I was listening to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (from Highway 61 Revisited, the first Dylan album I ever owned) the other night when I got this sudden, overwhelming feeling of discomfort. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me. I was relaxing at home, listening to my favorite Bob Dylan song, giving the dog a nice belly rub. My wife was in the other room getting ready for bed. It should have been a one hundred percent pleasant evening.
And that’s when it hit me: My Chemical Romance did a cover of “Desolation Row.” And Sweet Zombie Jesus, it’s fuck-terrible.
I found out about this little turd back before the movie version of Watchmen came out in 2009. But two years of targeted alcohol treatments had mostly eradicated the part of my brain that knew about it. The discomfort I experienced must have been the painful memory reasserting itself in my consciousness. I am now and forever marked by the fact that My Chemical Romance slaughtered a Bob Dylan masterpiece. Well, that’s not entirely true. Mostly, I’m marked by the fact that I can’t fucking stand My Chemical Romance and their cover of “Desolation Row” basically sums up every reason I have to dislike them.
But let’s look at the bright side first: at least My Chemical Romance didn’t do the full, eleven minute version of the song. They cherry-picked about three minutes of it to torture with their particular brand of suckitude. Also on the bright side, their performance should give the lie to the myth that all of Bob Dylan’s songs are better when someone else sings them. Because let’s get one thing straight right now: Gerard Way, who looks like the bastard offspring of Billy Corgan and a Muppet, cannot fucking sing. On this horrifying caricature of “Desolation Row,” Way sounds like a cat trying to whistle “Edelweiss” while its asshole turns inside out. I know some teenagers might disagree with me on that, but Bollocks! is a blog for grown-ups. So go the fuck to sleep.
The thing I love about Dylan’s version of “Desolation Row” is that he narrates it like a wandering Shakespearean fool, cataloging all the weird shit he sees in the world (I think Dylan did this on a lot of his best songs. Pretty much all of Blood on the Tracks feels that way to me). The best poetic moments in the original recording are wry observations like “everybody’s making love/ or else expecting rain” and “her profession is her religion/ and her sin is her lifelessness.” Both lines are omitted from the My Chemical Romance atrocity, which actually makes sense to me. If you’re in a band that writes shitty songs and you’re covering a song by a vastly superior songwriter, you might want to chop out the best bits lest they underscore the crappiness of your original material. In My Chemical Romance’s case, this logic would also apply if they were covering The Village People’s “In the Navy” or that horribly misguided “Do They Know It’s Christmas” song.
Of course, My Chemical Romance was bound to try and tart up “Desolation Row” and make it all anthemic (or what passes as anthemic to them. To me, it’s more anemic), which causes them to place emphasis in some really weird spots. For instance, Way chomps down insanely hard on the line “Bette Davis style” (according to Mr. Dylan, Cinderella puts her hands in her back pockets in this manner) for no reason at all. He also kinda fucks up the pronunciation here and it sounds like he’s saying “Some Buttered Anus Isle” (Where’s the cast of Jersey Shore taking their summer vacation? Some Buttered Anus Isle. Because if anyone enjoys some nice buttered anus, it’s the entire cast of Jersey Shore). And toward the end of the song, My Chemical Romance pasted some pseudo-epic crescendo around the line “is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene.” It’s pretty awkward. And when I say “pretty awkward,” I mean “straight-up, 8th Grade Dance Awkward.”
Bob Dylan’s phrasing doesn’t come off so badly in the original and I think that’s due to the fact that he’s not trying to sell you on the import of every single line, which is something that My Chemical Romance can’t help because they do it in every one of their own songs. If you watch their video for this song (don’t), you’ll see that they are fully decked out in their Proud Outsider costumes and they clearly want their “Desolation Row” to be a place where misfits like them are held to keep from freaking out the masses. But Dylan’s “Desolation Row” isn’t an outsider anthem; it’s simultaneously an insider’s lament and tribute to a place populated not with confident rebels but with tragic heroines (Ophelia is the gal whose sin is her lifelessness), wayfaring wise men (“Einstein disguised as Robin Hood”), misguided romantics (Romeo comes in moaning and leaves in an ambulance), and word-poisoned Casanovas. By dressing the song in leather jackets and Hot Topic T-Shirts, My Chemical Romance obliterates both its poetry and its universality.
But that’s okay because they also completely fuck the music. I know My Chemical Romance was never gonna keep the tasteful acoustic guitar noodles of Dylan’s original but I did not expect them to stick in a really wanky guitar solo that reminds me of both Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and a pretty incompetent kid at any given Guitar Center trying to recreate Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance of the national anthem. It’s among the most unintentionally hilarious bits of music I’ve ever heard. And yet this squall of bullshit provides a brief and very welcome respite from Gerard Way’s mewling, cat-with-a-purple-sock shenanigans.
In case you can’t tell, I’ve never liked My Chemical Romance. I think their music is contrived emo bullshit and I think they’re melodramatic to the point of being downright goofy, especially because they’re supposed to be adults. Their sadistic rendition of “Desolation Row” is pretty much all the evidence I need, though I’m sure I could find more. Of course, they’ve got legions of adoring fans, some of whom claim that My Chemical Romance literally saved their lives. For the record, I don’t have anything against My Chemical Romance saving lives. In fact, I’m so much in favor of My Chemical Romance saving lives that I’d like nothing better than for them to quit making music altogether and devote themselves to life-saving as a full-time gig.