Commentary on Desolation Row by David Tuffley

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Bob Dylan (formerly Robert Allen Zimmerman from Minnesota) released this epic song (around 11 minutes) in August 1965 on the album Highway 61 Revisited. Loved and hated by people for decades, Dylan has been described by some critics as one of the most significant poets of the Twentieth Century. Whether one agrees with that description or not, there is no denying his talent. When asked by a radio interviewer why he insisted on being so irritating with his music, he replied something along the lines of so where do you get the idea that I want people to like my music. It was more important to challenge people’s complacency as a way of making them think about their values.

Dylan came to be seen as a leader of the civil rights movement in America. He challenged the conventional values of his day. It earned him the reputation of being a dangerous subversive who was trying to corrupt the youth of America with his deviate ideas. At any given time, there will a bad boys and girls on the pop music scene that are designated dangerous by mainstream (read older) society. They said the same of the Rolling Stones. the Beatles, Elton John and Elvis Presley who today have either been knighted by the Queen (co-opted into the establishment), or reified as quasi-deities (if they are dead like Elvis). Its ironic that the parents of today are saying to their children the same unthinking words that their parents said to them about Dylan and others in the 1960’s and 70’s. That (insert name of demonised artist here) is going to poison the minds of our children. We have to silence him.

Pop music as an agent of social evolution

My observation is that this aspect of pop music — that the older generation not approve of it — is a key agent of social evolution. During adolescence, children becoming adults actively seek to distinguish themselves from their parents. They rebell. But notice how, despite the rebellion, in time (late 20s, early 30s) people seem to end up coming back to a place not very far from where their parents started them. They gradually morph into their parents — but they are not exactly like their parents, there are some important differences that have derived from their peers.

So society changes in small increments from generation to generation. Pop music performs a valuable service, it gives adolescents the means by which they can distinguish themselves as being different from their parents, something to hang their hat on. It just has to be not liked by their parents, and it is doing its job. But beyond just being “not liked”, some artists, like Dylan, have something meaningful to say about the state of the world, and how the supposedly all-wise older generation have managed to make a mess of it. It is saying “here is how we can make the world a better place”.

The song

In Desolation Row, Dylan is warning people that society is heading for destruction, an apocalype, if it continues in its then direction. With the US locked in a deadly embrace with Russia, teetering on a knife-edge of mutually assured nuclear destruction, it was reasonable for people to be concerned (more like scared half to death), but governments of the time characterised anyone who spoke out against the Cold War as unpatriotic, even traitorous. When we read the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it is horrifying to realise just how close the world came to letting the generals on both sides unleash a nuclear holocaust that would have likely destroyed much of the world as we know it.

That it didn’t happen was in part due to the American President at the time John F. Kennedy having read history and being aware that the reason the First World War was so appallingly wasteful of human life was that the technology for waging war had advanced (machine guns etc) while the mind set of the generals had stayed in the past when a bayonet charge against an entrenched enemy might have worked. Kennedy saw a parallel with the development of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, but the generals were still in a pre-nuclear mindset. It was a defining moment in history, and an illustration of the proverb “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”

In this song, Desolation Row, Dylan uses a rich set of cultural and religious stereotypes as metaphors to describe this lunacy of main stream 1960’s American society. Dylan probably wants us to take it as a whole and not deconstruct it too much. There is a harmony between the layers of his work, a consistency of theme in which he seems to be saying, this is the distilled truth as I see it, and these are the symbols that I have assembled to tell it as I see it.

Where is Desolation Row?

Desolation Row is a counter-culture destination, though more a state of mind than an actual place. The name probably comes from combining the best of Desolation Angels (Kerouac) with Cannery Row (Steinbeck). Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, and wrote The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels from his life transforming experiences on the peak. It has also been suggested that TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland was an influence on Desolation Row. Musician Al Kooper asserts Desolation Row is in Greenwich Village in New York City, based on personal contact with Dylan.

We can make the case that Desolation Row represents a variety of counter-culture desinations; Skid Row, Cannery Row, Greenwich Village, Desolation Peak, TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and others, because each of them represents an essential truth, the same truth, differently told. Its all of them, and none of them in particular.

