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Ask A. Brain – The Pelican Dylan

A. Brain himselfEditor’s note: Bachblog had been out-of-touch with Mr Brain for more than three years when we accepted delivery of a mysterious, complimentary Pizza Hut Original Stuffed Crust Pizza™ from an oddly-dressed Uber driver. He told us he was asked to “wink conspiratorially” and to tell us “Sierra Bellamy sends his greetings.” He apologized for not wearing pants and hinted that despite the complimentary nature of the delivery, a tip would be appreciated.
Later, we broke a tooth on a thumb drive hidden with provolone cheese deep in the pizza’s doughy crust. We were happy to find the anchovy-sized USB drive undamaged, and to discover on it the following in a README file: “Sirs, please accept this sample from my contribution to an upcoming, exciting literary series honoring America’s newest Nobel laureate (see Pelican-vol6.zip). After your publication of same, I may deign to resume answering inane questions from your sniveling readership. With highest regards, et cetera –A.B.”
While we continue to receive only short-tempered and profanity-laced denials from Penguin[1] in response to our inquiries about this project, we will take Mr Brain at his word. Here are excerpts from his contribution to a series one Penguin executive has called “the fascinating delusion of an unhinged mind.”

Introduction to volume 6 (an excerpt)
Cover of Volume 6: Highway 61 RevisitedSo I am privileged to examine a work created by America’s Shakespeare at the height of his powers: 1965, a year before the celebrated hiatus attributed to his so-called “motorcycle accident”–cough cough, faked!, cough cough–and 25 years before he would write and record “Wiggle Wiggle.” (It would be unkind of me to point out that notoriously big-mouthed, halitosis-haunted, self-appointed Dylanologist Clinton Heylin has been relegated to editing the volume on 1988′s unmitigated piece of crap, Down in the Groove.)

Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is possibly the greatest work of art to emerge from the extraordinary year 1965. Only Sonny & Cher’s debut LP Look at Us, Ian Fleming’s epic novel The Man with the Golden Gun, and the November 12 episode of Bewitched (“Witch or Wife?”) compare. Most, I believe, will concede that Dylan’s work is the best of the lot. But why?

It is tempting to answer that “why?” with a long, obscure musing about life, death, economic theory, and the speculative fiction of Philip K Dick. Greil Marcus (poseur!) would pepper his droning reply with invocations of Sumerian mythology, the ravings of some forgotten French poet, and indecipherable foreign words like zeitgeist and frijoles rojos. But I would respond with a simple, irrefutable “because.”

Editor’s note: What follows is a sample of Mr Brain’s frequently helpful, always surprising song-by-song analyses. His glosses reproduce quite faithfully the style and erudition of Pelican’s celebrated Shakespeare editions.

Desolation Row
Finally, we come to the album’s 11-minute closer. If, as I have argued, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is Dylan’s Measure for Measure, “Desolation Row” is his Hamlet.

For more than 400 years now, Hamlet‘s critics have “discovered” the the most risible nonsense in what is, transparently, Shakespeare’s misunderstood comedic send-up of Queen Elizabeth’s incestuous relationship with her bastard son the Earl of Essex. Likewise, “Desolation Row” has suffered woefully from the fanciful abuses and onanistic critical gushings of a succession of overheated Elvis Costello look-a-likes with typewriters. Most of whom, it seems, see in it some bizarre apocalyptic mashup of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Morons, every one (here’s looking at you, Robert Shelton).

What “Desolation Row” is–obviously–is an extended commentary on the Vietnam War. A commentary culminating in verse (stanza) ten’s startling and heretofore uncovered confession.

Let’s dive in!

Stanza I

In the White House’s Presidential Bedroom Suite, the first couple lie awake in a monstrously large bed. Imagine Lady Bird in tight hair curlers and a heavy, formless nightgown; Lyndon sans his top-secret dentures. Flickering blue light from a coffin-sized television console’s 19-inch screen plays unfortunate tricks with the cold cream on Mrs Johnson’s face. On screen, Huntley and Brinkley chain-smoke through a Saigon-based correspondent’s report of the worsening situation in Vietnam.

