In the heat of battle today, I was listening to my old pal Bob Dylan – who really is more of a Johnny Come Lately than an old pal in my musical tastes, having dropped his battered guitar case in my living room after I had made the acquaintance of Harry Smith and Shane MacGowan for several years. Before that, I had sort of abstractly admired the man’s work but bever really got it, for all the usual reasons: whiny voice, obscure lyrics, too boring, you know the drill.
Anyway, Bob’s been couch-surfing in my mind for a while now, earning his keep mostly though his later stuff – Time Out of Mind is how he usually pays his rent, and I urge you to take him in for a night.
But this is old, old news, Mike. What brings you to wave the well-lofted banner of an artist who needs your praise like Norma Desmond needs Joe Gillis?
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
On repeated closer listening, I found fault – it’s too long, and abandons the interplay of the fluent lead picking and fluent lyrics for one of Dylan’s squawling harp solos – but these are complaints of style, of manner.
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 penny whistles
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”
Listening to this as a break from the war news – so sad, so surreal – I was totally distracted from my project as a never-made film by Alex Cox, set in Missoula, Montana, one-hundred-and-fifty-years ago, unreeled on my inner eye.
It’s pretty rare that I hear a song closely like this anymore unless I plan on it – when it just washes in, grabs me, and reminds me why music interests me, I have to say: “thanks.” So, like: thanks, Bob.
And a footnote: as one might expect, Herr Doktor-Professor Marcus has a thing or two to say about the song that’s worth reading.