The High Rise on Desolation Row

The High Rise on Desolation Row

Philip Metres and his guitar teacher (“I think his name was Sasha”), Russia, 1993. Photo by Philip Metres.


The High Rise on Desolation Row: Listening to Highway 61 Revisited in Russia

On the seventh floor of a half-completed high rise in 1992, I stood with the O’Brien brothers, looking out over the lit city—Moscow’s cathedrals and smokestacks and apartment blocks flickering beneath a great dome of clouds. The windows were not yet locked into place, and the wind blew straight through to us, as if we were perched on the top of a hawk’s nest, our feathers riffling in the breeze. They had come to find their fortune by building the new Russia for an American construction firm, and the younger brother, Pat, had just flown in from Chicago, bringing my high-tops from home. I’d heard that there was pick-up basketball at the American Embassy three times a week, and after a few bruising months navigating the city, I wanted to run and leap and shoot until I sweated out all the lines that I’d stood in for food or train tickets, all the lines of Russian poems I failed to understand.

“It looks so peaceful from here,” I said.

“Trick of the eye,” Jack said, smirking, and then taking another look.

Despite its grandeur and propensity for gigantism, Moscow offered few, if any, skyscraper-high views of the city, and it was good to see it from a distance.


Hours later, in their American bachelor pad on Patriarch’s Ponds—replete with regular beds, a boom box stereo, a pull-up bar, an excited little puppy, and an American fridge full of beer—we were hoisting bottles and listening to tunes, trying to wormhole to America. Jack, a red-head from Chicago who’d clearly been through his share of battles in both countries, barreled through the door and threw in a tape of Highway 61 Revisited, a Dylan album that I’d never heard before.

He’d been in Russia nearly a year as the managing director for the Chicago construction firm. He was scarred and sour.

“Working here is a pain in the ass,” he said. “Everything keeps shifting. When you think you know the law, they change it on you. It’s like they’re trying to mess with our heads.”

From the first snare crack to the roiling organ of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan became our soundtrack, as we wrestled with confusion, living so far from home: Once upon a time you dressed so fine / give the bums a dime / now didn’t you?

“There was one point I just about lost my marbles,” he said, launching himself onto the couch, taking a swig. He shook his fiery head, as if to shake the memories right out of his ears. “We wasted a whole day looking for a gas station that had fuel, and when we finally found one, they decided to charge us two times what the list price was.”

We had the day’s dust and grime on us; they, from their long day on the building, I from bruising my way through metro crowds, trying to slide myself into and then pry myself out of a scrum of commuters, everyone elbowing their way to wherever they called home. I’d arrived some months before, and my home seemed more than the five thousand miles it would take to return. At first, I’d lived with an overprotective Russian family who didn’t want me to be out at night, until I couldn’t bear their protection anymore. Between trying to learn the language and trying to adjust to the shock of Russian culture in transition, I felt terribly alone and was glad to meet some guys from my hometown.

How does it feel? / To be on your own. / To be a complete unknown, Dylan taunted us.

I knew a little of what Jack was talking about. Every other day I felt that my heart was going to explode from frustration at having to deal with an impossible bureaucracy or someone trying to cheat me or watching the man in the line for bread, whose face was so gaunt it looked like it was missing parts. And his child next to him, with palms so dirty it looked like they’d never been washed, and would never get clean.

Dylan’s voice wove in and out of our conversation, probing the trouble we’d found ourselves in, the soundtrack to our chagrin.

How does it feel?

