Desolation Row – Excerpt from Homer the Slut Fanzine

Welcome to the inaugural post for the new Dylan Commentaries blog.

Today’s lunch hour was reserved for reading Homer the Slut Volume II, the fanzine published by Andrew Muir back in the early nineties. Muir recently published an updated version of his book – Razor’s Edge, renamed One More Night – about his experiences following Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. Razor’s Edge was a fun read, recommended.

Muir was also the publisher of the excellent Dylan fanzine, Judas.

Homer the Slut Volume II included a long section of excerpts about Desolation Row from a wide range of Dylan “scholars”. Many intriguing thoughts on a complicated song. The one by one Jim Brady is copied below.

Quote from the Jim Brady excerpt:

Although it is obvious that Dylan is exempt from some of the standard criteria by which poetry is judged, he is guilty of an indiscipline which – from the point of view of literature – seriously mars his work Desolation Row is another example; here Dylan uses his images of incongruity very successfully,

And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning,
“You belong to me I believe”
And someone says “you’re in the
wrong place my friend,
you better leave.”

That succeeds as a comment on American Society; sadly (and economically) Dylan explains how out of place that depth of feeling is, and the reader is made to feel how shocking it is that America has no place for such a character. In the same song however, Dylan applies the device with the figure of Einstein, but self-indulgently allows himself to lapse into delineating a number of surrealistic incongruities which are interesting, amusing and linguistically skillful but ultimately meaningless:

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the Alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago,
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row.

The unevenness of Desolation Row has already been noted; much of its imagery is gratuitous and some of it exhibits a juvenile sense of paranoia, “the cyanide hole” and the “heart-attack machine” constitute such overstatement that their intended sinistrality becomes laughable.

Elsewhere though the images do succeed; the out of place Romeo, the absolutely appropriate Cain and Abel, “the blind commissioner” and finally Ophelia, secretly flirting with sanity,

And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
she spent her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.

Perspective, as that suggests, is all important and the recognition of reality is a rare thing here; those who do “think about” Desolation Row are punished and delusion rules;

Now at midnight all the agents
and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do.

“The Titanic sails at dawn” is of course another reference to the delusions of America’s Mr Jones’s and in the same verse (which unaccountably puts Ezra Pound and Eliot on the doomed ship) Dylan borrows the false whimsy of Eliot’s Prufrock to re-inforce this stress on the sane, realistic perspective,

….Calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation row.

This penultimate verse is a useful concluding point since its ideal of unselfconscious perfection recalls the song which began this discussion. At this point, however, Dylan’s dissatisfaction with that state seems more marked; the instinctiveness of these people is something which does not belong to the world of Desolation Row and their ideal rings just as false as Prufrock’s daydream. Man’s position then, is that he must comprehend reality as fully as possible; without however, falling into the ‘Titanic’ – like delusions of empiricism.

Part of this is the acknowledgement of our own disastrous creations, and the final verse defiantly faces American Life; the Artist accepts that he is part responsible but asserts at the same time that such acceptance may lead the individual to remake and transcend that reality:

Yes, 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 ?
All these people that you mention
Yes I know them, they quite lame
I had to re-arrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I.can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.

Came across this below thought it was interesting.

In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, the day before the release of his album Love and Theft, Dylan claimed that Desolation Row “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.”

And finally, a cool image of Desolation Row by artists Theo Cobb and Shane Balkowitsch. For sale here.

des_row

9 thoughts on “Desolation Row – Excerpt from Homer the Slut Fanzine”

  1. Andrew Muir pointed out to me that Jim Brady was a classmate of his in college.  He wrote this piece about Desolation Row as part of a literature dissertation.

      1. Hi  Andrew – Thanks for taking the  time to let me  of the update! I’ll  take a  look.  Judas was an  amazing magazine  – I  own most of them.

         

        steve

         

         

  2. Are the lines about Einstein meaningless?  Maybe so, I guess. But I like it anyway. I take them to mean that Einstein concluded that “sniffing drainpipes” was most more worthwhile than developing theories that led to things like atomic weapons. (  )

     

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