Camille Paglia takes on Bob Dylan

Camille Paglia writes today about Bob Dylan in her essay Camille Puglia’s history of music: The politics and poetry of Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and hip-hop. Here’s an excerpt:

To my dismay, Dylan was a very hard sell in my classes throughout the 1980s. His voice struck many students as thin and grating, while the relentless hyper-verbalism and attack style of his protest songs seemed out of sync with the times. That thankfully changed in the 1990s, probably because of the impact of aggressively political rap, which had become hugely popular among white male teenagers trapped in the blandness and materialism of suburban shopping-mall culture. Dylan’s message-heavy intensity seemed relevant again, a recovered stature happily sustained in the new century.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan’s 1965 breakthrough radio hit, is actually a proto-rap song in the rural “talking blues” tradition. Its delirious barrage of satiric blows at a surveillance society of corrupt authority figures, economic exploitation, and assembly-line institutions speaks directly to our time. I have repeatedly used the song to demonstrate how much can be packed into a very short space (two minutes, twenty seconds).

But Dylan’s true masterpiece, in my view, is “Desolation Row”, the more than 11-minute song that closes Highway 61 Revisited (1965). I submit that this lyric is the most important poem in English since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (which influenced it) and that it is far greater than anything produced since then by the official poets canonized by the American or British critical establishment. The epic ambition, daring scenarios, and emotionally compelling detail of “Desolation Row” make John Ashbery’s multiple prize-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) look like the verbose, affected academic exercise that it is. I have written elsewhere (in regard to the selection process for my book on poetry, Break, Blow, Burn) of my rejection of the pretentious pseudo-philosophizing of overpraised contemporary poets like Harvard’s Jorie Graham, none of whom come anywhere near the high artistic rank of Bob Dylan.

“Desolation Row” is so long—four printed pages taking three class days to discuss—that I rarely do it now. But it is a stunning achievement, with all the passion and vision missing from today’s writers in virtually every genre. When I first transcribed the song for classroom use, its elegantly symmetrical structure leapt into view: ten triads (sets of three stanzas), each ending in the rhythmic refrain, “Desolation Row.” As recorded, the song is accompanied by acoustic guitars that begin quietly and become lashingly emphatic.

Modeling himself on his mentor, the working-class bard Woody Guthrie, Dylan has chronically concealed and denied his wide reading. “Desolation Row” uses Rimbaud’s hallucinatory surrealism to fuse T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” vision of Western civilization to the comic archetypal mythologies of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Bible, Roman history, fairy tales, Shakespeare, and Hollywood movies fly by. Dylan’s muse here is, I believe, Billie Holiday: “As Lady and I look out tonight/ From Desolation Row.” He is listening to a record by Lady Day (as she was reverently called by jazz musicians) and has assumed her melancholy insight and personal trauma as his own.

Each triad of “Desolation Row” exposes the lies, limitations, cruelties, or collateral damage in different sectors of society: politics, law enforcement, and racial injustice; heterosexuality (set in a hostile gay bar); religion; science; psychiatry; the legitimate theater; corporate careerism; universities and English departments. Desolation Row is a state of mind, a self-positioning at the margins, where the artist identifies himself, like the Romantics, with the dispossessed, the outcasts and losers.

In the final triad, after a mournfully piercing harmonica solo, Dylan himself appears, addressing someone whom I suspect is his mother. She has probably sent him a chatty letter about his Zimmerman relatives, whose name he had long cast off. Dylan the artist, taking Lady Day as his foster mother, bids goodbye to his old identity and to books and letters and everything processed by social norms. He will seek truth, if it is ever to be had, in direct experience and spiritual intuition.

Read it all here.


Here are the lyrics to Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
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”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

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

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then 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 castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. 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

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange 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

Bob Dylan 1965