Desolation Row Song Meaning – Bob Dylan

The last song on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was the only acoustic track on the record. Interestingly, the author decided to give preference to this version when the track was already ready in the electric version. Later, critics recognized Desolation Row as his most significant work at that time, so it can be argued that the decision was correct.

History and meaning of the song Desolation Row – Bob Dylan

In various interviews, Dylan was often asked about the history of creation and the main idea of ​​the song, but it cannot be said that his answers were detailed. So, he told a Rolling Stone reporter that he wrote Desolation Row while riding in a New York taxi. Given that the song is over eleven minutes long and consists of several hundred words, the trip must have been a long one.

Once at a conference, he was asked where the action of the song takes place, to which Bob replied evasively:

Oh, it’s some place in Mexico, across the border. It is famous for its coca factory.

San Francisco, 1965

In an interview with USA Today, Dylan explained what Desolation Row is about:

…it’s a minstrel song from start to finish. When I was young, I saw clownish performances of wandering singers dressed up as blacks at carnivals, and it impressed me as if I saw a woman with four legs.

USA Today, 2001

Jen Wenner once asked Dylan if Allen Ginsberg influenced his work. Bob replied:

I think at some point it did. In the… Desolation Row period, that New York period when all the songs were just city songs. His poetry is urban poetry. She sounds like a city.

Rolling Stone 1969

As you understand, the author refrained from detailed explanations of the meaning of the Desolation Row song, which gave rise to a huge number of various interpretations. Some critics see the surreal text as a description of the United States of the sixties. Other researchers of Dylan’s work claim that we are talking about some specific streets, pointing to facts from the singer’s biography.

The title of the song is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, both of which Bob must have read.

Biblical allusions can be traced in the text of the composition, there are references to historical events, famous people and literary characters are mentioned. So pay attention to the footnotes in the Desolation Row translation.

Release and achievements

As mentioned above, Dylan and his musicians prepared an electric version of the song, but then he re-recorded it acoustically, which was included in the Highway 61 Revisited album. The original version is available on The Bootleg Series Vol.7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack.

Dylan performed Desolation Row for the first time in public during the Forest Hills Music Festival in Queens on August 28, 1965.

Rolling Stone listed the song as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Desolation Row cover versions

The song has been covered by the Grateful Dead and other notable bands.

The most chart-topping version was My Chemical Romance, recorded in 2009 for the soundtrack to the film Watchmen. It peaked at number twenty on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks.

Interesting Facts

  • The recording of this song began a long collaboration between Bob Dylan and guitarist Charlie McCoy, who were introduced by producer Bob Johnston.

Desolation Row Lyrics

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circle 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 wouldn’t 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 Out 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 is 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 mermaid 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

Desolation Row Lyrics Bob Dylan

They sell hanged postcards
They paint their passports brown
Beauty salon filled with sailors
The circus has come to town
But the blind commissioner,
He was put into a trance
One hand tied to a tightrope walker
The other one is in my pants pocket.
And the guys from the special forces do not know peace,
They need somewhere to go
Since tonight Lady and I are leaving
From an abandoned street

Cinderella looks so accommodating
She smiles with the words: “Whose cow would moo,”
And puts his hands in his back pockets
Bette Davis style
But here comes Romeo, he groans:
“I believe you belong to me”
And someone answers him: “You didn’t get there, my friend,
You’d better leave”
And after the ambulances leave
Only one sound can be heard
Cinderella’s cry
On an abandoned street

The moon is almost gone
The stars start to hide
Even the soothsayer
I brought all my things into the house
Everyone but Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everyone makes love
Or waiting for the rain
And the Good Samaritan gets dressed
And getting ready for the show
Today he is going to the carnival
On an abandoned street

And here is Ophelia under the window
I’m so afraid for her
On your twenty-second birthday
She’s already an old maid
Death seems quite romantic to her.
She wears iron armor
Her trade is religion
Her sin is lifelessness
And though her eyes are riveted
To Noah’s great rainbow,
She spends her days gazing
On an abandoned street

Einstein dressed up as Robin Hood
With a baggage of memories
Passed here just an hour ago
With him was a friend, an envious monk4
He seemed incredibly ugly
When bummed a cigarette
Then he left, breathing in the stench from the sewer
And repeating the alphabet
Now you wouldn’t even look at him
But a long time ago he was famous
When I played the electric violin
On an abandoned street

Dr. Filth5 keeps his word
In a leather glass
But all his asexual patients
Trying to tear it down
But his nurse, local loser,
She’s in charge of cyanide
She also keeps records of cards with the inscription
“God rest his soul”
They all play penny pipes
You hear how they blow into them,
If you stick your head out far enough
From an abandoned street

On the other side of the street the curtains are nailed down
They’re getting ready to feast
Phantom of the Opera –
The Perfect Image of a Priest
They spoon-feed Casanova
To make him feel confident
Then they will not hesitate to kill him,
First poisoning with words
And the Ghost shouts to the skinny girls:
Get out of here if you don’t already know
That Casanova was punished for coming
On an abandoned street

At midnight all agents
And a team of superhumans
Take to the streets and catch everyone
Who knows more than them
Then they drive them to the factory
Where they fasten on their shoulders
Machine that causes heart attacks
And the insurance agents
brought from castles
And make sure no one escapes
On an abandoned street

Hail Neptune Nero
Titanic sails at dawn
And everyone screams:
“Which side are you on?”8
A Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot9
Fighting on the captain’s bridge
While the calypso performers laugh at them,
And the fishermen hold flowers
Over the surface of the sea
Where pretty mermaids swim
And no one thinks too much
About an abandoned street

Yes, I received your letter yesterday.
(Just then the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Is it just me or is this some kind of joke?
All these people that you remember
Yes, I know them, they are very miserable
I have to change their faces
And give them other names
Now I can hardly read
I don’t need to write anymore
At least until you send letters
From an abandoned street

1. We are talking about three black employees of the circus in Duluth (Dylan’s hometown), who were hanged without investigation on charges of raping a girl. Later, postcards depicting the execution scene began to be sold in the city.
2. Government employees in the US have brown passports.
3. Bette Davis is a legendary American actress.
4. Possibly referring to the priest and mathematician Georges Lemaitre.
5. A sadistic doctor notorious for his twisted experiments during the Holocaust.
6. The verse can be a hint at the ideology and methods of the Nazis.
7. This is probably an allusion to the full of strife in the political life of the United States.
8. “Which Side Are You On?” is a song by trade unionist Florence Rees.
9. It is known that these classics of literature clashed.

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