In “Like a Rolling Stone,” it sounds as if Dylan were scolding his interlocutor “Miss Lonely” for her former arrogance and bourgeois privilege, like some prophet of comeuppance. Life can beat a person down, and the higher your horse, the harder the ground—but do you have to be taunted when you’re sprawled on your back? It’s an extraordinarily cruel song, making its popularity even more astonishing—reaching number two on the Billboard charts; forty-five years later, Rolling Stone ranked it the best song of all time. Maybe, indeed, the speaker of this song was a jilted lover, punishing his ex for her hauteur. Perhaps Dylan was accessing that secret schadenfreude that we carry with us, for those who have hurt us? Yet it’s just as likely that Dylan is singing to himself—giving himself a perverse talking-to—as if all his illusions have been stripped away, and that he wanders “with no direction home.” Which was like us living in Russia, our illusions scraped away by daily indignities, by the cruelty of the Russian streets.

Jack paced the room, trying to put a frame around the chaos he was wrestling with.

“These people act crazy, but they’ve been shit on for their entire history,” he said. “Shit on. Lenin knew what he was doing. Let ‘em shop in a different store for different things, bread, meat, fruit and vegetables—that’ll keep ‘em busy.”

“It does seem crazy,” I admitted, feeling the bruise on my shoulder from someone who’d whacked me with their sack of groceries, to get past me in line for bread. In “Tombstone Blues,” Dylan sings of the cruelty of America:

Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes

Daddy’s in the alley, he’s lookin’ for food

I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues

We all had the tombstone blues trying to scrap and scrape by—not only the Russians, but even we Americans, who were there by choice. In “Tombstone Blues,” Dylan casts his acid gaze around at an America full of men who can tell a raped girl to suck it up, allow Jack the Ripper to be the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and then justify murder in the jungles of Vietnam as a way to impress “Uncle.” Meanwhile, most people, like the impoverished and depressed speaker, barely scuffles through. Cruelty, American style.

“But that’s only half the story,” I said to Jack. “America used to have butcher shops and bakeries and produce stores.”

Jack thought about it.

Supermarkets had made me crazy, having to sweep them in high school, brushing the dust down the aisles, counting down the hours before I could be free. I thought of Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” of a lonely Ginsberg thinking of Whitman, as he walks through a supermarket late at night. The stymied eros, which could never feed our hunger for each other.

We sat in silence, again, listening to Dylan, hoping for inspiration.

But Jack was right. Life in Russia seemed to conspire against ease, to keep people just one step ahead of survival. When I arrived, the first thing I’d written in my notebook of new phrases was: “it’s broken,” followed quickly by: “it’s no matter.”

“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” wheezed its harmonica blues back at us: Now winter’s coming the windows are filled with frost / I went to tell everybody / but I could not get across. We were stuck on this train, hurting into its wintry future. But Dylan, in this song and “From a Buick 6,” sings of lovers who provide succor in the hard times, a place to unload one’s head (double entendre intended). We were all bachelors, and there was no place to lay our skulls. My love lived so far away, when I was asleep, she was awake, and when I was awake, she was asleep. I lived on her letters for weeks, then months, but you can’t snuggle a letter. You can’t lay your head on a letter. And when everything seems to be collapsing, you need someone to hold. I gripped the bottle more tightly.

“Look, plenty of Russians I know don’t think this makes any sense either,” I said. It would come to be called the Wild 90s, this period of transition, where all the old rules suddenly no longer applied, and everything seemed suddenly possible to some. I told him of the decent Russians whose lives had been flipped upside-down by the fall of the Soviet Union. About my host family the Maslovs, Valera and Svetlana, how they opened their home to me and treated me like a son. About Svetlana’s father, Pavel, a proud Red Army veteran of the great Patriotic War, who I could hear writhing on his bed, and how he wondered if everything he’d believed in his entire life had been a lie.

“I mean, how fucked up would that be?” I said.

Something is happening here

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr Jones?

The music washed its sinister organ riffs over us, “The Ballad of the Thin Man.” Pavel, a tall man with a cropped goatee and trimmed white hair, had stood up to greet my father, a veteran of the Vietnam War. They shook hands, not sharing a language. My father tried out his best “spasibo”—thanks. Svetlana’s father held out his other hand. There was a combat medal in it, from his service in the Second World War. He pressed it into my father’s palm: a gift. Pavel didn’t know what was happening, but he wanted to be part of the friendship between nations.

