A Summer on Desolation Row

"Like a Rolling Stone," the most famous song on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, portrays somebody who thought she was on top contending with her fall to the bottom. It's a fun song but not a great one.

Highway 61 isn't a perfect album. "Tombstone Blues" I skip on account of the drummer's insistence on slamming the cymbal with every backbeat.

"Ballad of a Thin Man" doesn't wear well, with its arrogant lyrics that claim old guys don't know where it's at but young ones do, which I hope makes Bob Dylan cover his ears now that history has proved his generation was also clueless.

And "Queen Jane Approximately" sounds like filler. But with CDs allowing us to skip around, weak tracks don't matter as long as the album has great ones.

"It Takes a Lot to Laugh and a Train to Cry" isn't great, but I used to sing it when I played in a band, and it has a lilting melody that lifts my spirits. "From a Buick Six" is driven by a pounding beat that let us play the instrumental breaks for 20 minutes and still keep people dancing.

"Highway 61 Revisited" is a great one, a trip through millennia that begins "God said to Abraham give me a son. Abe said, man, you must be putting me on. God said no, Abe said What? God said you can do what you want Abe but the next time you see me coming you'd better run..." and ends with an apocalyptic vision of the next world war.

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" takes me to Juarez, Mexico. Having spent my share of nights in border towns, I get transported by the song's mood of abject confusion and insecurity to times my consciousness had lost.

But the masterpiece is "Desolation Row." After the nifty Mike Bloomfield guitar intro and a procession of chilling images comes: "At midnight all the agents and the super human crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do, and they bring them to the factory where the heart attack machine is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene is brought down from the castle by insurance men who go check to see that no one is escaping to Desolation Row."

At a writers' conference last month, I tried to convince a gang of nonfiction writers that we can sometimes fabricate a scene or character that becomes truer than fact. I could've cited "Desolation Row" and argued that the picture it paints of life in the 20th Century is as powerfully rendered a glimpse of reality as any I've seen.

The album came out when I was in college. One summer I attended Universidad de Las Americas in Mexico City. Before I left San Diego to drive there, since I was recovering from a painful injury, my mother gave me a bottle of codeine she'd been prescribed but hadn't taken. On the road, I came to enjoy codeine.

My lodging in Mexico City was a room in an apartment near Sanborn's Farmacia. In those days, prescriptions were optional, and the visions codeine gave me, most of them like cartoons from the dark side, didn't allow much sleep. I began to appreciate a couple amphetamine capsules each morning. With their help, I could stay awake through my classes.

Life got ever more intense. Every day the mean red-haired landlady screamed at her son and cussed prices and thieves and lowbrows and bragged about her rich and cultured friends.

I got a letter from my girlfriend back in San Diego. Whatever it was she wrote all sounded trivial in my condition. So I wrote back only a few words of my own, along with a quote from "Desolation Row."

"I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke. When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke? Right now, I can't read so good, don't send me no more letters, no. Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row."

If I were condemned for life to a desert island, I would take Highway 61 Revisited. I would sometimes wish I had brought Bringing It All Back Home instead, as the Bloomfield guitar riffs on "Mr. Tambourine Man" are even more enchanting than those on "Desolation Row."

But I would remind myself that "Mr. Tambourine Man" makes me yearn for freedom. "Desolation Row" helps me accept being condemned.

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