“Desolation Row” (1965)

Christopher Ricks calls “Desolation Row” “a masque of the sins.”  A masque is a good word, a dance macabre or parade of “lifelessness,” Ophelia’s only flaw as Dylan says in the song: “Her sin is her lifelessness.” It’s a great post-modern work in its ambiguity and and paradoxes–is Desolation Row a good or bad place to be?  Or worse does it matter whether you are there or not–either way desolation is yours for the taking or giving, like switching seats on the Titanic:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”

The seeming schizoid content, streams of consciousness narration even, can lead the listener astray from the excellent and quite ordered rhyming.  The rhyming puts order to the seeming wasteland chaos of the world captured in the song.

Desolation Row” consists of 10 verses of of 12 lines each, and in each of verse the 2nd and 4th, 6th and 8th, and 10th and 12 lines rhyme.  It’s laced with some internal rhyming, too, but the terminal rhymes are striking in their pattern in a song that feels like it wants to avoid patterns at least in terms of coherence and meaning.  The rhyming seem at odds with the compulsion to interpret, inspiring and challenging the listener to yes, take it all in, impossible to do,  just as it seems impossible for a work with such content to rhyme so well.

It’s a turbo charged amalgam of images and references to people real and literary, but it’s essentially and mostly about a place, where some don’t belong, like Romeo and Casanova, but others do, like the Good Samaritan and Einstein. And some of the words that rhyme do seem to belong together in their perfect rhyming, “brown” with “town” or “show” with “Row.”  But some at first glace don’t seem rhyming friendly with each other, like “smiles” and “style,” “vest” and “lifelessness,” “trunk” and “monk,” and my favorite “cigarette” with “alphabet.”  But they are.  And they are an unforgettable part of how that song “Desolation Row” is built and works.  It’s a song and a place, where either way in or out you are and will be forever be affected by it.

Live Acoustic Version from the Bootleg series, Volume 4, 1966:

 

 

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