Desolation Row ~ Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, author, poet, and disc jockey who has been a major figure in popular music for five decades. Much of Dylan’s most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when he became an informal chronicler and a reluctant figurehead of American unrest. A number of his songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Dylan’s early lyrics incorporated politics, social commentary, philosophy and literary influences, defying existing pop music conventions and appealing widely to the counterculture. While expanding and personalizing musical styles, he has shown steadfast devotion to many traditions of American song, from folk and country/blues to gospel, rock and roll and rockabilly, to English, Scottish and Irish folk music, and even jazz and swing.

Desolation Row

Desolation Row” is a 1965 song written and sung by Bob Dylan. It was recorded on August 4, 1965, and was released as the closing track of Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. During its length of 11 minutes, Dylan weaves together a number of characters lifted from history, fiction and the Bible, into a narrative which suggests entropy and urban chaos. The song has been covered by many artists, including My Chemical Romance for the film Watchmen in 2009.

When asked where “Desolation Row” was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: “Oh, that’s some place Mexico, it’s across the border. It’s noted for its Coke factory.” Al Kooper, who played electric guitar on the first recordings of “Desolation Row”, suggested that it was located on a stretch of Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, “an area infested with whore houses, sleazy bars and porno supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption”. Polizzotti suggests that both the inspiration and title of the song may have come from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

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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

  • Audio from the 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited:

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About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

One thought on “Desolation Row ~ Bob Dylan

  1. I doubt even Bob knows where Desolation Row is. According to Allen Ginsberg, Bob told him that most of Highway 61 Revisited was entirely stream of consciousness, just him making up things to rhyme off the top of his head. The result was brilliant but completely impossible to repeat, which is why he switched to a pithier method after his motorcycle accident that occurred after Blonde on Blonde.

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