Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and Tangled Up In Blue – From Complexity to Simplicity

by ttucker23 on December 19, 2006

Michael Gray, in his superb book on Bob Dylan’s art, Song and Dance Man III, sees Dylan’s use of language in the 1970s developing towards a new simplicity, after the complexities that make up much of his 1960s output.

This process began immediately after the infamous motorcycle crash in 1966, following his critically and commercially successful Blonde On Blonde album. The results were tentative at first, and yielded mixed successes artistically.

With Blood On The Tracks, however, Dylan finally finds a new mode of expression for this simplicity of language that is as powerful and evocative as the peak of his work in the 1960s. It’s a totally successful artistic re-birth, much like the one we saw in WB Yeats’s late period book of poems, The Tower.

The contrast between these two ‘idioms’ of language provides a rewarding insight into the process of an artist at two different peaks of his creative power.

For examples of the ‘complex language idiom’ we can pull almost any song at random from the trio of masterpieces that he released in his so-called ‘white heat’ of creative productivity, from 1965 to 1966: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisted and Blonde On Blonde. A verse from one of the pinnacles of this period, the song Desolation Row from Highway 61 Revisited, will serve to make the point:

And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot
Fighting in the Captain’s tower
While 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.

The first thing one notices about this is its semantic ambiguity, which is just to say that it’s not clear what it actually means. It’s clear that it bears the mark of modernist poetry, sacrificing meaning for impression, or expression, or atmosphere, or simply a stream of consciousness. There is shattering power and a lyrical beauty to all of Dylan’s great work of this period – the fishermen holding flowers, the lovely mermaids flowing, etc, but also (earlier in the song), the Kafka-esque ‘heart attack machine’ that is ‘strapped on to his shoulders, and then the kerosene, is brought down from the castles…’ .

But it’s clear to anyone who listens attentively to Dylan that this complexity is by no means devoid of meaning. Dylan has much to say of great seriousness in many of these songs. The above verse from Desolation Row can be read, for example, as an expression of the tension between high-art forms of expression (ie modernist poetry) and folk art forms that communicate directly to the listener – Eliot and Pound grappling with complexities, aloof in their tower, while calypso singers enjoy a more joyful and direct creative expression. And then we might reflect that this song Desolation Row is itself an attempt to reconcile these two extremes – the complexity of the language contrasting with the folk singer’s delivery with which Dylan express it.

These thoughts are just my interpretations, and there have been plenty more – one of the minor industries that Dylan spawned at this period was a whole underground network of interpreters of his songs, a mixture of trainspotters and amateur literary critics, referred to as Dylanologists by the music press, who are still very much active today. And that’s before we get to the professional literary critics concerned with analysing Dylan’s work, such as Andrew Motian and Christopher Ricks.

One of the outcomes of this complexity is the divergence of opinion and varying interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics. I read one commentator (I forget which one) who saw a deliberate attempt by Dylan to subvert syntactical grammar in the second four lines of the above verse from Desolation Row. By this interpretation, the first four lines are one clause, with a full stop at the end (which admittedly is reinforced by the cadence of the singing, and is in line with every other verse in the song). The second four lines, then, read like this: ‘Beneath the windows of the sea, where lovely mermaids flow, And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row.’ Clearly there’s something missing here. But I read the entire eight lines as one flowing expression, so that we’ve already had the missing clause, like this: ‘…fishermen hold flowers beneath the windows of the sea, where lovely mermaids flow, and nobody has think too much about Desolation Row.’ This suggests that the fishermen aren’t holding flowers in their hands, but dangling them on fishing lines into the water (‘between the windows of the sea’). I have no proof of this view, and Dylan himself has been notoriously reticent to throw any light on the meanings of his songs, but whatever the interpretation, the complex layers of meaning are a big part of the power of his work for many listeners.

All of this and more can be read into, disputed, or just plain ignored, but whatever one makes of it, it’s clear that this use of language is far more complex than any contemporary popular music, before or since, whether it be folk, rock, pop or jazz. Consider that Desolation Row contains nine more verses of similar complexity to the one quoted above, not to mention the kaleidoscope of images, settings, characters, etc, that make up the song. Just look at the dizzying list of names populating the narrative: the Blind Commissioner, the Tightrope Walker, Cinderella, Romeo, Ophelia, Casanova, the Fortune Telling Lady, Einstein (disguised as Robin Hood), the Jealous Monk, the Agents, the Superhuman crew, Dr Filth, the Nurse, Cain, Able, the Hunchback of Notra Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound… it’s the most colourful cast ever put together in song.

Skip forward ten years to Blood On The Tracks, and we see a completely different approach to his writing. The sudden change came on the follow-up albums to Blonde On Blonde, the biblical John Wesley Harding, and the country-rock tinged Nashville Skyline, in which Dylan rhymes ‘moon’ with ‘spoon’, etc. But this is reaction – a conscious attempt to re-form his approach to lyric writing, having pushed complexity to its limit in the format within which he was working. Blood On The Tracks reaches a new level, where Dylan finds a credible artistic voice that leverages his new approach to simplicity while still enabling him to express the deepest human truths. It is for this reason that Michael Gray sees Blood On The Tracks as Dylan’s best album:

There is, on a whole new plateau as it were, a successfully attained, fresh language that is the new simplicity – and in which, as ever in the best of Dylan’s work, simplicity is deceptive, communicating more by being able confidently to say less.

Tangled Up In Blue provides the perfect contrast to Desolation Row in this respect. Where Desolation Row has a myriad of names and characters, Tangled Up In Blue features no names – just ‘I’, ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘You’, all of which are interchangeable. It’s not clear whether there are two or more people in this song, but there is a range of different perspectives. There is no complexity at all about the language, however – every verse can be easily understood, for example:

Early one morning the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red.

The ambiguity lies instead in the way these perspectives interact, and in the narrative that can be constructed from it. Time, place and person are tangled up. At what point in the lovers’ relationship, for example, is he working as a cook? Is it before they meet that she’s working in the topless joint? Have they split up for good in the second verse, or is this at the beginning of the relationship? And besides, which century are we in? He talks of dealing with slaves, he’s reading poems by a 13th century poet, there is music in the cafes at night and ‘revolution in the air’ – where the hell are we, or rather when the hell are we? In summary, the ambiguities have shifted from the complexity of the language of Desolation Row to the complexity of narrative in Tangled Up In Blue. Peter Guralnick sums this up brilliantly in issue 91 of Mojo magazine:

That is why Blood On The Tracks came as such a welcome surprise, a thoroughly unexpected and unanticipated masterpiece that recapitulated old feelings and established new directions. It was complicated, it was direct, it was simple, it was profound: it suggested unplummable depths while communicating on the most elemental level. It was witty and elegiac, placing the beauty of the commonplace against the absurdity of the cosmos, while at the same time offering something new in Dylan’s work: a note of vulnerability and regret that lent both spaciousness and weight. It was, in other words, like William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, itself.

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