Desolation Row lyrics © Bob Dylan Music Co.

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
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

postcards of the hanging nightly television news coverage of the war — painting passports brown burning draft cards — beauty parlor Saigon — sailors US armed forces — circus British intelligence; the MI5 (see novels of John le Carre) — blind commissioner General Westmoreland — trance on opium — tight-rope walker – Westmoreland’s Vietnamese girlfriend, an MI5 informant — his pants the General suffers from “napalm itch” — riot squad US infantry — Lady and I Lady Bird and LBJ, watching television news

Stanza II

A North Vietnamese soldier in the guise of a Saigon prostitute nearly succeeds in his attempt to murder a US soldier who is (momentarily) armed with nought but a withering pork sword.

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’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row

Cinderella a brothel worker — easy accommodating — It takes one to know one price: one American dollar — hands in her back pockets suggestive pose — Bette Davis style suspiciously deep voice — Romeo, he’s moaning American GI, expressing approval — You Belong to Me I Believe prostitute-assassin’s boast — You’re in the wrong place … fellow GI rescues “Romeo” — ambulances medics’ Jeeps — sweeping up hiding evidence of assassination attempt

Stanza III

A straightforward account of preparations for Bob Hope’s Christmas Day 1964 USO show in Vinh Long, Vietnam. Uninteresting, apart from its scandalous suggestion vis-à-vis Mr Hope and Miss St John.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

moon unidentified bigwig — stars commissioned officers — beginning to hide taking seats backstage, near starlets’ “retiring rooms” — fortune telling lady head nurse in charge of Vinh Long infirmary — taken all her things inside penicillin and stewed prunes — Cain and Abel Smothers Brothers (not invited) — hunchback of Notre Dame Pope Paul VI (not invited) — Everybody is making love optimistic GIs — expecting rain realistic GIs — Good Samaritan Bob Hope — dressing … show in the green room with Jill St John — the carnival after show party (by invitation only)

Editor’s note: Brain’s analyses of stanzas IV through IX are omitted here, but do offer additional fascinating insights. Yes his identification of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot as John Lennon and Paul McCartney seems ideosyncratic, but J. Edgar Hoover as Ophelia is inspired. For these nuggets and more, you’ll want to pre-order a copy of the book as soon as it is listed at Amazon. Just one more excerpt here: an unmasking of the surprising truth hidden in the song’s final stanza.

Stanza X

Here, a revelation and the song’s sine qua non: Bob Dylan dodged the draft. Further, an indication that his faked 1966 motorcycle crash was originally conceived as a way to avoid the call up. (Why then follow through on the idea if he had already “turned his passport brown” some years earlier? My guess is that his draft board had finally discovered Robert Zimmerman’s alias.)

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row

I received your letter draft notice — the doorknob broke excuse for not responding — you asked me how I was doing scheduled a physical — some kind of joke the offer of a spot in the US Army marching band — people that you mention soldiers — they’re quite lame casualties
rearrange their faces … another name motorcycle crashes, fake IDs (ideas?) — I can’t read too good another excuse for not responding — don’t send me no more letters further notices and threats — unless you mail them from Desolation Row why don’t you go to Vietnam yourself (Uncle Sam, LBJ, John Wayne, etc) before trying again to send me?


  1. Pelican Books is a non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books. [^]

The Complete A. Brain:
04/12/2018 Close Captioning?
03/10/2017 The Pelican Dylan
10/09/2013 Cometology
01/31/2013 Shakespeariana
10/31/2012 The Mayans, Santa Claus and Bacon
04/03/2011 Potholes and Sinkholes
11/28/2010 Snoring Crosses the Line
10/14/2010 An Agony of the Feet

See also About Adelbert B. Brain

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