They’re selling post cards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town….
That is the opening verse of both my favorite Bob Dylan song and my favorite song ever. You know how when you meet someone new you ask “Dylan, yes or no?” to gauge the level of potential? OK well maybe not everyone uses this as the litmus test to friendly compatibility. Don’t misunderstand, there are many here among us whom I adore and are not Dylan fans. I just don’t adore them as much.
I had a writing mentor, Duck. His real name was Donald and if you have to ask why I gave him that moniker perhaps you need to spend less time reading blogs and more time watching Saturday morning cartoons. Early on I asked Duck if he liked Dylan. He did. Your favorite song? You go first. Like a Rolling Stone, he says. AMATEUR I think!! Everyone and their mother likes that song, even those who have no clue who sang it. I tell him mine is Desolation Row. Good choice, he says. I understand why you like it but have you actually been there? Yes, I have and I really loved it there. Tell me what it looked and felt like, he said. That’s why he was such a cool writing mentor and so I do…
It’s sultry first and foremost. The streets are dirt filled and brindled like an old European or Mexican town, sepia streaked and tiny. The buildings are adobe like and beige and burnt orange and sand color. It’s warm, not tropical warm like Hawaii, not totally humid like Florida but not dry like Palm Desert either. It’s a perfect mix of moist and arid- you can feel the air on your skin like a warm sensuous blanket. The characters’ clothes are so colorful. They are the most brilliant reds, and oranges, and purples and blues the likes of which you can’t ever see anywhere else. Cinderella is half tatters, half ball gown! The whole place is alive with such a festive, carnival like atmosphere, but nothing is cliche or something you have ever seen before.
I imagine myself at the window of a wonderful room- a kitchen- without shutters and windows, no screens, like those in my house in Italy and I am leaning out and looking down at all these amazing people in the street below. It makes me so happy to see them. I don’t know who I am with though, I don’t have a clear sense of a man with me, more like a shadow of someone with me at the window. I can see every character in the song and I can see what they are doing and it’s not sad at all. It’s unique and fascinating and interesting and there is nothing banal or mundane about any of the lives here. And that I guess is what draws me in the most. I abhor boring and no one here is!
A short writing exercise for a song I haven’t heard in years actually. I sought Duck’s counsel on the art, the craft and the business of writing. He gave me advice and then I did exactly as I pleased. He would shake his head and dispenses such keen observations like ‘ you’re completely bananas’ but stayed my mentor for a while. Duck was priceless as a mentor. I mean that literally-he was price less. He mentored me for free. His way of giving back he says. Duck supported three teenagers with his writing many years ago. He was also quite an accomplished sax player for many bands, many years ago. As a fledgling writer, I was lucky to have had his time and patience.
Back to Desolation Row. I only wish. I had not heard the song in a long time. Too busy with the new Beyonce records, I guess. A short upcoming road trip with a friend at the time led me to the song again. The day before, I wanted to hear Desolation Row again. I went to download it and what??? You can’t download just one song from Highway 61, the album it appeared on. You have to download the entire album. Good thinking, Bob’s people. Now don’t tell me I’m not a good patron of the arts. Rather than walk across my backyard and get Highway 61 on vinyl, cassette or CD from my living room (and I am sure if I looked hard enough I could find it on 8 track) I just paid the $8.99 and downloaded it. I didn’t know this newly minted friend all that well. On our trip east to the far reaches of Monrovia, a tiny town near Pasadena, I told her what my favorite Bob song was and as luck or providence would have it she adored the song just as much as I. A friendship born in mutual musical taste needs no other commonality really. Song in hand, we sang our little hearts out to Desolation Row in a syllable soaked contest of which that song has plenty at eleven minutes and twenty seconds. I won by a preposition, a victory I never let her forget. Since the day I heard that song all those decades ago, I’ve always thought that everything you needed to know about life was contained in those ten verses. I still do.