[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

August 2007



Desolation Row
by Bob Dylan

1. 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

2. 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

3. 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

4. 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

5. 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

6. 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

7. 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"

8. Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Cme 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

9. 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

10. 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 Circus Is in Town -- and Vice Versa: Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row"

At ten 12-line verses one of rock’s lengthy masterpieces, Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row" occupies the last nine minutes of his classic 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album, which opens with "Like a Rolling Stone," voted the number-one song of all time in a recent Rolling Stone survey. Its modest acoustic-super-ballad form thrills less than "Stone"’s driving-drum-soaring-organ sound, but "Row" says much more, with its intricate weave of literary, historical and social references, concrete details, and transcendent wit. It’s darned catchy, too, once you give it an attentive listen.

What, exactly, is Desolation Row? At the geographical level, it appears to denote an urban block -- row-houses and small businesses. A place from which, according to verse 1, "Lady and I" can "look out tonight" and see the traditional parade from the point where the circus arrives in town to where it will perform in coming days; "the fortune-telling lady" can "take all her things inside," ostensibly from the sidewalk, in verse 3; and where a figurative human circus constantly parades, a wide variety of people intermingling, many of them anonymous, a handful the degenerate characters of the song.

At the metaphorical level, geography blends with the human psyche, desolation describing the dilapidation of the place, the impoverishment and isolation of its people, and the moral and spiritual decay of a society that simultaneously creates, perpetuates, feeds upon, and acts superior to the place and its people. Thus, "the blind commissioner" in verse 1 reaps his vulgar reward from being with "the tightrope walker" while the riot squad fidgets with nothing to do, while in verse 8 "all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do" and society’s rulers, "the insurance men" from "the castles," "Check to see that nobody is escaping / To Desolation Row." I.e., those not familiar with the place are to be kept ignorant of it, and they are to be kept from risking injury or loss from going there, not to mention taking up residence there, since either would sap insurance-industry profits.

The singer-persona’s female companion, "Lady," unspecified but dignified and respectable, shares his tragicomic observations. This helps differentiate them from a lone madman’s ravings -- otherwise a possibility since the Row’s "Einstein" doesn’t fare well under the pair’s gaze -- and emphasizes the moral burden on the listener to find the song’s shocking and often mystifying comments reliable rather than incoherent. They "look out" rather than merely observe -- a subtle hint that they find what they see alarming, so maybe we should too.

Explaining all of the song's details, particularly in their many dimensions, would require a book. So let’s look closely at some key parts that suggest how to view the rest. If you have been noticing these engaging patterns through the years, your observations are certainly legitimate regardless of whether you would phrase them as I phrase mine. Whether you have or not, I hope you’ll enjoy struggling with this lyrical puzzle and will find yourself all the more in awe of this tour de force for seeing how the nearly infinite interconnections among its parts -- and the elegant wit -- and ultimately compassion shining through, hint at the genius rather than mere craftsmanship behind it.

Strange fruit, anyone?

A quintessential American moral disaster opens the song: a lynching -- and what’s more, the celebrating and commemorating of lynchings popular when these atrocities were frequent. Many people today don’t realize lynchings were festive public occasions complete with postcards for out-of-town friends and relatives. "Painting the passports brown" in the next line? Perhaps "they" of the postcards are making passport photos of white people look as if of blacks to ship the latter out of the country, since they obviously would not apply for their own passports for such a purpose? Though public discourse has long since shed that sort of thinking, it was very prominent in years up to and beyond the initial recording of this song.

"The beauty parlor is filled with sailors" -- back in harbor, they aren’t at the barbershops, bars and brothels as we might expect. Is the navy’s gay element being suggested here long before "don’t ask, don’t tell"? The fourth line, "The circus is in town," is literal, as we soon discover, while also suggesting activities referred to in the preceding and subsequent lines resemble entertainment. Desolation Row itself is a show.

"Here comes the blind commissioner" -- apparently the police commissioner since the riot squad is mentioned a few lines later. In the traditional parade from the point where the circus arrives in town to the arena where it will perform in coming days, he escorts the tightrope walker -- the sexy girl the official local hero should ostensibly be seen with. He is so conspicuously vulgar and governed by his sexual impulses as to have one hand in his pants while the other is "tied to" the girl. Huh?! Well, although I take his blindness to be metaphorical -- he "turns a blind eye" on the murder of black folks, is in denial about who many criminals are -- there’s considerable humor in its being literal as well: He couldn’t keep to the parade if not tied to someone. Implicitly, the mayor appointed him -- and got away with it -- because this is Desolation Row and he prefers a police commissioner unable to see evidence of certain crimes. And this comes in handy in verse 8, when "agents" et al. commit certain crimes we’ll look at further on.

