Close Reading Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”
Bob Dylan performing in Rotterdam, June 23 1978. Photograph by Chris Hakkens via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
Supplementing my regular essays, I’m interested in performing a series of traditional close readings of poems, passages, dialogue, and even art, demonstrating the utility of a critical practice that’s sometimes obscured more than its venerable history would warrant. If you’re interested in seeing close readings on particular works of literature or pop culture, please Tweet your suggestions @WithEdSimon. This month’s reading was a suggestion from Joe Linker (@JoeLinker).
Temperamentally conservative poetry critic David Lehman chose only one lyric by Bob Dylan to include in his 2006 The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Compiled more than a decade before the songwriter would go on to become the eleventh American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the second musician after Rabindranath Tagore, Lehman’s inclusion of Dylan was slightly out of character for the anthologizer. A fine close reader in his own right and the not-always-uncontroversial editor of the annual “Best American Poetry” series, Lehman’s inclinations tend towards the traditional, the venerable, and the anti-theoretical. A perusal of editorials following Dylan’s 2016 Nobel announcement will disavow anyone of the idea that the prize was uncomplicatedly awarded. Lehman himself makes it clear that though he values lyricists for their art – namechecking his love of Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, and Cole Porter – he has reservations about considering them poets. Not unfairly, Lehman argues that these figures “wrote forms in a different genre,” for the lyrics “do not quite exist independently of the notes and chords.” Something that Dylan would perhaps assent to, cheekily telling reporters at a 1965 San Francisco press conference that he considered himself not a poet but a “song and dance man.” He notably did not attend the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm a half-century later.
Poet and critic John Burnside could grant in 2019’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century that “many readers and listeners had come to see such hierarchical distinctions [between verse and lyrics] as entirely historical, the product of a system that had always assumed a direct link between social rank and real merit.” Such a view was already wide-spread in English departments used to the distinction blurring of cultural studies. By the time The Oxford Book of American Poetry was ready to supplement Richard Ellman’s 1976 The New Oxford Book of American Verse (itself supplementing F.O. Mathieson’s venerable 1950 The Oxford Book of American Verse), and the sentiment that Dylan counted as a poet was pervasive enough in literature departments (if not fully accepted) that Lehman may have felt it necessary to gesture charitably towards that claim. And so, Dylan appears chronologically by birth on pages 963-965, wedged between the far more substantial listing of poems by Billy Collins and Robert Hass. Dylan’s song is one of only five in the massive collection; two are lyrics by Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, and the other two are patriotic standards, though Lehman takes pains to explain in his introduction that these are works whose “lyrics have an existence apart from the music.” Notable that the song which Lehman saw fit to include wasn’t the relatively straightforward dirge of personal invective and electric bird-flipping “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Highway 61 Revisited,” with its evocations of that low culture realm of medicine men and carnival shows which critic Greil Marcus famously calls “that old weird America,” or even the surrealistic apocalypticism of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Rather Lehman chose the most ostensibly modernist of tracks off of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited – “Desolation Row.”
In his short framing of the poem, Lehman specifically points towards the line about “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain’s tower,” the allusiveness and modernist intertextuality of “Desolation Row” perhaps appealing to the former Columbia University dissertation student of Lionel Trilling, noting that the song rewards “close analysis of the sort given to demanding examples of modern poetry” and claiming that it is Dylan’s “finest lyric.” Lehman is certainly correct that “Desolation Row” deserves close attention, and he is probably also accurate that it could count as among the finest of Dylan songs. Whether or not Lehman chose the track because of the high culture references that are threaded throughout it – not least of which are Eliot and Pound – are between him and the ghost of Trilling. For our purposes the “Why?” of this poem’s particular inclusion in The Oxford Book of American Poetry is irrelevant, save to say that if it did merit placement because of those cultural allusions, it would be an appropriate enough reason, because those references ranging from Cain and Abel to Hamlet and Ophelia (and Bette Davis too) are the key to reading the poem. If “Desolation Row” can be said to be “about” anything – if any poem can be talked about in that way – than Dylan’s lyrics take as their subject the degradation, unraveling, and fundamental meaninglessness of cultural production against the sheer brute fact of contemporary nihilism. The verse itself is self-deconstructing, it exists to negate its own existence, for what “Desolation Row” is concerned with is nothing less than the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s claim that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
What I should make clear is that I have no interest in performing a literal-minded cryptographic reading of “Desolation Row” that with a simple and earnest intent examines the named figures – Robin Hood and Einstein, Nero and Casanova – and provides some sort of key to reading an elaborate cipher. Notable that that attempt is often applied to rock music; certainly many casual readers of Dylan read him in this way, and it might even be helpful for understanding lesser songwriters. It makes me think of all the earnest classic rock exegetes of Don McClean’s “American Pie,” for whom the “Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” are the martyred trinity of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, and the “jester…[who] sang for the king and queen/in a coat he borrowed from James Dean/And a voice that came from you and me” is supposedly Dylan himself. For McClean’s song, this kind of reading is as dependable as figuring out what all the characters represent in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or what historical figures George Orwell’s beasts in Animal Farm are stand-ins for. Such an approach should be categorically rejected in reading “Desolation Row,” even if it is deceptively easy to read the poem in this way (“Robin Hood is justice, Einstein is intelligence, Nero is tyranny, Casanova is eroticism,” and so on).
