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Desolation Row


Desolation Row / Highway 61 Revisited / 1965

dooley christian f (dooley@ux5.cso.uiuc.edu) :
I came across a very interesting theory the other day when my friend and I were discussing Eliot and Pound and well anyway ehem ehem... Try relating the song to the beatniks...Desolation Row where Kerouack and Cassady were and society doesnt let others go there...I haven't really htought about it yet...but the possibility is there...


howells@netcom.com (John Howells):
Yes, I've always thought that Desolation Row was a *good* place to be. It was a place of refuge that no one is allowed to go. Note also that Kerouac wrote a book called "Desolation Angels", which I've always felt to be an inspiration for the song.
rciccole@pipeline.com (Ray Ciccolella):
Desolation Row, IMHO, is Dylan's word portrait of the Greenwich Village (NYC) scene he was involved in - the characters are people he saw walking around and/or knew. He also hung out in Brooklyn on Montague Street (basement down stairs) where there was "music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air." This was/is(to some extent) a Village-like place and he could have used it, too.
From: Selwyn@interaccess.com
Date: Thu, 28 Dec 1995 02:05:57 -0600 (CST)
To: karlerik@telepost.no
Subject: Desolation Row & Geography
Yes, this one happens to be one of my favorites, and actually, I spend a lot of time talking about Pound and Eliot (mostly to myself, though, because no one else seems to care much, so ahem for me). I never really thought about it from the Beat point of view, but keep in mind that Beat means beaten, rather than rhythm, so I don't think Desolation Row is a good place. Rather, it is another one of those apocalyptic visions along the lines of "The Waste Land" or everything found in "Howl."
Speaking of the Waste Land, anyhow, I have always looked at the lines about Pound and Eliot (in as much as I spend so much time talking about them) as referring to two genius insane poets, each with his own apocalyptic vision, fighting over whose vision is the truth--over who should take his rightful place in the captain's tower (unless of course this is the tower of banishment, or maybe, as they are literary figures, th Tower of Babel--but anyhow they have convinced themselves it is the captain's tower) and be the leader of Desolation Row.
The point, though, is that no one else gives a damn. No one else wants Desolation Row, which is why the Calypso singers, stranded there but looking for a good time, anyway, laugh at these two. No one else wants this place where Cinderella is an old maid, where Einstein is no longer famous, Cassanova is killed, and Ophelia has to wear an iron vest, and even though she keeps her eyes fixed upon Noah's rainbow of hope, she will never be free. One last bit before I end my tirade (I promise): Desolation Row must be a bad place, otherwise the insurance sellers wouldn't try to keep people from escaping there.
That's all.

Lucas
PS--who is the Good Samaritan, anyhow? Is he an act at the Carnival, or going to see all the other desolate freaks there?


Date: Tue, 02 Apr 1996 02:44:58 -0800
From: Niklas Pettersson (niklasp@halland.net)
To: karlerik@telepost.no

Ięm maybe too young for Dylan, only 19. But I got a theory about Desolation Row. And I think itęs a good place. Much like Eden in the Gates of Eden. A place were only a few can go. Almost like Platoęs cave theory, if you know what I mean. Desolation Row is the light for Dylan, the one that blinds your eyes. So of course the society tries to keep you from it. But exactly what it is I donęt know. But one thingęs that puzzles me is the last line. "yes I know them, theyęre qiute lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name". Does he mean the characters in the song? Are they just some kind of surrealistic alias for some other people that Dylan knows? And who sent the letter, Joan Baez? It ends with "Donęt send me no more letters no. Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row." Does that mean that Dylan is in Desolation Row? Is Desolation Row, not a place but a state of mind?. I think the last line holds the whole key to the song.


Date:    Wed, 3 Apr 1996 21:56:00 -0700
From:    glynne walley (walleytg@COUGARNET.BYU.EDU)
Subject: Desolation Row (loooooooong)

Boyhowdy.  Hi, folks.  A while back someone asked for an explanation of the
meaning of Desolation Row.  What follows is not that.  But it's at least a
shot at it.  I usually try to stay away from interpreting Bob's 60s
material, because mostly it's been interpreted to death.  Not much new to
say, including what I'm saying. But, oh well.  It's a lyric worth discussing.

One point:  I'm assuming that even if we don't know the "true" identity of
some of the characters in the song (such as Einstein disguised as Robin
Hood), we can still get a decent understanding of what they're doing in the
song to begin with.

I have as many questions as I have ideas--more.  So everybody join in!

Let's go.

DESOLATION ROW
(Words and Music by Bob Dylan)

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're got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad is restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
>From Desolation Row

--Setting the scene.  Death, cruelty, crime and punishment are a commonplace
thing, a spectator sport here.  Question:  what do brown-painted passports
mean? Do they mean the city has been hit by plague and is in quarantine?
That's been my guess all along, but I have nothing to back it up.  Enlighten
us, someone.