That all of this is visible to anyone who’s "looking out" is important. As we begin to see Desolation Row as American society writ small, we get the uneasy feeling we are all acting blind, accepting or denying blatant crimes and immorality honoring and empowering perpetrators. This predicament isn’t for the police to remedy. If, instead, we would just smash some windows and bash some cars, they’d know what to do. As it is, they "need somewhere to go." They would prefer to be someplace where they can restore order.

Which story are you in, man?!

The second verse debunks the Cinderella myth. Life is no fairy tale on Desolation Row as perhaps it is in the castles of verse 8. Here it is mundane, sordid, or violent. The young woman whose lot is constant drudgery "seems so easy" -- sex might or might not get her a man, but forget the royal ball and Prince Charming. Her quip, "It takes one to know one," is probably her answer to a woman who called her a "slut" or the like. This "Cinderella" isn’t unique on the Row. Not buying the fairy-tale magic that says remain passive under oppression and you’ll live happily ever after, she learns alluring behavior from movies -- "puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style."

Making a cameo appearance in our desolate version of Cinderella is Romeo. This is no masked ball, and Juliet ain’t here. Romeo wouldn’t know from Cinderella -- wrong story. So he’s simply "in the wrong place" and must leave. But not without "moaning / ‘You belong to me, I believe.’" It’s supposed to be romantic love, stupid, not a chattel relationship! I picture a young man overdressed in a bygone style and reeking of aftershave -- fancying himself a lady’s man but lacking Romeo’s aristocratic "pedigree," etiquette, style and poetics. Not only would Juliet not be enchanted by his claim on her, but we understand "Cinderella" is not even Cinderella, let alone Juliet.

Ambulances, not horse-drawn carriages, take people where they are going. And when the evening’s activities end, "Cinderella" doesn’t rush to meet any pumpkinhood-preventing curfew but just keeps sweeping up. At the end of the day, nothing has changed, and it probably won’t the next day either, or the one after that. No cruel stepmother is needed; this is just the way people live on Desolation Row. And two ambulances have probably come and gone specifically to pick up "Romeo" and the guy who told him he’s in the wrong place -- after they’ve fought. On Desolation Row, thugs replace Prince Charming as Cinderella’s suitors. She cleans up after them. They intensify her drudgery rather than free her from it.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

We see similar patterns in subsequent verses. People indulge their baser impulses, pursue empty illusions, and suffer meaninglessly. Every ostensibly respectable title turns out to be cover for corruption or degeneracy. Every literary character, hero, or larger-than-life person turns out to be a fraud, a has-been, or a cheap celebrity.

Glancing at some examples, in verse 3 everyone is making love "or else expecting rain" -- worrying about their future? Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame are reduced to guys who can’t get laid. The Good Samaritan isn’t looking for someone to serve but readying himself to attend the carnival. In verse 4, Ophelia is a voyeur, "Noah’s great rainbow" an empty abstraction as she is lifeless and "already is an old maid." In verse 5, Desolation Row’s "Einstein," the neighborhood smart guy, apparently homeless, carries a trunk full of mementos with him as he has nowhere to store them. His being "disguised as Robin Hood" probably means he pretends to serve the poor by dispensing information and advice -- they think he’s a genius, but "reciting the alphabet" is the best he can do. He really just wants their cigarettes.

His friend of the spiritual realm is "a jealous monk" -- not what the contemplative life is supposed to produce. Maybe he’d like some of the attention for his pseudo-spiritual humbug that "Einstein" gets for his pseudo-intellectual humbug. The actual Einstein played the violin, but it was an aesthetic pastime, not his main achievement, and not the version of the instrument modified for popularity via the rock-music industry.

Bad place to get sick!

Who’s more respectable than a physician? But on Desolation Row, the sixth verse tells us, we have "Dr. Filth," his world "inside a leather cup," an athletic supporter. Apparently he is either seeking sexual gratification through his work that is supposed to heal others, or he feels his masculinity is at stake in having the right answers for his patients -- or both. Do his patients blow up his world -- keep him from fulfilling his needs -- because they are "sexless" and therefore fail to gratify him, defy his proffered cures, or both?

