Desolation Row
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Desolation Row

"Desolation Row" is a 1965 song written and sung by Bob Dylan. It was recorded on August 4, 1965, and released as the closing track of Dylan's sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. It has been noted for its length (11:21) and surreal lyrics in which Dylan weaves characters from history, fiction, the Bible and his own invention into a series of vignettes that suggest entropy and urban chaos.

"Desolation Row" is often ranked as one of Dylan's greatest compositions.[2]


Although the album version of "Desolation Row" is acoustic, the song was initially recorded in an electric version. The first take was recorded during an evening session on July 29, 1965[3] with Harvey Brooks on electric bass and Al Kooper on electric guitar. This version was eventually released in 2005 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.[4]

On August 2, Dylan recorded five further takes of "Desolation Row".[5] The Highway 61 Revisited version was recorded at an overdub session on August 4, 1965, in Columbia's Studio A in New York City. Nashville-based guitarist Charlie McCoy, who happened to be in New York, was invited by producer Bob Johnston to contribute an improvised acoustic guitar part and Russ Savakus played bass guitar.[6][7] Author Mark Polizzotti credits some of the success of the song to McCoy's contribution: "While Dylan's panoramic lyrics and hypnotic melody sketch out the vast canvas, it is McCoy's fills that give it their shading."[6] Outtakes from the August sessions were released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 in 2015.[8]


When asked where "Desolation Row" was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: "Oh, that's some place in Mexico, it's across the border. It's noted for its Coke factory."[9] Al Kooper, who played electric guitar on the first recordings of "Desolation Row", suggested that it was located on a stretch of Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, "an area infested with whore houses, sleazy bars and porno supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption".[10] Polizzotti suggests that both the inspiration and title of the song may have come from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.[10]

When Jann Wenner asked Dylan in 1969 whether Allen Ginsberg had influenced his songs, Dylan replied: "I think he did at a certain period. That period of... 'Desolation Row,' that kind of New York type period, when all the songs were just city songs. His poetry is city poetry. Sounds like the city."[11]

The south-western flavored acoustic guitar backing and eclecticism of the imagery led Polizzotti to describe "Desolation Row" as the "ultimate cowboy song, the 'Home On The Range' of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America".[12] In the penultimate verse the passengers on the Titanic are "shouting 'Which Side Are You On?'", a slogan of left-wing politics, so, for Robert Shelton, one of the targets of this song is "simpleminded political commitment. What difference which side you're on if you're sailing on the Titanic?"[13] In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, the day before the release of his album Love and Theft, Dylan claimed that the song "is a minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show 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 four legs."[14]

The song opens with a report that "they're selling postcards of the hanging", and notes "the circus is in town". Polizzotti, and other critics, have connected this song with the lynching of three black men in Duluth. The men were employed by a traveling circus and had been accused of raping a white woman. On the night of June 15, 1920, they were removed from custody and hanged on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. Photos of the lynching were sold as postcards.[15]Duluth was Bob Dylan's birthplace. Dylan's father, Abram Zimmerman, was eight years old at the time of the lynchings, and lived only two blocks from the scene. Abram Zimmerman passed the story on to his son.[16][a 1]

Reception and legacy

"Desolation Row" has been described as Dylan's most ambitious work up to that date.[17] In the New Oxford Companion to Music, Gammond described "Desolation Row" as an example of Dylan's work that achieved a "high level of poetical lyricism." Clinton Heylin notes that Dylan is writing a song as long as traditional folk ballads, such as "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves", and in that classic ballad metre, but without any linear narrative thread.[18]

When he reviewed the Highway 61 Revisited album for The Daily Telegraph in 1965, the English poet Philip Larkin described the song as a "marathon", with an "enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words".[19] For Andy Gill the song is "an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters, some historical (Einstein, Nero), some biblical (Noah, Cain and Abel), some fictional (Ophelia, Romeo, Cinderella), some literary (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and some who fit into none of the above categories, notably Dr. Filth and his dubious nurse."[20]

Rolling Stone ranked the song as number 187 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[21]