--In spite of the cruelty and brutality of the place, there's also
merriment--sailors in drag, circuses.  (BTW, "when the circus was in town"
was the title of an old Rolling Stone review of a bootleg of the Royal
Albert Hall notshow, and I've always hoped it would be the title of any
official release of that show--it's such a perfect description of the sound.)

--The government of this place is blind and irrelevant, oblivious to what's
going on around him.  The They are the ubiquitous They who run the world,
sometimes called the Masters of War.  Tightrope walker could be the thin
line government has to walk to be useful and just, or it could be the
distractions of the circus, of entertaining oneself on the public's dime
(which is certainly what the hand in the pants means!).

--The riot squad is restless, because there is no rioting.  All is
surprisingly peaceful, nobody is rebelling.  But there is a riot squad on
hand in case they do.  The power of the state is cocked and ready.

--Lady and I.  Adds an ironic note of elegance to the picture to be painted
of the down and out and absurd.

--A question to keep in mind is, what _is_ Desolation Row?  Is it
_identical_ with the world described in each verse, or is it separate?  I'll
come right out and say that I think it's separate.  I think it's a state of
mind Bob's talking about.  That'll be my thesis as we go along here;). . .

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'd better leave"
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

--And what kind of state of mind is it?  We get our first glimpse here,
because it's why Cinderella survives, while Romeo gets taken out in an
ambulance.  She's "so easy"--takes the world as it comes, doesn't worry too
much.  This is pre-Prince Charming Cinderella, note:  she's sweeping up.
She's still in ashes and cinders, still poor and despised.  But for all that
she's got an allure (Bette Davis style), and she seems to accept her
position--she smiles.

--Contrast to this Romeo, who comes in full of ambition to make her, or
somebody, his.  He wants to possess, to achieve something with his
legendary, transcendant love.  But that kind of thing doesn't work here, and
my guess is that he does like Shakespeare's Romeo does, and offs himself.
In any case, the ambulances are for him, I think.

--Cinderella, without the ambition, without the belief in foolish illusions
like the power to possess another human being, etc., survives and is very
contentedly sweeping up.  Going on with her life.  She's not paralyzed by
meaninglessness.

--Desolation Row has two meanings.  First is a deprecatory term for the
world at large:  it's all desolate, nothing of worth, nothing salvageable.
All pride and vanity.  But it's also the state of mind that realizes this
and is determined to _live_ life open-eyed.  Thus it's the desolate cruelty
of the world-DR that kills Romeo, but the honest acceptance of the
state-of-mind DR that saves Cinderella.

--The singer has this state of mind, according to Cinderella.

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's 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

--Verse starts with a wonderful, twisted way of saying the sun's coming up.
Night is the best time for Desolation Row, full of shadows and things you
don't want to look at too closely.  Also the time for partying and having a
good time and romancing.  Also a great scene for what is essentially a
romantic song--_that_ is why Charlie McCoy's guitar is _so_ necessary.
Romantic scene, romantic feeling, sober, pessimistic meaning.  The tension
is powerful.

--That this world is damned is apparent.  What do you do if you know you've
only got a few days to live?  You  make love, ie abandon yourself to
hedonism, or spend all your energies preparing for the Deluge which is to
come, and you sit around expecting the rains to start.  Unless you're too
far gone into hatred and violence, like Cain, or are being victimized like
Abel, or are cursed to have all your desires to love thwarted, like the
Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It could be the Hunchback's fault, for wanting
something he can't have.  But no judgement is passed. . .

--The Good Samaritan has nothing to worry about, though:  he's safe because
he's at least kind to people, regardless of their station or wealth.  In
some sense, it's this honesty that allows him to find fun and joy--the
carnival--on Desolation Row.  Remember Camus, in The Plague:  even if all is
meaningless, you're still better off helping people than not.  It's the
decent thing to do.

--Is the fortune-telling lady just a part of the scenery, or does she have
more significance?

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 in-
To Desolation Row

--Why Ophelia?  Maybe he's just talking about Minnie Pearl, like Robbie was.
Maybe he's using Ophelia because she was a young, naive kid who was done
wrong through her belief in love.

--Here Ophelia's belief is not in the love of Hamlet, but in religion.  This
verse is a hard one for those (like me!) who believe in Christianity and
want to see all of Dylan's lyrics as part of a consistent worldview.  This
lyric does seem to knock religion, and belief.  The world he posits here is
one without God.  Or at least one where God is inaccessible--kind of like
Kafka's Castle.

