Charlie McCoy on Desolation Row

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

– Bob Dylan, from a verse of Desolation Row

I have opinions about music. I have always been highly attuned to extemporaneous playing, having grown up in households full of jazz and 60’s rock, and incorporate it a lot into my playing. The people I admire the most are the players who can take an idea and dissect it in real time, as the song proceeds, and find their way around the theme in as many different ways as possible.

I don’t know much about Charlie McCoy, but from what I do know about Bob Dylan’s recording style, He wants to lay them down quick and be done with it, and everyone does their best to learn the songs in real time & keep up with him. According to Wikipedia, they recorded 5 takes of this song. That means McCoy might have had an hour to come up with a theme, then execute this track. This has to be extemporaneous. He figured out more or less where he wanted to play in between the vocal lines, and was probably just off to the races.

Say what you will about Bob Dylan, (and I probably won’t disagree on a lot of points) but I found myself listening to this on repeat the other day, and really focusing on the 2nd guitar part instead of the lyrics for the first time, and it really jumped out at me what he’s doing here. In an 11-minute song, he methodically goes about re-inventing his part every single verse, every single line. He manages to only repeat an exact phrase once or twice throughout the entire song. An extremely impressive feat. So if you’ve read this far, I encourage you to take a pass through it and focus on the guitar and the myriad ways he moves the song forward through an ever-changing multitude of distinct arpeggios. Brilliant!