We’ve known for years that Bob Dylan borrowed melodies from older songs, and that particular songs and poems inspired him to write his own lyrics. In a nearly 12,000 word essay in the just published book, “Kerouac On Record: A Literary Soundtrack,” I detail just how extensively Dylan made use of Jack Kerouac’s writing in some of the songs Dylan wrote for Highway 61 Revisited. You can read an excerpt from my essay at Rock’s Back Pages.
Here’s a bit of what you’ll find there:
‘No rhyme, all cut-up, no nothing, except something happening, which is words’
I couldn’t have written those songs back then. If I had just come out and sung “Desolation Row’ five years ago I probably would have been murdered – Bob Dylan to Nat Hentoff, autumn 1965, unpublished interview for Playboy
Following the 3 May 1965 publication of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, the publisher, Coward- McCann, a subsidiary of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ran full-page ads in the Sunday Times Book Review, the daily New York Times, the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. If you were in New York, and dug Jack Kerouac, it would have been hard not to know that the “King of the Beats’ had a new novel in the stores.
Hi Lo Ha (the house Bob Dylan had just bought in Woodstock, New York, was where Dylan said he wrote the rest of Highway 61 Revisited in the six weeks between the 15 and 16 June sessions in Manhattan where “Like a Rolling Stone” (which he’d written in early June) was recorded, and the late July and early August sessions at which the rest of the Highway 61 Revisited album was completed. (Dylan, ever the poet, said that in one interview, but in another with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone he said he wrote the Highway 61 song “Desolation Row” “in the back of a taxicab” in New York.)
More interesting than where the songs that comprise Highway 61 Revisited were written is that just six weeks after Desolation Angels was published, Dylan used the book as a major source of raw material for his new songs. “Desolation Row” took the first half of its title from Kerouac”s new book, and Dylan seems to have gotten the idea for the song’s main theme from Kerouac as well. In Desolation Angels, Kerouac writes about “Surrealistic Street,” and describes a wild cast of characters that he sees out on skid row. What is “Desolation Row,” as Dylan describes it in his song, if not a dark, at times horrific version of Kerouac”s “Surrealistic Street”?…
– A Days of the Crazy-Wild blog post –