Live performance

Dylan debuted "Desolation Row" at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York on August 28, 1965, after he "controversially went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. It was part of the acoustic set Dylan played before bringing on his electric band. Of the Performance, music critic Robert Shelton stated that "the song, another of Mr. Dylan's musical Rorschachs capable of widely varied interpretation... It can best be characterized as a "folk song of the absurd."[22] The displaced images and Kafkaesque cavalcade of historical characters were at first greeted with laughter.[23]

Live versions are included on Dylan's albums MTV Unplugged (1995; recorded November 1994), The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (1998; recorded May 1966), The 1966 Live Recordings (2016 boxed set; multiple recording dates, with one concert released separately on the album The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert), and Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections (2018; recorded April 1966). The song is still featured in live performances as recent as November 12, 2016.[24] The song is included on some set lists on Dylan's current tour and was played in Bournemouth on May 4, 2017.

Other recordings

My Chemical Romance

"Desolation Row"
MCR Desolation Row.jpg
Single by My Chemical Romance
from the album Watchmen: Music from the Motion Picture
ReleasedJanuary 26, 2009
Format12? vinyl, digital download
GenrePunk rock[25]
LabelReprise, Warner Sunset Records
Bob Dylan
My Chemical Romance
(add. production by Rich Costey)
My Chemical Romance singles chronology
"Desolation Row"
"Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)"

My Chemical Romance performed a cover of "Desolation Row"[26] for the 2009 soundtrack of Watchmen.[27] The song peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks in March, 2009.[28] The first chapter of Watchmen ("At Midnight All the Agents") takes its name from a line in the song. This line is also quoted at the end of the chapter.

The music video for My Chemical Romance's version was directed by Zack Snyder, who also directed the Watchmen film and, as a result, features similar effects to that of the film, though no actual footage of the film appears. It features the band playing in an old-school punk arena, with visual similarities to the "Pale Horse" concert referenced in the graphic novel. After the show becomes sold out and dozens of fans can't get in, a riot ensues as the band plays on. Eventually the police arrive but are too powerless to stop the rioting both inside the show and out. Later a SWAT team arrives, arrests the band, and disperses the rioters.

During MCR's parts in the video multiple elements of Watchmen imagery (such as Rorschach's mask and The Comedian's smiley face button) are seen. The pink elephant balloon from both the comic and the film is also seen at the beginning of the video.

My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way has stated in interviews that he is a longtime fan of the Watchmen graphic novel. Watchmen comic book merchandise can be seen in his home on the DVD Life on the Murder Scene.

The song's music video was the last to feature former drummer Bob Bryar, who left the band a little over a year after the song was released and in the early stages of recording their fourth album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.


Chart (2009) Peak
Scottish Singles Chart[29] 18
UK Singles Chart 52
UK Rock Chart 1
US Billboard Alternative Songs 20
US Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles 107

Other cover versions

The Grateful Dead performed a version of "Desolation Row" from the mid-1980s onwards.[30] The song is included on their 2002 release Postcards of the Hanging, the album name alluding to the lyrics of "Desolation Row". The album features a recording from March 24, 1990, at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York. The song was frequently abbreviated in Dead set lists to "D-Row."

Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio de André wrote "Via della Povertà", an Italian translation of "Desolation Row", and included it in his 1974 album Canzoni. In Norway, Åge Aleksandersen recorded his version called "Nederst på Karl Johan" (on Fredløs: Dylan på norsk, 1997). Dan Tillberg made a Swedish cover version called "Hopplöshetens gränd" on the "Kärlek minus noll" ("Love Minus Zero") cover album.

Chris Smither recorded the song on his 2003 album Train Home with Bonnie Raitt providing backup on vocals and slide guitar.[31] It has also been recorded by Robyn Hitchcock on the album Robyn Sings.[32]

Old 97's singer Rhett Miller borrowed "Desolation Row"'s melody for a new song, "Champaign, Illinois". It was recorded with Dylan's blessing and appears on Old 97's 2010 album The Grande Theatre, Volume One, with Dylan and Miller sharing writing credit.[33]


