So, my relationship with this song was an interesting experience of the kind I don’t normally have anymore. I listened to it once and found myself not terribly engrossed, thinking that Dylan’s ability to sprawl out on a simple chord progression had its limits. But I started putting it on in the background of menial tasks that take about ten minutes (and also when I played Minecraft), and the mixture of repetition and lowered expectations gave me room to grasp its emotions and meaning. Being single, childless, and over the age of eighteen, it’s not often I have to listen to music I don’t want to anymore (or indeed consume any pop culture); I stopped making fun of Top 40 music shortly after leaving high school for college because I didn’t have the hate for it anymore due to never being exposed to it far beyond my interest. There has often been discussion on this site about television keeping certain films in the collective consciousness (like The Shawshank Redemption) and it’s a cliche at this point to observe that the internet, conversely, has played on people’s most tribal tendencies and created bubbles of opinion where people honestly believe that, say, everyone hates the Disney remakes. I’ve come to believe that a happier life comes from creating a comfort zone and then using it to go uncomfortable places, and yet this kind of experience is still rare for me, where I can fall in love with a work of art without it being love at first sight. I don’t like losing that.
Part of both my initial and subsequent reactions are rooted in this being simultaneously tightly focused and epic in scope, in that it’s a list of observations of things that happen on the eponymous Desolation Row. It took repetition and eventually carefully listening to pick up that this wasn’t just a list of words and that there was some clear kind of cause-and-effect in the actions described even if the meaning was hidden. This song is precisely the kind of detached but emotional observational epic that so much Prestige TV of the 10’s has tried so hard to be, and not only do I like it a lot, I feel like it shows how that kind of art is best made. My take on Dylan’s songwriting process is that he’s much more literal than he first seems, taking things that happened to him and swapping out the details for archetypes (in the case of this song, he knew someone who reminded him of Cinderella and someone who reminded him of Romeo and he wrote things they did into the second verse), imbuing his experiences with the mythic tone he saw them in at the time. In turn, this is often how I enjoy interpreting his songs, slotting in my own experiences and hearing them recited back to me as some larger-than-life story. We’ve all ended up on Desolation Row at some point in our lives, some place where it’s exhausting just to get up and be alive every day.
“Leaving interpretation to the audience” is something that, ironically, I think has multiple interpretations, and often conversations about the idea hit the problem of people talking at cross-purposes. Something like The Shield is absolutely clear about what’s literally happening while letting you decide for yourself how you feel about it. The ending of season two of Twin Peaks is oblique to the point of being impenetrable, but it’s clear something horrific has happened. I think when it comes to creating art, tightly controlling one thing means acceding control of another, and vice versa; the main complaint many Soluters have of Prestige TV is that it tries to control the thematic AND emotional reaction of its audience, and of course it’s possible to leave so much of your work to ‘interpretation’ that there’s no actual solid work there to react to in the first place. “Desolation Row”, like many of Dylan’s songs, rests so heavily on a certain mood that what it’s actually ‘about’ can be totally flexible. I like to think of Desolation Row as somewhere a step closer to home than El Rey from The Getaway. That place was Hell itself, a horrible place you go to because you’re the kind of person who would trap yourself there. Desolation Row is somewhere you end up, somewhere the hasbeens, neverweres, and assorted down-on-their-luck losers find themselves; it’s not necessarily a place of suffering and you’re not necessarily trapped there, but it’s not the happiest place to be (it’s certainly not as frightening as Highway 61).
It’s hard to pin it down to any one thing, but I get a sense of crushing mundanity from this song. I think it’s because, for all the song uses big names and concepts, the actions it describes are very small; I could be convinced that the “At midnight all the agents” verse is about the Holocaust, but even so, there’s something to me in how it doesn’t happen to anyone we know – nobody like Cinderella or Romeo or Einstein – suggesting it’s about as relevant to the narrator as, say, the US pulling out of Syria is to me; apocalyptically terrible but something I am not affected by and in which I have no say in the outcome. And it opens the tone of the song slightly in how Desolation Row is a place the victims of the agents and superhuman crew could potentially escape to. Saying that living in America, the UK, or Australia is better than living in, say, Syria is one of those things extraordinarily useless people say; I suppose from one perspective, it’s true that dying slowly from disease due to lack of proper health coverage is better than dying quickly from someone dropping a bomb on your house, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. But for the most part, the things people do have an air of gentle monotony, where even things done for pleasure – sex, circuses – are connected to the melody wilting, as if everyone’s going through the motions. It’s as if Dylan is trying to give that monotony itself a sense of grandeur, to make it easier to endure.