Countercultural roots

Exploring the countercultural roots of Dylan’s America, John Steinbeck’s work looms large. Cannery Row is a place where the outcasts of society found a home. Cannery Row is an actual place in Monterey California. It refers to the derelect sardine cannery whose close environs was occupied in the book by homeless men and the town brothel. The cannery was derelect because the sardines had disappeared through a combination of over-fishing, agricultural run-off and unspecified pollutants from a nearby army base. For Steinbeck, what happened to the sardines was symbolic of the ruthlessly exploit until exhausted attitude that society and the military-industrial complex had for the environment and ordinary people. Wring all the goodness out of something, then when it worthless, toss on the rubbish-heap and give it to the worthless people who are no use to us.

Steinbeck’s influence and ideas on social justice for the economic underclass of American society can be clearly seen in the works of Dylan and others (Woody Guthrie, Billy Brag, Bruce Sprinsteen and many others). Steinbeck’s motivation derives from his experiences during the Great Depression and later when tens of millions of Americans became impoverished and suffered great hardship while the rest of American society who still had something did their best to ignore them. Steinbeck was a journalist who was one of the only haves who actually got down and dirty to experience first hand what it was like to be a have not. His work was intended to confront the same middle-class complacency that Dylan is challenging.

Visualization of Desolation Row

The song has been rendered into a montage by artist Theo Cobb and Shane Balkowitch. It contains all of the elements expressed verbally in the song.

Visualization of Desolation Row

The song has been rendered into a montage by artist Theo Cobb and Shane Balkowitch. It contains all of the elements expressed verbally in the song.

Desolation Row Montage


Commentary on the lyrics

Stanza Lyrics


They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The opening verse is a direct reference to the lynching in June 1920 of three African-American circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan�s place of birth in 1941). They were accused of raping a white girl, though there was little or no evidence to later support the rape claim. The police commissioner was apparently complicit in allowing the lynchings to happen, and postcards of the event were actually sold.News of the event resonated around the nation for some time, and became emblematic of the injustice and social inequality that existed in the so-called land of the free.

Beauty parlours and circuses may refer to the alternative music venues in Greenwich Villageand the media circus that is busy �discovering� them and commissioning work that must fit into the narrow confines of what �good� music is supposed to sound like. All the while the music industry has its hand in the musician�s pocket skimming cash.

The riot squad may be Dylan and his backing band who seek a new direction away from the Folk music genre.


Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says,” You’re in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Cinderella is a rags-to-riches figure, a kind of rock-star stereotype. She is compared to Bette Davis, an actress known for her spiky, unsympathetic character portrayals.

Romeo is perhaps a romantic wannabe with stars in his eyes but who does not have enough charisma to make it as a rock-star and is told to go away.


Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

The stars of the American pop music industry are avoiding their responsibility to convey a meaningful message to the people, despite there being much that could be said, like warning the people of how dangerous the world has become.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is perhaps representative of the idea that ugliness is beauty.

�Making love� is perhaps a reference to the seemingly inevitable theme of pop-songs. �Expecting rain� might be expecting one�s tenuous rock-star career to crash after producing too many clich�d love-songs.

The �Good Samaritan� is perhaps the figure of the social-revolutionary folk-singer who hopes to change the world.


Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia from Shakespeare�s Hamlet is a tragic figure of unrequited love. Prince Hamlet scorned her love and told her �get thee to a nunnery� (Elizabethan slang for a “brothel”). Ophelia is emblematic of the degrading treatment an innocent but talented performer might be subjected to as their talents are prostituted for profit.

�Noah�s great rainbow� is a Biblical reference to God�s promise of care and protection to all living creatures cited in Genesis 9:16� “The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

Ophelia struggles to remain virtuous, but has apparently been seduced by the earthly pleasures of pop-culture.


Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Einstein disguising himself as Robin Hood may refer to the way Jews in America at the time had to adopt Anglo-Saxon ways in order to be accepted.A brilliant yet eccentric figure, Einstein is emblematic of the iconoclast who was hated by many at the time for the damage he did to orthodox Physics, but who eventually was forgiven and hailed as a visionary genius.The jealous monk may refer to the devotees that such figures attract. Reciting the alphabet may refer to the saying of �e = mc2�.

