Desolation Row (released in August 1965 on the album Highway 61 Revisited) is not your average pop song. More like an epic poem set to music. Its epic-ness comes not from its relatively short length as epic poems go, but from the depth and breadth of its themes. It is very rare to find a song with such density of meaning. Most songs on the radio do not stray much past the theme of romantic love. As Douglas Adams observed in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy most (pop) songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being under a silvery moon.
Dylan is not only a deep thinker, but also a broad thinker who is able to articulate and condense his ideas into elegant verse. He has been described as one of the most significant poets of the Twentieth Century. Sir Andrew Motion, the British Poet Laureate in 1999 cited another of Dylan’s songs, Visions of Johanna, as a contender for the greatest song lyric ever written.
Dylan is remarkably well-read, having delved into the classic texts of many different cultures. In Desolation Row he takes these themes and weaves a rich fabric that expresses the reality of 1960’s America. By tapping into these archetypes, the poem gets its power to reach people at a deep level.
When asked by a radio interviewer why he insisted on being so irritating, Dylan replied so where do you get the idea that I want people to like my music. It is more important to challenge people’s complacency and get them to think about their values.