Desolation Row, 1965


The greatest Dylan song ever written? Maybe, although I’d vote for ‘Visions of Johanna’.

Desolation Row is a lonely place where Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels hang out, and ‘the riot squad is restless.’ All the freaks, the round pegs in square holes are there. The song derives its mood from its descriptions, a technique developing writers might well note. And, in good show-don’t-tell spirit (see this week’s writing tip), the descriptions are left to speak for themselves. The thumbnail sketches of these circus characters does all the work. The background flickers with the shadows of hell…

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The phantom of the opera in the perfect image of a priest. 

 This is an unredeemed and godless world, like snippets or close-ups of the world of the medieval Dutch painter Brueghel, or the hellish scenes in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. This pastiche or collage method was to serve Dylan well in the best of his songs.

But this is not just weirdness for its own sake. Look at how the first line breaks down:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown..

Right into the 1920’s Afro-Americans were being lynched, and photos of men proudly standing in front of swinging bodies were sold. In Germany, in the 1930’s, the Nazis issued Jews with brown passports to more easily indentify and control them. So the song begins against this background of atrocity, and proceeds from there via parody, satire – and an underlying pathos.

The last verse is the killer, as we’re thrown right out of that desolated urban world to the deeper hell of the singer/narrator’s psyche, who suddenly distances us, and himself, from all those freaks hanging out in Desolation Row:

All these people that you mention
Yes I know them they’re quite lame
I had to re-arrange their faces and give them all another name…

 That ability to step outside your own frame of reference, suddenly distance yourself from your own material in interesting and creative ways, can be quite thrilling for the audience/reader if it works.

Interesting, the very first time the song was performed, back in 1965, before any recording of it, the audience laughed their way through the first three quarters of the song. The sheer daring and absurdity of it. It didn’t sound serious and dark, but strange and funny.

Here is that first performance

The whole concert is there. Click on Desolation Row. Great concert, poor recording.

There are hundreds of live recordings of this amazing song, and all Bobcats will have their favourite. Mine is this roaring, foot-stomping version from 2003, featuring Mr D on rollicking piano, with some searing harmonica thrown in. All the desperation and pathos of the original hammered out in rowdy barroom blues fashion. Turn up the volume, kick back, enjoy and marvel.

It was this song that prompted me to comment that every generation must discover ‘The Wasteland’ for itself, in its own terms.

Desolation Row

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 fortune-telling 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 pennywhistles
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 doorknob 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

Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

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