Einstein was known to play the violin. He credits his violin experience � specifically periods of improvisation � with leading to some of his greatest insights.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Dr Filth is likely to be Sigmund Freud. His world being confined in a leather cup seems to refer to the emphasis he placed on sexual perversion init�s various manifestations. But his patients were not all sexually repressed, and Freud�s theories did not apply universally. They are rejected by some of his (sexless) patients.Dylan appears to shift �focus from Freud to the Jewish Holocaust midway through this verse. The �cyanide hole� seems to be a reference to the method used in the Nazi concentration camps to introduce cyanide gas into the gas chambers. Freud has morphed into a Dr Mengeler figure, the grotesque image of Healer become mass-murderer, the perversion of normal human decency into something barbaric in the crucible of 19th and 20th century European politics dominated by German thought.It is perhaps no coincidence that both Einstein and Freud were German-speaking Jews. Indeed the contribution of German Jews to the intellectual life of Europe and subsequentlyAmerica is remarkable. The former Robert Zimmerman is conscious of his place in this intellectual tradition.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

This may refer to Greenwich Village being designated a left-wing haven by EstablishmentAmerica, who nailed an (Iron) curtain across the entries and exits to segregate them and contain their dangerous views. Dylan was a recognized exponent of these dangerous views.

The �feast� may be a reference to the Feast of St Anthony�s that takes place in the Village.

The �Phantom of the Opera� is a tragic figure of unrequited love from Gaston Leroux�s classic novel. Dylan perhaps saw himself in the role of the Phantom, bringing about the demise of mainstream pop-culture.

Dylan now perhaps compares himself to a spoon-fed Casanova, a romantic but vacuous figure who is pampered by the music industry to become the kind of uncritical crowd-pleaser who performs only for the adulation of the crowd. Such a man as this is a long-way from the left-wing warrior mentioned earlier in this verse.


Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

The agents, and the superhuman crew are perhaps Federal Agents looking for anti-American lefties.The Capitalist system forces people to work in factories where the yoke of dehumanising work is strapped on their backs. They are made to work long hours (burn the midnight oil) for the Capitalist in their factory-castles.

Actuaries supervise the process. They calculate how long a worker, a unit of production, is likely to live under these circumstances. They check to see that nobody is casting off the yoke.


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

The Roman Emperor Nero and the privileged group that surrounded him parallels the way Dylan saw America being run by right-wing imperialists. Pursuing their indulgences while all around the empire burned with social injustice.

RMS Titanic is a potent symbol of how suddenly the mighty can be struck down. It was claimed to be unsinkable, and yet it sank on it�s maiden voyage. Such hubris. The apparent might and power of America at the time might also be hubris.

The poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were both thought to hold anti-Semitic, pro-fascist views, based on various public statements at the time. For example, during a lecture at the University ofVirginia, a few weeks after Hitler came to power,Eliot is reported to have said that in a well-ordered society �Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.� In similar vein, Ezra Pound was known to have done pro-fascist radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II.

Meanwhile, true left-wing performers like Harry Belafonte, with whom Dylan was acquainted, considered the pretentions of Pound and Eliot ridiculous.

Fishermen�s flowers may be a reference to honest artists offering their works to the world. The sea may be a metaphor of the working class, and mermaids are committed members of the social justice movement.


Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
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

The final verse is separated from the rest of the song by a blistering harmonica interlude. It is also thematically separate, making it a kind of denouement.

The letter is probably the Open Letter to Bob Dylan written by Irwin Silber in Singout Magazine condemning Dylan for betraying the left-wing cause. The broken doorknob may refer to the Left no longer having access to the meaning contained in Dylan�s work.

At another, more personal level, this verse sounds like a young man from Minnesota maybe, who has dropped out to live in Desolation Row, like the inhabitants of 4th Avenue in Greenwich Village that Dylan must have known or at least seen. He might also have seen the same thing inHaight-Asbury.

The young man has received a letter from a relative or friend, perhaps wanting him to return to his old life. But the young man cannot think of returning to the banality of his old life in mainstream America. He has seen the Truth on Desolation Row, as confronting as it is. He wants to stay there, despite the seediness, and invites the letter writer and others in the mainstream to join him.


Finally, a quick note on my motivation for writing this. During 2001, I used to play Desolation Row to my (then) seven year old son and five year old daughter as we drove to their school in the mornings. Both reacted to it quite strongly, saying they loved it. Now they request it every other day. I was surprised because I thought its weighty themes might be beyond young children. As it turned out, its the harmonica that they liked. Since their mother also likes Dylan, they might also have some kind of genetic pre-disposition for liking nasal singing and strident harmonica. In any case, I personally find it a most inspired and moving piece of music.

David Tuffley,

Redland Bay, Australia,

April 2009 (First written in 2002).

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