Dylan closes Highway 61 with Desolation Row, the only acoustic song on the album. It’s a nice contrast to what came before, providing an appropriate winding-down feeling to end the recording.
Desolation Row is arguably Dylan’s most lyrically sophisticated song, an epic by any rock ’n’ roll or folk music standard. The lyrics are impossible to completely comprehend. The poet Larkin said: “[the] marathon ‘Desolation Row’ which has an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words.” I guess there might be a few arguably “half-baked” lines. Perhaps the song doesn’t work as a poem, but as a song, in which the few shaky couplets can be hidden beneath the music, it’s a stunning achievement.
Desolation Row is probably Dylan’s most misunderstood song, which is predictable given the lack of a clear narrative and the wild, surrealistic imagery. I think the source of most of the confusion centers around the assumptions made about Desolation Row. When something is called “desolate” the natural inclination is to think it must be bad and unattractive. I doubt there’s a street called Desolation Row in all of America. Who would want to live there? In this song, however, in keeping with the outsider theme of the album, Desolation Row is on the right side of the tracks. Desolation Row is the place for all right-minded persons, the place for people who have rejected the easy god-fearing morals and Hollywood ideals of glamour and success. Once the listener understands this idea, then the rest of the song falls into place. (Of course, this is just my personal interpretation – yours might be wildly different).
Desolation Row is the home of the outsider, a place the narrator and his associates are comfortable in. In fact, he doesn’t even want to communicate with anyone unless they are in Desolation Row:
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
The authorities are afraid of this place. Casanova is punished for going there. The Row is a target of the “riot squad” ( i.e. the police or National Guard). The authorities are actively preventing people from “escaping to Desolation Row”. It’s a dangerous place, to them anyway.
The meek and the conventional don’t often venture to the place and those that do are not welcome. The young old-maid Ophelia only peeks in, only allowing herself a voyeuristic view of those living outside society’s constructs. The conventionally handsome Romeo is warned to stay away if he knows what’s good for him. The Good Samaritan goes there to view what he sees as a “circus”.
Those who live on Desolation Row know its true value. Saintly calypso singers and fishermen laugh at the high-minded and tortured poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot, who are fighting over nothing in the captain’s tower. Cinderella, whose beauty is not recognized in straight society, lives on Desolation Row. Einstein, having recognized that science leads to unimaginable horrors such as nuclear war, now lives on the Row and spends his time in more productive pursuits, such as playing electric violin and sniffing drainpipes. And of course, the narrator also lives on Desolation Row, occasionally leaning his head out the window to see what the other side is doing.
Like many songs on the album, it contains a cast of dozens. A little background knowledge might illuminate the lyrics.
Romeo is of course the subject of the famous line “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” spoken by Juliet in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. In the play, Romeo spends an inordinate amount of time bellyaching about how he is being unjustifiably separated from his love Juliet. This type of mopping about is frowned upon on Desolation Row, and he is told to leave.
Bette Davis was a very well-known American actress, starring in many Hollywood films. She became a major film star in the 30s and remained a major figure until her death in 1989. She starred in many memorable films, including Jezebel, On Human Bondage, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Davis was known for her fiery personality, large, expressive eyes, and grand (some might say over-the-top) “style”.
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. The shepherd Abel kills his farmer brother Cain. God finds out and punishes Cain, condemning him to wander the land for the rest of his days.
The Hunchback of Norte Dame is a character in a novel by the French author Victor Hugo. The Hunchback is a deformed man who is employed as a bell ringer in the cathedral tower.
Dylan probably took the name Ophelia from another Shakespeare play, Hamlet. In the play, Ophelia falls in love with Hamlet, a prince. Things end badly, and Ophelia dies young, drowning in a stream. I suppose this symbolizes a wasted life lived outside Desolation Row.
“Noah’s great rainbow” is another Biblical reference. Noah, of course, was the gather of animals for the ark. God told him to build the ark in order to preserve the species from the flood he was about to unleash on the wicked world. After the waters receded, God put a rainbow in the sky to symbolize his covenant with man and the other creators of the earth. From Genesis 9:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 12 And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth."
Ophelia – who lives outside the row – is said to have her eye on “Noah’s great rainbow”, implying that she is wasting her time in this world hoping for a better life in the next.
The Phantom of the Opera originated as a character in a Gaston Leroux novel. The Phantom was born with a terrible disfigurement to his face. Employed by the Shah of Persia as an architect, he builds a magnificent Opera House. There he meets a beautiful singer, with whom he falls in love and eventually loses to another. Dylan was probably familiar with one of the many film adaptations of the story, the most famous starring Lon Chaney.
