Saturday, June 21, 2014

“Desolation Row” -- Norwegian version

Bob Dylan’s legendary concert in Oslo,  15 October 1965, offered an early version of the classic ballad “Desolation Row” -- in Norwegian! 

Note -- This is not a cover!  Even though he is singing in what is obviously a Scandinavian language, fans will still easily recognize the peculiar phrasing and inflections of the Midwest master.

This is the first time he is known to have sung in the heritage language of the Vikings (to whom Robert Zimmerman is related on his mother’s side) -- or indeed, in any Germanic language other than English.

Dylan in Oslo

So -- enjoy!
And note:  All proceeds from this concert, go towards the charity,   “Save the Gefillte Fish”.

You may also enjoy this version of “Desolation Row”, sung by Dylan in a concert at Gallaudet University  in American Sign Language:

As for his little-known Tel Aviv concert in Hebrew, we must leave this for another time;  but a (grainy) video can be viewed here:

            געפֿילטע פֿיש

[Note:  Hebrew is written from right to left, but read from left to right.  Or is it the other way around?  Anyhow, apologies if my text-editor mangled things during the copy-and-paste process.    Me I haven’t a clue -- those meaningless squiggles are Greek to me.]


I studied Old Norse at Berkeley (with Madison Beeler, a gentle old man;  he bequeathed me his complete Grimm’s Wörterbuch when he retired, though I proved unworthy as a bailee).  That sturdy Viking tongue has changed as little, in the past thousand years, as any language on earth.  Accordingly, I can more or less read modern Icelandic.
Norwegian is a different kettle of kippers, however.  Even so, though I am not expert here, it does appear to my unpracticed ear that Mr Dylan (or his Norwegian lyricist) has taken certain liberties with the text.   The whole thing seems to have come out rather a tergo, if you catch my drift.  For, with all due attention to the disparity between the eastern and the western dialects of Norway, the weakening of strong verbs over time, and the Bokmål/Nynorsk/Riksmål/Høgnorsk tetraglossia, what he seems to be singing is:

Paul is dead
dead dead dead
deader than deader than
deader than death itself --

done-for, doomed, down, deceased,
dousing the daisies,
displacing the dandelions,
departed in demise.

O save the gefillte,
the poor dear gefillte,
for pity’s sake:
Save the Gefillte Fish!

“Desolation Row” is an affecting song, in a hypnotic sort of way;  but it contains (among many gems) some of the worst lyrics that Dylan ever wrote:  which is to say, the worst that anyone ever wrote.   Couplets like

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood / with his memories in a trunk,
passed this way an hour ago / with his friend, some jealous monk.

tells you nothing of value, either about the father of Relativity, or the hero of the greenwood, or monasticism.    And the further observation, that the celebrated physicist “went off sniffing drainpipes, and reciting the alphabet”,  has little competition for the Bulwer-Lytton Award ™  (a contest actually unfair to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, who never wrote anything as bad as that).
The Norwegian lyrics are in some ways preferable.

Even so, his delivery is (as ever, in the early/middle period) exquisite.  In the couplet above, the final word of each line  receives is articulated with an aspirated final -k, perfectly attuned to his sardonic mode.   This phonetic polemic power simply deserves a better excipient (classically, in “Positively 4th Street”).

In the same song, he uses that same word-final plosive to good effect  in the better couplet

I received your letter yesterday,  about the time the doorknob b-broke-hh.
When you asked me how I was doing -- was that some kind of j-joke-hh.

Simply  bare on the page,  that may be  unimpressive;   but his delivery evokes, from that,
a poignancy
impossible to imagine,
unless you have   (suffering, clutching)
heard it.


Hmm.  This wonderful nice post has received remarkably few page-views.  Can it possibly be because people think I might just be having them on?   Or is it rather that it features tew few newd pixxx?  Well that is easily remedied!

Icelandic beauty Aurelia Delvaukisdottir

(Ah, nice.  The number of pageviews just doubled.
There’s a lesson in this …)

Dylan’s intonation in this song is by no means unrelievedly sardonic (and here I speak of the album version, as well as bootleg performances of the time, rather than the Norwegian, which instead is characterized by a certain je ne sais quelle mélancolie du nord -- those endless summer days, those long winter nights), but can be, where the lyrics warrant it, quite tender.


The above was mostly satire -- or rather, sotie:  having fun with something, not making fun of it.  All in fun;  no harm done.
Yet let us dig down another layer.

This is a strange and slippery business, these backwards soundtracks.   Very few recordings could be illuminated (let alone improved) by this.   Those that admit it, must be (hypothesis here) hypnotic to begin with.   That is, the delivery and the lyrics  must already proceed  from the land of dreams.  The reversal -- rerouting, from the Gates of Ivory, to the Gates of Horn.

We have previously highlighted the reversed version of “Rain” .  Here, the fit is perfect.   The original was already so “aturdido”, that the two are simply duals of each other.  With equal justice, you might say that the album recording  was a reversed version of this one.  (In mathematics, neither dual is privileged w.r.t. the other.)


And noch another layer, now:
wir möchten, in des Wiener Nervenarzt Gesellschaft,  etwas weiter hinunterwühlen.   
Of all unexpected things, that satirically-intended photograph above of Mlle. Aurélie Delvaux,  has sparked an insight.   It has to do with duality,  and reversal.

The fascination of that image  presents, upon further reflection, a puzzle.  And puzzles ask to be fiddled with, turned this way and that, and  if possible  taken apart.

For the normally constituted observer, the nates are devoid of interest;  the star of the show, apud virum -- the main course, so far -- hangs (or, circumstances being favorable, stands) in front.
Yet the homologous spot chez la femelle, seems to be somehow lacking something;  in certain stages of arrested development, the attention then swings wildly, to the rear.  The latter (dull flesh, of no procreative power) thus receives the cathexis that, by rights, should settle vorne. 


By the time  “Desolation Row” debuted, I was as much a Dylan fan, as the little teeny-tweeny girls (my future bride among them) were Beatles fans.   I had my acoustic guitar, and a harmonica in a holder;  much as, in 1956, I’d had a coonskin cap.  So when I say now that lines like “Einstein disguised” etc. are pretty random, versteht sich:  when the album came out, in 1965, I hearkened to it, every word, with the same intensity as Orphée listening to  “L’oiseau chante … avec ses doigts”.  And the lyrics of that song marked my own  for a time, for better or worse:  as, this poem,

            Mardi Gras

which sprang from the brow of “Desolation Row”, with lyrics like:

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.


Okay, all satire aside:  What is Desolation Row, exactly?  It is nothing so simple as an Unhappy Place.

Heard superficially, “Desolation Row” sounds like a bummer, a place you’d want to escape from if bad luck landed you there -- something like Cleveland.   But listen to the lyrics.

First, for those outside, it is a Strange Attractor:

And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Next,  some people voluntarily go there -- indeed, “escape”:  not from it, but to it:

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”

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

And in the final stanza of the song -- one of his finest lyrics -- Dylan makes plain that, if you do not understand the meaning and the milieu of Desolation Row,  you are not on his wavelength, and attempts at communication are pointless:

Right now  -- I can’t - réad tóo góod --
Don’t send me no more - letters, -- no-o-o …
Not unless // you mail them from :
Deh-soh-la-tion -- Row.

Lyrically, this hearks back to that immortal ballad, Birmingham Jail:

Write me a let-ter / send it by mail,
send it in care  of / the Birmingham jail.

I well understand what Dylan is talking about in this song -- I sought to go there myself, back in the sixties, when I would suck-down a Camel while listening to “Visions of Johanna”.  Laus deo, that much is now behind me.

Desolation Row is like Hell as depicted by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce (unloved, but clung-to by its miserable inhabitants), or like the neurosis of a patient whose epinosic gain precludes cure by analysis.