This kind of doctor naturally hires a nurse who’s "a local loser … in charge of the cyanide hole" and expects patients to rely on faith -- "keeps the cards that read / Have Mercy on His Soul." You’ll fare better with a faith healer than with the "medical science" dispensed here. And maybe the scheme is that whoever fails to recover gets cyanide for ruining the doctor’s plans.

Or to read anything serious!

We can see pretty well where all of this is going. In verse 8, "all the agents / And the superhuman crew" remind us of the restless riot squad in the first verse. But there’s no riot, just "everyone / Who knows more than they do." This is totalitarianism, which abhors the curious, active, justice-seeking human mind.

Why do "insurance men … go / To check that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row"? Living in "castles," they rule the realm of which Desolation Row is a part. Insurance companies profit when people pay more in advance to cover costs of calamities that might occur than the companies pay out when calamities have occurred. Desolation Row is more dangerous than places where insurance executives and other affluent people live and work. Not only might someone who goes there get injured or robbed and file an insurance claim, but "escaping" to Desolation Row means leaving the more affluent and sterile middle- or upper-middle-class life that imprisons people intellectually and spiritually by insulating them from struggle and pain. Seeing those things arouses moral indignation like that which informs this song. If it catches on, it threatens the Establishment. And like the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before him, that’s exactly what Bob Dylan did, largely owing to songs like this one.

Who’s he talking to, anyway?

Whose letter has the singer-persona received "yesterday" in the last verse, and why the parenthetical "(About the time the doorknob broke)"? I think of an imaginary letter representing a composite of epistles Dylan undoubtedly received from people who were taken with and shaken by his earlier songs, when he suddenly and inexplicably burst upon the music scene with "Blowin’ in the Wind" and other works of genius so many people found hard to link to a wiry kid from Minnesota with little formal education or social connection. People routinely seek to share their thoughts with astonishing people, to be told they’re intelligent, to obtain sympathy, advice or an interview, or to boast of the connection.

In other words, the singer is responding to the us of 1965. To our attempts to grapple with our world as it was suddenly being revealed in songs, in particular those penned by this one peculiar and phenomenal young man. Not just singles on the radio like Peter, Paul & Mary’s "Blowin’ in the Wind" or The Byrds’ "Mr. Tambourine Man" but throughout The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing It All Back Home -- and the first, Bob Dylan, though it included little from his own pen. All of those preceded Highway 61.

Early in the days of Dylan’s fame, whatever gratification he might have enjoyed, he is well known to have detested the inanities of celebrity: people asking him what his songs meant, trying to hang around his hotel room. Surely many people who did not know him personally wrote to him presumptuously. Some surely included platitudes like, How are you? Perhaps he found them deaf to the content of his songs, which so vehemently and eloquently suggested being well is illusory as long as we rely on white superiority, militarism, age, or title to have our way. So he answers the platitude with the rhetorical question, "Was that some kind of joke?" He doesn’t want to hear any more from those who share none of his experience and want to be told about Desolation Row without "escaping" to see for themselves -- he only wants to hear from people who mail their letters "from Desolation Row." He’s stuck there at least for now because his doorknob broke, and it broke because it’s a Desolation Row doorknob, not a castle doorknob.

So what’s the point?

We can’t be disillusioned unless we harbor illusions in the first place. Revealing realities hidden by appearance, cant, and conspiracies of silence, "Desolation Row" gives the lie to interrelated social fictions that have been deemed necessary to maintain the social order, and it challenges trivialities we are trained to focus on that distract us from injustice and others’ suffering. Who cares whether Pound or Eliot propounds the best theory of poetry -- in verse 9 -- as long as humanity is metaphorically on the Titanic? Such trivialities distract us from the icebergs we are assured we will not hit. Isn’t global climate change such a one, and aren’t the vast majority focused on less important matters?

The song ultimately appears to call not merely for a particular easy political position or action but for sustained struggle for human values -- justice over murder & oppression, unconditional love over lust & possessiveness, real faith or belief over obsession, clear perception over denial, genuine intellect and creativity over image, slogan, and theory. In a time when "Which side are you on?" is again in the air, it might be worth our while to keep listening and to look more closely. Is "Rome" burning today, and if so, is Nero here fiddling? If so, is it his Neptune we are relying on for our Titanic’s safe crossing?

...David J. Cantor
davidc@soundstage.com

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