These lines that refer to the phantom – “The Phantom of the Opera/A perfect image of a priest” would seem to be a shot across the bow at organized religion, comparing the vile and ugly Phantom with a priest. The Phantom in the song, like a fire and brimstone preacher, warns the public against going to the depraved Desolation Row.
Most of us are familiar with the name Casanova from the zillion films that have been made about his life. The real Casanova was born in 1725 and died in 1798. He wrote a well-known memoir in which he claims to have bedded hundreds of women. Dylan portrays the seducer Casanova as a victim, as a person who is being used and controlled by the powers that be “(Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row”).
The question “Which Side Are You On?” is posed in the lyrics, again suggesting that the song is about a division between two groups of people. It’s certainly not a coincidence that “Which Side Are You On?” is the title to the well-known protest song written by Florence Reece about the aftermath of a strike by the Harlan County miners in 1931. The song was often sung by the Almanac Singers, which for a time included Dylan’s early hero, Woody Guthrie.
A little more about Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who are “fighting in the captain’s tower”. They were actually good friends and great admirers of each other’s work. Pound thought Eliot was the shining example of what modern poetry should resemble. Eliot saved Pound from a firing squad after he was arrested for collaboration with the Nazis. Eliot also dedicated his most famous poem, The Wasteland, to Pound. Pound helped Eliot write the poem, editing it heavily and suggesting changes. Eliot and Pound were estranged during Pound’s Nazi sympathizer phase, so it’s possible that is the disagreement that Dylan is referring to. More likely Dylan is using Pound and Eliot to poke fun at the self-seriousness of academics arguing incessantly in their ivory towers over the minutia of “high art”.
The performance on the album is letter-perfect. Dylan doesn’t miss a beat on the vocal. Charlie McCoy’s flamenco-style guitar playing is perfect, a nice contract to blues-based guitar parts on the rest of the album. The version chosen for the album was only the second take, quite remarkable for such a complex and lengthy song.
An alternative take recorded with electric backup is available on The Bootleg Series Volume 7: No Direction Home. It’s ok, not much different really. Some minor word changes. The Cutting Edge includes a take with piano accompaniment. Nice.
Dylan has played this song many, many times in concert, although it only appears on The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966 and MTV Unplugged. Neither matches the original, although Live 1966 comes close.
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor 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
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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
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
11 thoughts on “Desolation Row”
You guys are all overworked. He wuz sitting upstairs looking out at Bowery Blvd. @ 2 a.m. and just being descriptive….
For me the last verse reveals the meaning of the song. After verses filled with over the top dramatizations of the squalid and deplorable aspects of life, we encounter, in the last verse, the 1st person voice of the narrator and learn a little bit about his situation. He is replying to a letter from an unrequited love. She is speaking of mundane matters, like broken door knobs, but most importantly – the characters of their shared past –
“All the people that you mention, yes I know them they’re quite lame, I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name”.
– These are the characters in the song. He has transformed the mundane world into a world of exaggerated freaks, and pain, because he is seeing the world through heartbroken eyes. This state is familiar to anyone who has experienced serious heartbreak or depression.. the things that once gave us delight become isolating and strange and the world begins to appear even more unforgiving.
He closes his letter to his lost love by saying emphatically –
“don’t send me no more letters, no. Not unless you mail them out from Desolation Row”
– that is he doesn’t want to hear from her until he feels as bad as he does about the whole affair.
Well said! I’m glad you took the time to articulate that, it will be helpful to others.
No. The “letter” being spoke of is a famous letter published in Sing Out magazine published by Irwin Silber castigating Dylan for forsaking the folk protest movement. I agree Dylan is saying unless you reside in this conscious state(Desolation Row), where the outsider sees clearly, don’t bother me. There is nothing ion this song that indicates romantic connection. It is all political-cultural- social in its context.
To the blogger. You have nailed the essence of the song. but its target is much wider than Hollywood excess. It is an assault on the core mores of the entire culture, the over arching theme of the album on which it occurs. It is a more laconic “winding down” retreat but still focused from the fury of songs like “Tombstone Blues”, Highway 61″, Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone”.
Here’s the link to the letter. You can read it. http://www.edlis.org/twice/threads/open_letter_to_bob_dylan.html
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Poor Cain! He is first killed by his brother and then punished by God !
Otherwise: Good work – will you not continue beyond JWH?
Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out, I really appreciate it! I’ll fix…..
Although I love the albums that immediately followed JWH, I don’t think they are as interesting as what came before. I’m thinking that maybe I’ll start working backwards from Tempest, that might be fun.
Interesting commentary on Desolation Row located here:
Saved on this page (rough formatting, sorry) just in case it disappears.
In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, the day before the release of his album Love and Theft, Dylan claimed that the song “is a minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up, and it had an effect on me, just as much as seeing the lady with four legs.”
Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man 3 points out that this verse parallels The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown