Watching last night’s documentary on the life of Roy Orbison (BBC4) it was fascinating to see footage of the Traveling Wilburys, and in particular shots of Bob Dylan singing and interacting with the rest of ‘the gang’ – George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and of course The Big O.
Dylan wrote or co-wrote some brilliant songs for the Wilburys, but what the programme showed was a man (Dylan) who was perfectly content to be singing with his mates, and who in no way pushed himself forward or tried to steal the limelight – in spite of him being such a musical legend. You can say that George Harrison was also a legendary rock performer, but neither he nor Roy, or indeed Tom and Jeff, can lay claim to anything like the incredible musical output of Dylan, let alone such extraordinary songwriting.
As an artist Dylan has had much to say about the human condition. Over many years I’ve listened dozens of times to one of Dylan’s epic songs – Desolation Row – a song that’s eleven and a half minutes long and contains ten verses of image-laden poetry.
At the very end of the song (which comes at the very end of the legendary album Highway 61 Revisited) Dylan says this:
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them from
What can we make of this? Surely Dylan isn’t saying he’s having physical difficulties with reading? Maybe he’s having problems with concentration though, or problems with tackling material that’s conceptually difficult – for reasons that are not explained. Could he be depressed, or mentally and spiritually exhausted? Emotionally wrung out? Living on Desolation Row can obviously do these things to people.
What I believe Dylan is really saying is something about empathy, which is a quality 3Di associates with social intelligence. He’s saying he’s not going to read anything unless it’s written from the standpoint of someone who’s also living on Desolation Row – someone who shares his sensibility and understands his state of mind and frames of reference.
Only those who have been down and lived on Desolation Row can truly appreciate what it’s like, and only those people can really empathise with and communicate with the present citizens of Desolation Row.
This is something governments around the world would do well to consider, as and when they decide to support and care for those who live on Desolation Row. Regrettably, the majority of politicians seem mainly to care about the small section of people they identify as ‘floating voters’, and many of them empathise mostly with the rich and powerful, whom they seek to emulate and cultivate.
Empathy can work in many different ways. By itself it’s a neutral virtue, and an important component of social intelligence. Empathy is essential for wellbeing and solidarity with others, but it needs to be balanced with the kind of spiritual intelligence within which values such as social justice provide a stabilising and guiding force – a keel and a rudder, if you will.
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
We’ll be writing about empathy, social justice and social intelligence a great deal more in forthcoming posts on 3D Eye.
Roy Orbison – The ‘Big O’ in Britain: