Wednesday, July 17, 2013

For the love of God, please stop writing verses.

I've been a little obsessed for a while now with the song Desolation Row - In no small part because of my long standing obsession with the Watchmen comic book series.*

*The first issue of which was titled 'At Midnight All the Agents', which is a lyric fragment from the song.  The full verse is

At midnight, all the agents
and superhuman crew
go out and round up everyone 
that knows more than they do.

I'm tempted to copy and paste all of the lyrics here, but I'm not going to, for the exact same reason as I'm discussing the song in the first place here.

This song has 41 billion verses.


It goes on for on for over 11 minutes, and not in a mid-sixties 'started a guitar solo and forgot to start singing again for a while' kind of way.  It's just verse, after verse, after verse, after verse.

(The other prime example of this phenomenon is of course Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' (aka that song that everyone pretends they liked before they heard John Cale's (admittedly excellent) cover of it on the 1st Shrek soundtrack.  Even Leonard Cohen stated on more than one occasion that he just couldn't stop writing verses and the song was way way too long, and if you're familiar with how long Leonard was willing to let things just sort of keep flowing along then you realize the enormity of that statement.)

('Hallelujah is also notable for the fact that we are now all apparently required by law to record a cover of it before we die.)

But meanwhile, back in the topic at hand...
The film version of Watchmen runs the closing credits over a cover of Desolation Row by My Chemical Romance who, perhaps wisely, chose to only do 4 of the 41 Billion verses - they stuffed the song into a 2/4 time signature and punked it up a bit, which kind of worked for them but seems to have really hocked off the Dillon purists on the internet which just goes to show that you can't please everyone, can you.

Where I was originally going with all of this is that the baton was thrown on Facebook to do a full lyrical deconstruction of the song, and I feel obligated to do so because

A:  Even though I kind of wanted to do that anyway, this still totally counts as doing David Quinn a favor

B:  A baton is a kind of stick, and anyone that's ever been around a Vizsla knows that if you throw a stick anywhere in a Vizsla's vicinity they are damn well going to retrieve it.

So... we begin at the beginning with Verse 1 (of 41 Billion.  Don't worry, I'm not going to do them all in detail, I have learned my lesson after the never-ending Catwoman article)

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

I'm assured by Wikipedia (insert the ever-increasingly predictable rant about Wikipedia's reliability as an information source) that this verse (or 'stanza', if you'd like to get all academic about it) is very likely a reference to an incident that took place in Duluth in 1920 and that a young Robert Zimmerman would almost certainly have heard of.  To whit - 3 black carnival workers were accused of raping a white woman and hanged in town.  They did indeed take a picture and sell postcards of it.

But aside from being a quick sketch of a horrifically macabre incident from a less enlightened time (we like to tell ourselves) this verse also sets up the basic imagery of the song - that of something crass and decorative applied over a decaying backdrop.  A cheap coverup overlay to draw attention away from the rot underneath.  It's a picture postcard of an atrocity, sold to amuse and distract.  That's essentially the tone set for the remainder of the song.

From that point on the lyrics are essentially a role call of characters. Some fictional (Cinderella, Romeo, the Phantom of the Opera) Some historic (Albert Einstein, Bette Davis), and some from religious folklore (Cain and Able, the Good Samaritan) whom you could either count as historic or fictional depending on your religious views (although I probably gave my view on it away when I called them 'folklore...').

And by and large the characters are... Doing nothing.  Einstein is pretending to be Robin Hood, Romeo's being politely asked to leave, Cinderella is quietly sweeping up the broken glass after the ambulances go.  They're decaying in place having no function outside of the stories we associate with them.

And on the edges - hiding in the choruses are the ambulance, and the riot squads, and the insurance men - Forces of control trying to keep the characters in their stagnation, enforcing the slow decay.

Indeed, a recurring theme is the resistance to change - the fear of letting things be finally destroyed so that something new can begin.  Dr. Filth's patients keep trying to blow up his world, but he won't let them.  Casanova is being punished for trying to get to desolation row, the insurance men are there to make sure no one gets away.  

Finally giving in to the desolation, finally admitting that the carnival being in town does not make everything ok.  That is what would free all of these people.  That is what they're being denied.  
That, in one vizsla's opinion, is what Bob was trying to get at.
Also it was 1965, so he was probably stoned.
Vizsla out

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