They're selling postcards of the hanging.
They're painting the passports brown.
The beauty parlor’s 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 all 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.
Though 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.
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
In 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 outta here if you don't know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row.”
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.
"Which side are you on?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Are 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 me 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.
In this postmodern poem, Bob Dylan throws together a jumble of cultural icons in much the same way as they would be assembled on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band two years later. (Indeed Dylan would find himself as one of the icons on that Beatles collection.) Fictional characters such as Cinderella, Romeo, Cain, Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Good Samaritan, Ophelia, Noah, Robin Hood, the Phantom of the Opera, and Neptune, mix with personalities Bette Davis, Einstein, Casanova, Nero, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot on an urban coastal landscape. In a sense Desolation Row echoes the techniques of Pound & Eliot in creating poems from a compilation of (often obscure) cultural artifacts. However instead of creating “high art” like Pound & Eliot, it is popular art that is being quoted out of context. It is significant however that the Bible and Shakespeare are still providing poetic analogies for Dylan, much as they would have in modernist poems, though in Desolation Row these passages are expressed in a more demotic sense.
The sources for the idea for Desolation Row have often been cited as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. I tend to agree. Steinbeck wrote of his Row: “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing." From Steinbeck, Dylan derives an unusual sympathy for his characters; from Kerouac, he seems to derive the spiritual isolation necessary to see reality, which in many ways, stripped of customary comforts like religion and wealth, appears to be desolate.
David Tuffley of Redland Bay, Australia, wrote online that “the name Desolation Row may have been derived by 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 mountain. It has also been suggested that T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland was an influence on Desolation Row. Musician Al Kooper, who worked on Highway 61 Revisited, asserts Desolation Row is actually Greenwich Village in New York City, based on his personal contact with Dylan.”
Charlie McCoy played acoustic guitar accompaniment for Desolation Row, making it the only track on Highway 61 Revisited not to feature an electric guitar. The Spanish flavored acoustic guitar backing and eclecticism of the imagery led one commentator to describe Desolation Row as the "ultimate cowboy song, the Home On The Range of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America" [Mark Pollizotti, Highway 61 Revisited, pp. 139-141]. McCoy also played acoustic guitar on Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, from Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde, and bass guitar on all the tracks from Dylan's John Wesley Harding. McCoy went on to become musical director of the Hee Haw television musical comedy show, and become a Nashville star with number one country songs of his own in the 1970s.
The lyric of Desolation Row starts off with a postcard of a lynching, a sepia photograph of the type that used to be mailed in the USA as souvenirs of racial hangings. Indeed the Chicago Sun Times discovered there had been one such hanging in Duluth MN when Robert Zimmerman’s father was a child, which occurred just a couple of blocks from the family home. However, the lyric veers off wildly from there—I don’t have a theory about “painting the passports brown”, and I’ve yet to see a reasonable explanation for it. Perhaps it was suggested by the sepia tint of the old postcard of the lynching. But for the most part the first verse simply sets the scene that Dylan and Lady are looking out at when they gaze upon Desolation Row. What they view are a series of absurdities. Clinton Heylin describes Desolation Row as an "eleven-minute voyage through a Kafkaesque world of gypsies, hoboes, thieves of fire, and historical characters beyond their rightful time" in his book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, p. 219.
Frequently the lyrics observe a young women’s sexuality. Cinderella sweeps up on Desolation Row, but Romeo doesn’t belong there and is not interchangeable with Prince Charming. Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is looking for relief from Desolation Row through the promise of the Bible’s rainbow. Skinny girls chase after Casanova. Men and women don’t seem to be connecting; they seem to be thrown together from different contexts.
The other recurrent theme seems to be World War II, where Nazi-like concentration camps are being led by Dr. Filth, and where Einstein (I believe) is blamed for providing the knowledge to create the atomic bomb. I always thought the lyric was suggesting the Einstein would have done better with his intelligence if he’d used it to perform musical compositions. The forces of war are taking people from Desolation Row or preventing them from returning.
The penultimate verse suggests that the poetry of the Moderns (Eliot & Pound in particular) sunk with the war into irrelevancy, are coaxing the reader to a place out at sea “where lovely mermaids flow” (to paraphrase Eliot’s Prufrock). The lyric warns that such modern poetry is an evasion of reality, and is useless on Desolation Row. Dylan compares the battle between the modernists to contemporary political opinions. Robert Shelton wrote of this verse that when passengers on the Titanic shout Which side are you on? “What difference does it make which side you’re on if you’re sinking on the Titanic?” [No Direction Home, p. 283]
After a break the last verse, it appears that the poet is addressing the writer of a letter instead of simply singing a song. “Right now I can’t read too good” is the memorable joke. The doorknob is broken, which suggests the poet can’t get to the writer from Desolation Row, and that the writer will have to come to him. The writer, perhaps a “Mr. Jones”, is trying to appeal to the poet by reminding him of his past life, indeed their shared life. But the poet is now in a different context which makes past memories “quite lame”. The only way his past life can be made sense of is by making it a fiction with the names changed to protect the innocent. The poet is like Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk.
Effectively, I believe Dylan’s lyric is saying that contemporary poetry that can make a difference in the world must now be sung, not printed in a book. As he told Mr. Jones, “You should be made to wear earphones!” Dylan’s skill as a poet and effectiveness in musical delivery would inspire many artists involved in the psychedelic movement to write surrealistic lyrics in an effort to develop some new manner of perception, much in the way LSD was thought to free the mind from the confines of customary associations.