--He's talking about what religion does tempt some of us to do, which is to
ignore the joys of life and live in a constant, even morbid fear of the
cataclysms that are to accompany the Second Coming.  Religion does not have
to make us lifeless, but that's what Ophelia's let it do to her.  She's
dedicated herself to the coming Deluge, with a firm eye on the promised land
to follow.  But she's having doubts, and keeps wondering if there's not more
to life than just waiting for death.

--Ophelia and the singer, if my interpretation is right, do have in common
the realization that the world is desolate.  The difference is that Ophelia
has let this knowledge kill her spirit, whereas the narrator seems to have
decided to live his life, try to salvage what he can.

--What's the iron vest?

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

--There's been some discussion on the list recently about just who Einstein
disguised as Robin Hood was in "real" life, but for the purposes of this
discussion, it really doesn't matter.  What matters is what the words
Einstein and Robin Hood connote here.  It's a fascinating pairing:  the
quintessential man of cerebration and the quintessential man of action.  The
intellect and the heart.  The classic-romantic split right here, brought
together again in one man. What a tremendous possibility.  What tremendous
accomplishments--memories. The monk, who's dedicated his life to negating
the self, not accomplishing fame and fortune, is jealous.

--But even this formidable figure (EdaRH) is reduced to nothing here.  All
his great accomplishments are just memories in a trunk, and he's humiliated
to the point that he has to bum cigarettes and is addicted to sniffing
drainpipes (although it sounds like dreampipes) and all he can recite is the
alphabet.  Once he was an artist, but now. . .

--Desolation Row, the mindset, is one that sees through all the meaningless
outer trappings of societal acclaim and accomplishment, fame and fortune and
beauty, and sees how at heart, all humans are wretched and foolish
creatures.  Once you _realize_ this, now, then you're getting somewhere.
Like Cinderella.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
Are 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 the pennywhistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
>From Desolation Row

--Psychology, the new religion, thinks it's got humans all figured out.
Freud thought he had all the answers, that we were all motivated by sex.
But this view is constantly threatened by the fact that most of us, after a
certain point, realize that there's more important things to worry about and
deeper cravings to be driven by than that.  Plus, not everyone can get it
all the time, anyway!

--The nurse, maybe someone who doesn't even have any training at all, just a
receptionist, is the one with the real power--she's the one in custody of
the files that contain our entire lives and souls on them.  Also she could
be the one who dispenses the prescriptions that give us the oblivion we
crave.  She could be sort of a symbol of bureaucracy--it's not the thinkers
and policy-makers and philosophers that control our lives, but the 9-to-5
pencil-pushers, the office workers, the receptionists.

--_Who_ is playing on the pennywhistle?  The patients?  The doctor and
nurse?  Everyone besides the doctor and nurse, everyone who is having a good
time, having realized that psychology won't save you?

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
They're spoon-feeding 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"

--Is he condemning priests by saying they are predatory fiends?  Or is he
giving the otherwise-horrific Phantom credibility by comparing him to a priest?

--Casanova is like Romeo, trying to believe he's something he's not.
Allowing malicious fools around him to fill his head with lies that, in the
end, will kill him.  Don't believe what people try to tell you, especially
when it's about yourself.

--And don't go to Desolation Row--the world-at-large DR--unless you're
prepared to see it like it really is!  Illusions kill!

--I'm kind of shaky on this verse, obviously.  What's with the curtains and
the show?  Is the Phantom/priest just a character in a play?  What's with
the feast?  Is it just me or is there something sinister about the image?
Maybe the humiliation and death of Casanova are for some shadowy personage's
evil pleasure--the ubiquitous They?

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
Who 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

--The first four lines of this, BTW of nothing, figure prominently as an
epigraph in a _great_ graphic novel that came out a number of years ago,
called the Watchmen.

--Once again, the authorities are oppressive.  Now they're trying to keep
people from catching on to the meaninglessness of the state and society.
The worst thing would be a populace who had all begun to see the world as it
is, and had chucked the whole political apparatus in favor of a peaceful,
fun existence.

--The castles always make me think of Kafka, again.  Wasn't his day job
somehow connected with insurance?  And the sadistic machine also seems like
a nod to Kafka's prophetic visions of totalitarianism.

--Anything else, anyone?

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

--The Titanic was the biggest ship of its kind yet, and wasn't it at the
time taken as sort of a symbol of mankind's progress?  This, of course, has
a flip side, which is mankind's hubris, and the fact that the ship sank
brings in the image of destruction again--we may still have cause to be
expecting rain.  In any case, the fact that the ship's going to sink lends
the poets' argument an air of absurdity:  most of our arguments are really
petty and futile, when you consider what's really going on.

--"Which side are you on?"  I figure this simply refers to the dispute
between Messrs. Pound and Eliot.  Anybody have a different idea?