“Okay, okay, there are good people,” Jack conceded, cocking his head and nodding, peeling the beer’s label off. “But there are a lot crazy ones too. This place makes you crazy.”

Pat was doing pull-ups, angling his head to the side so as not to bang it on the ceiling. He was still soaking it all in, still in that early phase of living in another country, when what is inexplicable still feels wondrous, like a song you’d never heard before.

I was between Pat’s wonder and Jack’s bitterness, afraid I was destined to become Jack. Yet we were all trying to rise out of ourselves, trying to avoid braining ourselves on ceilings.

As hard as our lives were here, dealing with a civilization that seemed to be imploding, we also knew that we had privilege. Our American dollars made us like kings, and though they made us targets for thieves and schemers, police and hookers, it also shielded us from some of the cruelty that was the Russian lot. It’s hard to describe the expat’s lot: both privileged and punished for privilege. Listening to “Queen Jane, Approximately,” we were kings, approximately, trying to find someone who would talk to us as we were, not as walking American dollar signs. But something drew us here. We’d chosen to descend from our green-lawned bourgeois existence into this vital muddy madness.

Down below, the traffic rushed by, heading along the Garden Ring in its eternal circle. Six lanes across on each side, the cars hurtling with a homicidal despair. It seemed the opposite of Highway 61, going everywhere and nowhere at all.


Months later, after the hard winter, when late spring met early summer, the O’Brien brothers hosted a barbecue at their apartment, in the same neighborhood where Satan, dressed as a professor, begins to work his black magic in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. On the street below, a group of us tossed a football. Some Russian boys in their early teens furtively checked out the game, nudging a bit closer with every toss. Finally, I nodded that upward nod to one of them and tossed him the ball. He held it in his hands as if it were a pulsing mystery, something otherworldly. He tossed it back, and it wobbled like a bird’s awkward first flapping. The other boys, encouraged by the first, joined in, rapidly learning how to toss a spiral. How you need to chop the air with your arm as you release your grip. One boy arced the ball through the air, the laces ablur, with a happy unselfconscious grace. Then suddenly, out of the sky, something flew down and exploded on the ground, glass splintering everywhere around our feet. A vodka label still clung to a bit of the glass.

“Boys, what are you doing with those pagans?” an unshaven man in a dirty sleeveless tee shirt yelled from a balcony, belligerent and slurry. The author of the explosion on the street.

“We’re just having fun, old man,” they called up, not stopping our tossing back and forth.

“Don’t hang out with them, boys,” he warned.

“Go to hell,” they said. I was surprised by their courage, how they spoke to their elders. They taunted him until he finally gave up and went back inside.

O two Russias. The youth on the streets learning everything they could about a new game, soaking in this strange culture. And above them hovered a vodka bottle from the old Russia, hurled down on their heads, thrown by an old-timer castigating them for playing with us Westernizers.

And the riot squad they’re restless

They need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight

From Desolation Row

None of us knew where the country was heading, or where we were heading. You didn’t have to be Russian to feel that way.

I didn’t listen to Highway 61 Revisited for many years afterward, saving it for a time when it could become the soundtrack to remembering. Now here I am, listening, hoping to leap back into the O’Brien’s apartment.

It’s too late. No time travel, no images leaping into my brain. But the lines about trains that made you cry and letters that make no sense—Highway 61 holds many of the mysteries I would never understand, that I would write through my entire life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to tell myself that I should let go my desire to have things make sense, and just enjoy the mad carnival that spilled all around me, all around this Russian version of Desolation Row.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody’s shouting

“Which Side Are You On?”