Such a method neither gives credit to the ingenuity of the lyrics themselves, nor should it be said that it gives any accurate understanding of what Dylan is actually going on about. A quality of Dylan’s songwriting, especially in the first decade of his career, is the erroneous conveyance that such a code actually structures his lyrics, that the “tight-rope walker,” “fortune telling lady,” and “Dr. Filth” mentioned in “Desolation Row” are somehow representative of concrete individuals rather than broad associative figures. What’s happening is actually far more interesting; rather than a basic one-to-one correspondence between both the archetypal and cultural figures referenced, Dylan offers what could be called a connotative matrix which broadly conveys the song’s meaning but where that meaning must be understood as a type of sentiment, mood, or sense instead of a straightforward allegory (as in Animal Farm, i.e. “Snowball is Trotsky, Napoleon is Stalin…”). Another fallacy in interpreting those early career, jittery, amphetamine-fueled lyrics is to assume that they collapse into incoherence. Dylan’s internal logic is never entirely irrational, “Desolation Row” and similar songs engage a near occasion of surrealism, always seeming more dream-like than they actually are. The uniqueness of his voice is that it skirts between simplicity and hermeticism, conveying a singular personal mythology that can almost be glimpsed but remains unavailable in high resolution.
“Desolation Row’s” connotative matrix relies entirely on the interaction of various classes of figures that populate the timeless realm of the song itself. The characters mentioned in “Desolation Row” break down into the following categories: archetypal figures, high-cultural historical figures, and high-cultural literary figures. The first category is what defines the “setting” of the poem, if we can think of the strange temporal and spatial singularity of the eponymous Desolation Row as constituting any regular setting as such. These characters – including “the blind commissioner,” a “tight-rope walker,” “sailors,” the “riot squad,” a “fortune telling lady,” and the good “Dr. Filth” and his nurse – are what defines “Desolation Row’s” setting. They’re an assortment who collectively seem as if they’re from a folk tale, unmistakable in their Americanness and evoking the mythic terrain of medicine show, tent revival, and circus that are associated with that time-out-of-time setting that is the old weird America which bolsters Dylan’s universe. Such a setting, whereby “The circus is in town,” is never incidental to Dylan’s music, and it defines the contours of his vision (its certainly apparent throughout Highway 61 Revisited), and if anything such qualities become more pronounced in his later albums like Time out of Mind and Love and Theft. Dylan himself has admitted to the cracked Americana quality which permeates “Desolation Row,” telling an interviewer in 2011 that the track “is a minstrel show through and through,” with all of the problems, complications, and difficulties which that loaded genre implies.
The other categories of characters exist in this mythic American realm; they’re visitors to the circus, the minstrel show, and the carnival. These include the historical figures – such as Einstein, Casanova, Nero, Pound, and Eliot – as well as the far longer list of literary and scriptural figures, which includes Romeo, Cain and Abel, the Good Samaritan, Noah, Cinderella, Ophelia, Robin Hood (albeit Einstein disguised as him), the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera. Lyrically these characters have a number of different relationships towards each other, implied and otherwise, and rich readings could be generated to sus out the implications of those relationships. For the purpose of providing an overall reading of the song, what’s notable about these figures isn’t necessarily the strict literal correspondences concerning what they might represent, but the broad connotative matrix which they ambiguously exist in. They are metaphors for which the vehicle is present but the tenor is uncertain; they’re driverless cars whose origin is unclear and whose destination is unknown.
That doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless – it’s the opposite. A reader or listener doesn’t need to know exactly what Noah or Casanova “represents,” that this is an assembly of famous figures who populate history, literature, and culture who find themselves at a circus (or minstrel show) is what’s important. Dylan’s litany of figures follows a type of dream-logic, the experience of things half-remembered and half-seen where significance is occluded. Poet Philip Larkin in a 1965 review in The Daily Telegraph described “Desolation Row” as being a “marathon” with an “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked lyrics.” He didn’t mean this as an insult – the half-baked quality is what propels the verse, for what “Desolation Row” concerns are historical sins that can only be viewed half-cocked. It’s the opposite of deciphering the cool rational linearity of a code, but it’s also not an anarchic free-for-all. There is meaning, but it’s continually deferred. Which is what the song is a mechanism for, since both the gothic setting of an old weird America populated by such iconic figures serves as an indictment of the central crimes of our history.