--Why Pound and Eliot?  Two extremely famous poets, both rejected America
(Eliot by becoming British and Pound by joining the Italian Fascists)
although I'm not sure that's apropos here.  Maybe Bob's just suggesting that
arguments between poets, those who are supposed to see most clearly and
speak most beautifully and truly, are particularly nauseating.

--And, of course, they're the ones that are supposed to be driving the ship,
but they're arguing instead of seeing.

--Meanwhile, the humble and despised of the earth, again, the fishermen and
the calypso singers, are the ones who really know what's going on, who
really see and express beauty and can't understand what the Intellectuals
are on about.  The simple, honest musical forms like calypso (and blues)
have the most to say about the human condition.

--I'm kind of shaky on the holding flowers between the windows of the sea.
All I can figure is that fishermen, busy doing something instead of arguing,
hold the key to peace and beauty through their everyday dealings with
nature.  (Bob's not generally thought of as a nature poet, but every once in
a while he'll come up with an image or a sentiment that'd do Thoreau proud;
and, of course, we must not forget "Lay Down Your Weary Tune.")  I'm also
shaky on why he brings Nero's Neptune in, unless it's just a mockery of the
ceremonies that would surround the maiden launching of a ship like the Titanic.

--Keep busy working, like fishermen, and you don't get hung up in the
existential despair of 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

--Here's why I decided that Desolation Row must be a state of mind in which
one clearly sees and does not mask the cruelty, ignominy, and heartlessness
of a desolate world.  Here the singer is describing his relationship with a
friend he's lost contact with.  Since they've lost contact, the singer has
entered this state of mind, has caught on to how desolate everything is, and
is so filled with this realization that he can no longer relate to anyone
who still believes all the illusions.  The letter his friend sends is full
of trivial details, like the doorknob breaking (I've always heard the line
that way, although I can see, thanks to rmders, how a case can be made that
the singer's doorknob broke about the time he received the letter).  These
details might mean something to someone who still thinks all is well in the
world, but to the singer, now preoccupied with how empty it all is, those
details seem just ridiculous.

--Same with the people mentioned in the letter.  The singer obviously sees
them with different eyes now that he's caught on--mentally he has different
names for them now that he sees their true faces.

--In the end he says he can't communicate with this friend until the friend
also catches on and they can both talk truth, without illusion.  Until they
both live on Desolation Row and know it.

        I think this song is pivotal in understanding Dylan's worldview
circa 1965.  It's the most comprehensive statement of a lot of themes he was
writing about at the time.  The vague sense of impending doom also shows up
in "Farewell, Angelina," but here the reasons for that doom are elaborated.
The sense of meaninglessness, of lacking any underlying truths, at least any
that we can grasp, is carried over from "Gates of Eden," but again gets its
most profound exploration here.
        And the song is a great summing-up of themes running through the
album it's on.  The phrase Desolation Row is obviously a tip of the hat
(there's the hat!) to Steinbeck's Cannery Row, but the road image is all
over the place on Highway 61 Revisited.  The road as a place where tragic,
sometimes dirty deeds are performed is an idea common to both "Highway 61"
and "Desolation Row."  The idea of a town where all is despair is introduced
in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and elaborated here.  The necessity of
humility and the danger of self-deception are central to "Like a Rolling
Stone" and "Queen Jane Approximately," whose refrain echoes the last lines
of "Desolation Row," as an invitation to join the singer when you've
stripped yourself of self-deception and pride.  Even the Good Samaritan bit
is hinted at in "From A Buick 6," where the best woman is one who can help
and unconditionally love the singer.
        I think it's pretty clear that Dylan's view in "Desolation Row"
leaves little room for God or religion.  He doesn't come right out and say
he's an atheist, but he makes it pretty clear that he doesn't think it's all
redeemed by some higher purpose.  "Gates of Eden" is worth remembering here,
as it talks specifically about the question of God and his truth:  there may
be such a thing, but it sure isn't making itself apparent here and now.  God
is in his heaven.
        Later, of course, Dylan took a different view of the religion
question and the God question.  So there is a definite break between
"Desolation Row" and "Slow Train," for instance.  But there are fascinating
continuities between Dylan's views here and on his later, Christian records.
The sense of doom, of course doesn't change, and neither does the emphasis
on humility and seeing things the way they are.  Both 1965 Dylan and 1980
Dylan attack the illusions and lies endemic in society.  I think that's why
Dylan's overtly Christian music doesn't seem too much at odds with his
earlier stuff, at least to me:  the ontology may be different, but the
attitude and values are the same.
        Anyway.
        This interpretation, of course, has a lot of holes in it.  I'd love
to see lots of discussion on this, so if there's anybody still reading;)
please enlighten me.

--Glynne

there are no truths outside the gates of Eden

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