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain’s tower

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row

Dylan mocks T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as they fight in the captain’s tower on the Titanic; he knows that we’re heading for the iceberg. Meanwhile, down below, the calypso singers laugh. Dylan wanted to be among the singers and fisherman and mermaids, not with the high modernists in their tower. That seems like the right place to be. I see now, in some strange way, I was grieving alongside the Russians like Svetlana and Olya who had been left behind by capitalism, who still believed in the Russian soul, in the power of literature. But my grief was always partly from a distance, from the high rise of my relative American privilege, and could only watch as people saw their life savings become worthless overnight.


Before I’d come to Russia, I’d become a huge fan of folk Dylan, the one who protested the outrages of American society with a biting clarity. I remember the first time I heard “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” how it tells of the murder of a 51-year-old black kitchen maid and the six month sentence of her killer, a wealthy socialite named William Zantzinger. The sentence came in August 1963; just two months later, Dylan had already recorded the song and was playing it regularly during live shows and on television. Bringing to light not only the gruesome story but the sentimentalizing coverage of the event in the mass media (“now ain’t the time for your tears”), Dylan seemed like the kind of poet I’d wanted to be, engaging public attention and pointing out the gross injustices of our society. He’d do it again years later, when he took on the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “Hurricane.”

What had drawn me to Russia was the tradition of the poet as prophet, as scourge of the powerful. Mandelstam’s anti-Stalin ode that lead to his martyrdom; Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” which dramatically documented the survival of the Yezhov terror and the incarceration of her son; Yevtushenko’s elegy for the Jews massacred in “Babi Yar”; Brodsky’s exile as a “parasite” on the Soviet Union. I’d read of poets during the 1960s reading to stadiums full of readers. How could it be that poetry could be so popular? These poets and their biting poems felt more real to me, more prickly, than the American poems I’d encountered in my college classes, except for the odd poet like Carolyn Forché or Langston Hughes. Frost, Stevens, Williams—these were great poets, but they never disturbed the powerful. I saw Dylan as the kind of poetic champion of the underdog, the kind of poet that would have been at home in Russia. During this year I wanted to learn how poets had resisted Soviet power, and what they were doing now.

But my Dylan education hadn’t gotten much farther than “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.” Hearing “It’s Alright Ma” the first time, I got chills down my spine:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark

As human gods aim for their mark

Made everything from toy guns that spark

To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark

It’s easy to see without looking too far

That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates

Teachers teach that knowledge waits

Can lead to hundred-dollar plates

Goodness hides behind its gates

But even the president of the United States

Sometimes must have to stand naked

Yet almost as soon as Dylan become synonymous with social protest, he moved on. The folk Dylan did not continue to churn out topical songs, but morphed into the apocalyptic Dylan, the half-electric Dylan.

In the mid-1960s, when he was being promoted as the voice of a generation, he resolutely refused the crown, calling himself a “Song and Dance Man.” In “Don’t Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary from that period, Dylan comes across as a real prick during interviews, fending off questions and pretending he didn’t know what he was doing. When I first watched him rejecting the political engagement and idealism of his folk period, I thought he was abandoning not only the fans but also the underdogs whose lives he’d sung into the spotlight. Now, I see his cantankerousness as a strategy of self-protection, bravura performances in trying to remain free. He didn’t want to be labeled or made into the Voice of his Generation. He wanted to sing, and wanted to follow where the songs took him, on Desolation Row, not bask in the adulation of the media-crafted masses.

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

Amazingly, Bob Dylan became perhaps even more important than the high modernists to that generation of poets coming of age in the 1960s; even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016, I’d noticed over the years that poet-mentors of mine as different as Mark Halliday, David Wojahn and Barrett Watten name-dropped Dylan as an essential poet. What Dylan provided for that generation, and may still offer us, is a model of how to be an artist who is free, to defy expectations and resist being fixed, domesticated, or commodified, in an age when everything and nearly everyone is open to being bought and sold. By rejecting the idea that he was the voice of his generation, that he could speak or sing for anyone but himself, paradoxically, he became the voice of his generation.