Explanatory notes
  1. ^ In The Bootleg Series Volume 7 recording, Dylan changes the lyric "On her 22nd birthday she already is an old maid" to "On her twentieth birthday she was already an old maid." Irene Tusken, the supposed victim of the alleged rape that was the catalyst for the Duluth Lynchings was 19 years old at the time. (Fedo, Michael (2000). The Lynchings in Duluth. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press)
  1. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Highway 61 Revisited review". AllMusic. Retrieved .
  2. ^ Franzon, Henrik. "Acclaimed Music - Desolation Row". Acclaimed Music. Archived from the original on March 22, 2016. Retrieved 2016.
  3. ^ Heylin 2009, p. 250
  4. ^ Gorodetsky 2005
  5. ^ Bjorner, Olof (2010-11-17). "Columbia Recording Studios, 2nd August, 1965". Bjorner's still on the road. Retrieved .
  6. ^ a b Polizzotti 2006, pp. 141-142
  7. ^ Bjorner, Olof (2010-11-17). "Columbia Recording Studios, 4th August, 1965". Bjorner's still on the road. Retrieved .
  8. ^ "Bob Dylan - The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12". Archived from the original on 2016-02-07. Retrieved .
  9. ^ Cott 2006, p. 72
  10. ^ a b Polizzotti 2006, p. 133
  11. ^ Wenner, Jann. Rolling Stone, November 29, 1969, reprinted in Cott 2006, p. 148
  12. ^ Polizzotti 2006, pp. 139-141
  13. ^ Shelton 1986, p. 283
  14. ^ Gunderson, Edna (2001-10-09). "Dylan is positively on top of his game". USA Today. Retrieved .
  15. ^ Polizzotti 2006, pp. 134-135
  16. ^ Hoekstra, Dave, "Dylan's Duluth Faces Up to Its Past," Chicago Sun-Times, July 1, 2001. "The family lived a couple of blocks away from the lynching site at what is now a parking lot at 221 Lake Ave. North." The connection is also made by Andrew Buncombe in a June 17, 2001, article in The Independent (London): "'They're Selling Postcards of the Hanging...': Duluth's Day of Desolation Remembered."
  17. ^ Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, p. 219.
  18. ^ Heylin 2009, p. 248
  19. ^ Larkin 1985, p. 151
  20. ^ Gill 1999, p. 89
  21. ^ "The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rock List Music. Retrieved .
  22. ^ Shelton, Robert. "Folk Singer Offers Works in 'New Mood' at Forest Hills". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  23. ^ Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, pp. 219-226.
  24. ^ "The Official Bob Dylan Site". Retrieved 2013.
  25. ^ "My Chemical Romance "Desolation Row"". MTVU.
  26. ^ "My Chemical Romance video for Desolation Row". Youtube. Retrieved .
  27. ^ "My Chemical Romance Release Bob Dylan Cover Next Month". Kerrang. Archived from the original on 2009-08-21. Retrieved .
  28. ^ "Artist Chart History - My Chemical Romance". Billboard. Retrieved .
  29. ^ "Official Scottish Singles Sales Chart Top 100 | Official Charts Company".
  30. ^ "Grateful Dead Desolation Row". Grateful Dead.
  31. ^ Choates, Rick (2003). "Chris Smither's Long Train Home". Northern Express. Archived from the original on 2007-02-17. Retrieved .
  32. ^ Downing, Brian. "Robin Sings: Review". Allmusic. Retrieved .
  33. ^ Ferguson, Jon (2010-09-09). "Old 97s' Rhett Miller found unexpected inspiration in 'Desolation Row'". Archived from the original on 2010-11-05. Retrieved .
  • Cott, Jonathan (ed.) (2006), Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews, Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-92312-1CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Gill, Andy (1999). Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages. Carlton. ISBN 1-85868-599-0.
  • Gorodetsky, Eddie (2005). No Direction Home: The Soundtrack--The Bootleg Series Volume 7 (booklet). Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.
  • Heylin, Clinton (2000), Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, Perennial Currents, ISBN 0-06-052569-X
  • Heylin, Clinton (2009), Revolution In The Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957-73, Constable, ISBN 978-1-55652-843-9
  • Larkin, Philip (1985). All What Jazz. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-13476-9.
  • Polizzotti, Mark (2006). Highway 61 Revisited. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-1775-2.
  • Shelton, Robert (1986). No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-34721-8.

External links

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