When Dylan describes “Desolation Row” as a minstrel song, we should take him seriously. In that same interview he clarified that the immediate inspiration for the song was “some ragtag minstrel shows 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 the four legs.” Critic Mark Polizzotti has explicitly connected the horrifying first lines of the song – “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown” – with the historical Duluth lynching of 1920, when three black circus workers accused of having raped a local woman were murdered by a white crowd (there was no evidence of rape). He explains in his study Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s father Albert Zimmerman was only eight at the time of the lynching, and lived only a few blocks from where the murder occurred. It seems unlikely that awareness of such trauma wouldn’t have been conveyed to Dylan when he was a young man, and that it wouldn’t be reflected in the opening lines of the song. As with many lynchings, both in the north and the south (and you don’t get more northern than Minnesota), the evil event was commemorated with a postcard that was openly sold in the white community. The gruesome photograph, depicting the aftermath of the murder, shows two of the men hanging from a telephone pole, the third lays face down at their feet. The victims are shirtless, their heads wrenched to the side. As an image, the lynching inadvertently (for those who shamelessly document the moment) calls to mind the crucifixion. Most horrifically, the crowd of perpetrators and spectators (for those categories are not easy to disentangle) assemble and face the camera – triumphantly, joyfully, ecstatically. “Desolation Row” documents that horror, and all of the hermetic lyrics which follow are but footnotes to the ineffable evil of this moment. But not just this moment.
If “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” is an undeniable reference to the American trade in death that marked racialized violence throughout the past two centuries, and even more specifically to the Duluth lynching, then “They’re painting the passports brown” concerns something else. Read literally, little about that sequence makes sense. Why would the mob mark the passports of the lynched men? Why would men who are citizens internally travelling within the United States be carrying passports? More specifically, why would the black circus workers have passports? Rather the line implies something more abstract, about the stripping of citizenship, the denial of humanity, and the negation of identity. The act of “painting” the passports signals that this is an act of vandalism; the passports weren’t stamped, nor were they marked. They’ve been destroyed in some sense. There is a literal reference here, but it deals not with the particulars of the Duluth lynching, but of a different historical crime. With the image of the marked passports and the redefinition of who gets to be considered part of the nation or not, Dylan references not just America’s racial crimes, but the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany which culminated in the Holocaust and the extermination of six million Jews. “Desolation Row” is an engagement with both Dylan’s Americanness and his Jewishness. Dylan yokes these two phenomena – American anti-black racism and European antisemitism – into a shared trauma. What the connotative matrix of the poem suggests is that “high culture,” which allows such crimes to proliferate, must be indicted for its culpability. “Desolation Row” is a musical version of Theodor Adorno’s contention that “There is no poetry after Auschwitz.”
The song’s connections to the Holocaust go beyond the second line; in the tenth verse he tangibly alludes to the Shoah, which is connected to the racialized violence of lynching, where both are understood as having if not been facilitated by “high culture,” at least not prevented by it. “Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew/Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” It’s an arresting description and condemnation of totalitarianism and its attendant atrocities. The time of day – midnight – is important since the cover of darkness is so common in both the committing of such horrors (the lynching photograph was taken at night) as well as being intrinsic to the disorientation of the victims. There are overtures to Franz Kafka and Arthur Koestler in the rousing up of the condemned, dragged to some undisclosed location. Connotations of the phrase “round up” are important – it implies a mass arrest that is indiscriminate, as well as mob justice. Often we associate the phrase with Westerns, where a posse is asked to do just that (ignoring of course how much of Western mob justice precisely describes a lynching). Furthermore, we have an interesting disjunct between the perpetrators of this crime, the “superhuman crew,” who are rounding up “everyone that knows more than they do.” Concerning the later group, who do they know more than? The superhuman crew? In which case, how superhuman could the former be? Or is this less a statement about respective abilities and more about the victims being privy to information that they must be punished for? Grammatically it would seem that it’s the first interpretation which makes the most sense, that the superhuman crew is actually deficient when compared to those whom they terrorize. It’s a moral statement about the innocence of those who’ve been rounded up. That Dylan chooses the descriptor “superhuman” is significant, with its Nietzschean overtures towards the Übermensch, and Nazi dogmas of racial superiority. That it modifies the noun “crew” demonstrates a keen ironic awareness, since that word has a low, juvenile association with it. How superhuman could the superhuman crew be? At least superhuman enough to have decided that they have the power of life and death over other human beings.