But let’s face it, Dylan was also a thief—from the early Harry Smith records that he lifted from friends to the lyrics and tunes he “borrowed” from writers and bluesmen—Dylan stole and stole and stole. Even in an official sense, Dylan would come to offer himself up as a shill for all manner of products, something that bedeviled fans like me. In 1965, he was asked in an interview what product would he sell, to which he replied “ladies garments.” It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but nearly forty years later, he and his song “Love Sick” appeared in a Victoria’s Secret ad. The contradictions he embodied are the fundamental contradictions faced by American artists in the modern world. When he won the Nobel Prize for literature, he had the audacity to plagiarize from SparkNotes, of all sources, for his speech. Love and Theft, indeed.

What I discovered in my year studying “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change” (the title of my Watson Fellowship project) was that, like Dylan, the poets who rose at the end of the Sixties Thaw also refused the role of prophet and voice of the people. In fact, they’d been living through a period where the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism required a kind of social protest. Poets like the late Yevgeny Yevtushenko, still lauded in the United States, who had once declaimed their poetry to stadiums full of people, were considered by the younger generation of Russian poets to be political cowards and poetic weaklings. Nearly every poet I met—mostly unofficial poets who chose not to join the Soviet Writers Union—actively resisted my attempts to read easy equivalences between their work and the work of social change. To write about beauty, love, the soul, or God, in the Wonderland mirror of the Soviet context, was countercultural. What Dylan had done, by refusing the scepter and crown, mirrored what the Seventies generation of Russian poets had done—to make art that didn’t rely on the ossified or expected versions of what had come before. If they wanted to engage in the tradition, it was because they sought to engage in the great conversation of past artists, not to capitalize on what is familiar or politically sexy. For Dylan, that meant to summon and revisit the voices from Highway 61, the so-called blues highway of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Son House and Howlin’ Wolf, that stretched from New Orleans through Mississippi and up to Memphis and Chicago, all the way through to Dylan’s own Minnesota. In the desolation row of Moscow’s streets, and in “Desolation Row,” Dylan became one way for me to understand the calling of the poet and the bard.

And more than that: that a real poem or song is not a mere tool for protest. It can protest, but it is not merely oppositional. It must make a world that stands on its own tunes and lines. That’s why Dylan’s early protest music still vibrates with an undeniable energy—because it draws upon roots deeper than the occasions they protest. A real poem is a strong elixir, a homeopathic balm—neither soda pop nor strychnine. We consume it to be hurt and healed. When I listen to a Dylan song or read a bracing poem, I am inside its invisible musical skin. A true poem is a little world that holds us in its temporary thrall, freeing us from the illusions and distractions we often take for reality—its own kind of resistance.


High Rise in Moscow, 2016. Photo by Philip Metres.

Just the other day, I called Pat to reminisce about Russia. He said that his brother Jack had moved on to Prague after that year in Russia, still working with the construction firm, and wound up happily back in Chicago.

“Russia was a magical time,” Pat said, and there was a song in his voice when he said it. He lived there for many years after.

“You lasted longer than me,” I said. “I just burned out.”

“I had it easier than you,” he said. He was lucky, he said, because the company always dealt with the insane bureaucracies. He barely even remembered waiting in lines. But he did find his own trouble. He told this story:

A guy from Chicago was spending the summer of 1995 with me. Right off of Red Square, we met up with a co-worker from M—– Construction at this expat bar, and played some pool. We drank…. a lot. At the end of the night, we piled into my Neva, a four-wheeler, to head home. I had to skirt the perimeter of Red Square to get out of this bar, and I saw in the distance that they were doing the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb.

I said to my friend, “you have to see this!”

