Paul Simon v Al Stewart on Dylan’s latest song “Desolation Row,”

The release of Dylan’s masterpiece “Desolation Row” spurred a seething debate between Paul Simon and London’s up-and-coming folk singer/songwriter Al Stewart. When it was over Paul didn’t speak to Al for a month. Here’s how Stewart remembers it:

“I had become obsessed by Highway 61 Revisited, and I played “Desolation Row” over and over again.  In fact, the record came out in the West End of London two days early, on a Wednesday evening, and it came out everywhere else on a Friday.  I spent the entire day of Thursday learning the lyrics (to “Desolation Row”).  On Friday, the day of its release, I went to two different clubs in the West End of London and performed it.  I’m sure I was the first person in the U.K. to sing “Desolation Row.”  Paul came in and listened to it, and all he said was ‘Rehashed Ferlinghetti.’ That was his sole comment.

“I had no idea what he meant, it sounded like cold Italian food. So Paul set me right, that all Dylan was doing was copying Ferlinghetti, and therein ensued a three-hour argument.  He said No, it’s rubbish, it’s stream of consciousness it doesn’t mean anything, and it’s old hat.  I think at some point in my 19-year-old mania I said ‘You’re going to be damned lucky if you ever write a song as good as this!’  And that did it, Paul just kind of clammed up and walked out, and didn’t talk to me for a long time.  It passed, but I do remember that because I probably shouldn’t have made that remark.  I do apologize for it all these years later, but you get annoyed and I thought “Desolation Row” was the second coming of God and “Homeward Bound” wasn’t.”

Homeward Bound
The Life of Paul Simon

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  1. Hans Altena says:

    Desolation Row rubbish? It’s the poem that encapsulated the whole culture of the day at that time, and beyond, it connected the tradition with the revolution and yet it took away the illusion of change, it goes deep and it had more influence than any poem by whoever in that century, together with Like a Rolling Stone, Visions of Johanna and A Hard Rain’s gonna Fall, which together opened up a whole new form of poetry, building on the songs of the old Bards as far back as those in Greece and even further down into history, with much more force and beauty also than the contrived bookish stuff a lot of writers get stuck in.

  2. True enough, Hans. But we’re talking about a bunch of really young and really ambitious guys here, with all the attendant competitive fire, bluster and envy. Tongues wag, words turn cruel. And when you’re an artist you don’t look back. Hey, didn’t someone say that once?

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