The following lines are even more explicit in their Holocaust associations. The perpetrators “bring them to the factory/Where the heart-attack machine/Is strapped across their shoulders.” Dylan’s reference to a “factory” is crucial, with its evocations of industrialized, mass-scale death – an intimation of those factories of death at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz. The “heart-attack machine,” sounding nothing so much as like an electric chair, also ties the verse more generally to corporal punishment and the prison system. He sings that the “kerosene/Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go/Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.” With “castles” we have another Kafkaesque image, the specter of those brutal, medieval places where barbaric decisions are made, but Dylan makes clear that it would be a fallacy to read such evil as being a remnant of the past. Any doubt about that is dispelled by the reference to “kerosene,” that fuel of immolation required in both the burnings which marked lynching and the crematoria of the Holocaust. The presence of the “insurance men,” a wholly modern career, places the action (if in a rarefied and abstract realm) into a type of contemporaneity. Insurance salesmen are both agents of capitalism (of which slavery and the Holocaust were manifestations of), as well as specifically agents betting on the misfortune of those who must buy their product. It is, also, an estimably prosaic, boring, and mundane career. The juxtaposition of a person with such a boring job alongside the death factory with its heart-attack machine should remind the reader of Hannah Arendt’s comment about the “banality of evil” from Eichmann in Jerusalem, and recall that she compared the personality of the Nazi bureaucrat that of a dry cleaner. It also forces one to consider all of the regular middle-class jobs held by the murderers who gaze back at you in the postcard from the Duluth lynching.
Within this context of atrocity, the connotative matrix of allusions to cultural figures both historical and literary constitute an accusation. In an overall sense it’s largely irrelevant what individual allusions “represent,” rather what’s important is simply that they’re present, sometimes complicit and sometimes aiding in the maintenance of Desolation Row. Dylan’s position is the same as that of Benjamin or Adorno – beautiful literature and great art do nothing to prevent the hanging, and in some sense, they assist its perpetrators by providing the thin veneer of civilization. Nowhere is this clearer in “Desolation Row” than in the eleventh stanza, following the most explicit portion of the poem that alludes to the Holocaust, when Dylan famous evokes “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower/While calypso singers laugh at them.” In Dylan’s Vision of Sin, the great New Critic Christopher Ricks argues that this verse involves “some pitching of poems against songs here,” even while he allows that the “central contention turns out not to be between those two heavyweight modernists, or between their high art and that of the lowly calypso.” But to frame the stanza as only offering a split between “high art and… lowly calypso” is to ignore the fact that he’s specifically chosen Eliot and Pound as his exemplars of “high art,” the first who would write in his After Strange Gods that “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” and the latter who would actually make propaganda broadcasts on behalf of the Italian fascists. This is a cultural reference that isn’t incidental, by mentioning these two titans of modernist poetry who are so connected to both fascism and antisemitism, Dylan condemns the culpability of high art in the encouragement of atrocity. We know that in some sense this is what Dylan was thinking; Lehman notes a conversation that the musician had with Archibald MacLeish about the two modernists, noting that “Dylan made no comment other than to allow that he liked Eliot, who was ‘worth reading,’ but disapproved of Pound’s anti-American propaganda from Italy in World War II.”
Ricks concludes that the stanza is a comment on “two deeply different apprehensions of what it is that songs can most responsibly be,” and this is a gesture towards the significance of those lines, but it doesn’t exhaust Dylan’s meaning either. So much attention is paid to Pound and Eliot that the mocking calypso singers are often ignored, which seems a mistake to me. That Dylan is setting up a dichotomy between “high art and… lowly calypso” seems clear, but that he’s specifically chosen calypso is important. An entirely black musical genre, born from the disjuncture and historical traumas of the globalized Caribbean, calypso is significant not just as a folk form, but one that answers and responds to “high art” from a specifically marginalized position. Pound and Eliot are having their arcane argument in the master’s tower, but the calypso singers know that the poets’ scholasticism is only so much straw. Important to note that one of the most popular recording artists of the 1960s was the Jamaican calypso singer Harry Bellefonte, a political radical and confidante of Martin Luther King, who shared a dais with Dylan at 1963’s March on Washington, two years before the penning of “Desolation Row.” Within the context of the song, not all human creative expression is condemned as complicit in tyranny. To the contrary, the calypso singers mocking the antisemitic fascists are offering critique and resistance. Ricks is correct that “Desolation Row” doesn’t offer some false choice between song and poetry, but it does offer a choice between the expression that is complicit in barbarism and that which resists it. Telling that in the previous line Dylan quotes Florence Reece’s left-wing union anthem – “Which side are you on?” As a folk singer, Dylan’s sympathies were precisely with those of the common people who exemplified that genre; after Auschwitz and lynching it’s not that there shall be no poetry, but that poetry must be the purview of the people. Whether high or low, “Desolation Row” implies, culture must be for liberation or it’s no culture at all.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.