He had just gotten to Moscow, and he hadn’t even visited Red Square. There were no crash barriers, nothing to prevent us from driving up. So I flipped on my high beams and started driving across Red Square, and we were looking at the guards and—I have no idea what I was thinking—I got right up to them and I was ten feet away with my high beams on, and suddenly I thought, this is not a good idea, and as I put the car in reverse, four unmarked cars hemmed me in, pulled everyone out of the car, throwing us on the ground. My face was on Red Square and this guy had his knee on my cheek. I could see all this happening. I still can see all this happening. They kicked the other guys out, jumped in the car and took off.

They put me in handcuffs and threw me in the back of a car, put a blindfold on me, and drove away. They were moving me in and out of these weird spaces, taking me down an elevator, going down, going down. They threw me into a chair, strapped my arms down, pulled the hood off, and I was sitting in this weird room with a light shining on me, all these police standing around, not knowing who I was. A woman came in the room, wearing a dirty white smock, holding a bizarre syringe with a long needle.

I started going crazy. If it wasn’t for this one police guy, who settled me down, I don’t know what would have happened. They realized, at that point, that I was a big boneheaded American guy and they got extremely pissed off. And they basically beat me up, mostly body shots, and I was handcuffed. This was over the course of three or four hours. They were speaking Russian the whole time. Though I was spoke Russian pretty well, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I was so scared I couldn’t speak anything except in English.

They took me into a police station, like any police station in the world, with a guy sitting behind a desk. They called the head of M—–, my boss, saying that they needed to pick me up, and he came, and they beat him up. Five hours later, he threw me in his car. On the way home.

He was laughing his ass off. He couldn’t believe that anyone could be so stupid and get off. He was laughing the entire way home. And then I started laughing.

I woke up the next day and I was feeling so stupid, and everyone was laughing. They kept asking me: what was in that syringe? 

One last thing I remember. The guards never, ever, EVER, turned their heads. I was driving across with my high beams on, and they never broke stride. They just kept marching.

It sounded more surreal than a Dylan song, like an outtake from Highway 61 that no one would have believed.

I asked Pat if he’d ever live in Russia again.

He paused, the music in his voice quieting. “I would never go back. I would never live there again. I tried to relive it, and it just didn’t work. The second time, in 2001, I took a job in Moscow, got on the plane and took a cab into town. When I got in the apartment and dropped my bags, I thought, ‘what in the hell have I just done’?”

He paused, the line between us crackling with unspoken thoughts.

“You can’t go back into the past.”

Dylan never got locked into a single version of himself or his music; his protean spirit militated against believing his own bullshit. Sometimes proteanism itself could slip into its own act, its own mask, its own cage with wheels. There have been times that Dylan slipped so far into myth, like some comic book superhero, that he’d lose his grip on the flesh of the real. Still, I respect the fact that he didn’t want to repeat himself. When I had the chance to see him in concert, his versions of songs were so different than the recordings, I could barely recognize them. It irked me at first, not recognizing a single song, bleated out by some angry goat. Yet why should he become a living jukebox? Why couldn’t he revisit and reinterpret his own old songs, translate them from their stable past into the chaotic present?

What if the past is still so chaotic, you keep returning to it, hoping that it coheres into a song? After writing two books of poems that return to Russia, I’m still unsatisfied. Something hasn’t made it to the page. I listed to Highway 61 Revisited on my iPod again—you’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal—dig through my musty old journals, afraid that I’m missing something, some secret I’ve forgotten to hide, trying to find a portal that would blow open all the windows between me and that city flickering below us, glimmering inside, the wind touching our faces.




Philip Metres has written and translated a number of books and chapbooks, including Pictures at an Exhibition (2016)Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (2014), Concordance of Leaves (2013)abu ghraib arias (2011)Ode to Oil (2011)To See the Earth (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2007), Instants (2006)Primer for Non-Native Speakers (2004)Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (2004)and A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2003). His writing has appeared widely, including in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, two Arab American Book Awards, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, the Beatrice Hawley Award, the Anne Halley Prize, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, and the Cleveland Arts Prize.


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