It starts with a strummed guitar figure—folky but uptempo, a little jump to it—and then a Spanish guitar playing lead, followed by a stand-up bass. It’s the opening to a ballad: more specifically something in the Mexican corrido tradition of dark, border-crossing tales. Even more specifically, it sounds like the Tex-Mex country-western songs that were based on corridos. Like Marty Robbins’s 1959 hit “El Paso,” which used this kind of passionate guitar work to evoke its story of desire, murder, sorrow.
With the tone set, the singer comes in. He has a nasal voice: none of the out-front emotionalism of Robbins or corrido. This is drier, more matter-of-fact, but also—within the first two lines—devastating. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown.”
We’ve entered a specific landscape. It doesn’t make much difference whether the postcards are of a Southern lynching, something that happened in Duluth, Minnesota, or the Italian dictator Mussolini hung by his thumbs. What we know immediately is we’re in a place and era that celebrate public execution and suppress human rights. The singer sounds a little like Woody Guthrie. But where Guthrie had a slogan on his guitar that read “This Machine Kills Fascists,” here we’re told at the outset that we’ll be hearing a ballad of later times, after Guthrie’s fight has been lost.
Images quickly pile up: a crowd of sailors, a circus, a blind commissioner, the riot squad. If this is a narrative, the singer’s left out the beginning. Words pour between fountains of acoustic guitar, until we’re suddenly at the end of the first verse and hit the punch line: This is all being observed from a place called Desolation Row. There’s a mandolin-like phrase, and we’re launched into the second verse.
But wait. Where’s Desolation Row? What does it mean?
In “El Paso,” the narrator murders a man out of jealousy, then hides out in the badlands. Desolation Row seems to be its own kind of hideout, but we don’t know why the singer and his lady have ended up there. Instead of explaining, the next stanza introduces brand new characters and situations. Cinderella appears, but she’s not the fairy-tale innocent waiting for her prince to come. In fact, when Romeo bursts in and tries to claim her, he’s told he’s in the wrong place—and ambulances haul him away. Divorced from their old context, transposed to Desolation Row, these characters don’t function like they used to. There’s no all-conquering love, no miraculous transformation. Instead, Cinderella ends a lot like she began: sweeping up.
The same mandolin-like phrase wipes the slate clean, and Cinderella’s gone. Again, the story stops dead. It’s as if the director of a movie shot a scene, replaced all the actors with new ones, then shot another. And another. All that seems to hold the ballad together is the location—in and around Desolation Row—and the perspective: our eye is the singer’s, looking out from his hideaway.
There’s a stanza with Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame, another featuring Ophelia. They’re characters who meant something once, within their own tragedies, but now nothing they do seems to matter. They appear, and people just go on with their everyday business: making love, talking about the weather. It’s funny but the laugh’s hollow.
As the ballad proceeds, we start to realize that the other thing connecting verse to verse is the fact that they don’t connect. Most of the players are well-known: huge, symbolic creatures. Except now you can’t know them, can’t break the code. As the music swirls by, constantly repeating itself, these archetypes pop into focus, do their act, dissolve. The joke is how ridiculous they are, how out of place. Only a fool would try to hunt for meaning, and the singer is no fool. His idea of interpretation is simply to place his actors relative to Desolation Row. So the lifeless Ophelia is outside, trying to peek in. And Einstein was once famous there but now is elsewhere, sniffing drainpipes. It’s a story told through geography.
The way the narrative jumps around, stops, crosscuts, you could almost say it wasn’t one—or not a single narrative, anyway. Except the singer does seem bent on explaining something. Why else keep adding detail, recycling characters, inventing new ones? There’s a stanza for Dr. Filth, who could be out of a William Burroughs novel, his nurse administering cyanide. The phantom of the opera is brought on to perform some ceremony in which Casanova will apparently be killed just for entering Desolation Row. By this time, the ballad has gone on for seven minutes and it has become a long, slightly giddy list. As if the landscape was being destroyed, and the singer racing to document it. And the only place from which to document that destruction (the punch line falls again and again) is Desolation Row.
The style is “Alice in Wonderland” meets Goya: funny, horrible, excessive. And it sounds great. As stanza after stanza shimmers past, we find ourselves leaning on the music as the one semi-stable component. The rhythm guitar takes the place of drums: steady, ceaseless. The lead guitar and the bass keep babbling around that, searching for new ways of saying the same thing. Meanwhile, the vocalist tells his broken stories, occasionally rising to emotion or twisting sarcastically, but mostly maintaining an almost journalistic objectivity. If Guthrie evoked a mystical, Walt Whitman-like voice chanting in the center of the universe, this is that voice’s tougher twin: reciting what it sees, determined not to flinch.
Through innuendo and subtraction, a profile of Desolation Row begins to come into focus. Cinderella works there; Einstein once played there; Casanova visited. It’s some kind of safety zone: when Kafkaesque agents start rounding up people for torture, Desolation Row offers the one possibility of escape. Except the disaster keeps expanding. Finally, the Titanic steams onstage, and words seem to fail. As the great ship goes down, the old political rallying cries look petty; poets can only bitch at one another. And then the words stop.
A bluesy harmonica replaces the voice. It smears across the other instruments, almost knocking the lead guitar off-rhythm. Like a blackout after a string of scenes. Or like speech when speech doesn’t work anymore. At the end of the instrumental break, the singer comes back one more time, but now he’s addressing a specific listener: “Yes, I received your letter yesterday.”
With that, the song falls into place.
How you been, the letter asks. The singer’s weary response: “[Is] that some kind of joke?” The letter-writer brings up some old friends; the singer dismisses them: “I had to rearrange their faces/And give them all another name.” Here, at the close of this eleven-minute ballad, we see the possibility of its beginning. The string of stories, the edgy distinctions about who is and isn’t in Desolation Row, suddenly look like one side, the singer’s side, of an argument.
What’s the letter-writer done to prompt such an epic response? The back-and-forth suggests it was a fairly simple question: “Where you been hiding lately?” Or, maybe: “Why have you been hiding out?” The singer strums his guitar, nods to his fellow players, then begins his reply: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” And the rest follows.
We begin to understand the narrator’s world-weary tone; it’s because he’s explaining what can’t be explained: the murder at the heart of this ballad. It’s the murder of all the singer believed in and cared about. From science to drama, politics to fairy tales, he’s been describing how our values have lost meaning, become ghosts. We’ve entered that new era, and with his parting words, the singer tells the letter-writer that he only wants to hear from people who understand that, who realize what’s changed, who are writing from the “wrong place”: Desolation Row.
The harmonica reenters, jigs between the other instruments, then leads them to a final collapse. The ballad’s over.
We started with those postcards; we’ve ended with the slim possibility of letters postmarked Desolation Row. In between lies the story of where history has brought us, and why there’s no place else to go. Is there hope? Well, the address isn’t Lonely Street. Desolation, as it plays here anyway, is surprising, lively, even funny. And letters written from here will at least document what’s going down. The narrator and his buddies are holed up with the truth. This is their ballad of resistance.
Like this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.