messianic solution for the problems of humanity. I was pleased about that, I'd always thought that the concept of Messiah was totally flawed.
For most of the world, Desolation Row is where it is still at. There are cultural diversions of course. Best selling ring tones, and Corrie, to keep the minds of the proles off it. But if you're over the age of 30, you'll already know that it'll be the biggest oncoming phenomenon you'll have to deal with for the rest of your life. It's an illusive spectre. It's spread across humanity, but it's deeply personal. It's always full of constantly changing visions and images. You'll always be able to use those two words to describe it. Desolation Row. They've almost become part of our address these last 40 years. There have been millions on the streets this last month to protest about one obvious expression of it. All of those millions have got at least one foot still in it.
Right now I don't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
Not unless you've got some kind of an address in your humanity I can go to, and share with you for a moment. Not unless you've had to reach for the same drugs as me. And you can help me to score. Not unless you're so far down that you'd never see me anyway.... which, for those of us who respond to poetry, has tended to put the next fifty years into sharp focus. We were passing messages to each other, thousands of us, on vinyl. There was a great power in it. And there was a fantastic feeling of freedom. If that's our only legacy, I'd be happy enough.
2011-01-01 17:57:50 UTC - GNU/Linux (i686)