Nobody Has To Think Too Much About Desolation Row

Desolation Row was written by Bob Dylan in 1965 and it is basically about everything, having a word count of 665 this song could satisfy a lot of prompts.  Dylan told Rolling Stone that he wrote this song while he was in the back of a New York cab.  The opening lines of this song, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown”, refers to three African-American circus workers who were in town and they were accused of raping a girl in Duluth, Minnesota.  On June 15, 1920, a mob broke them out of jail, held a mock trial, found them guilty and lynched them.  Postcards with pictures of the hanging were sold as souvenirs.  Dylan’s father, Abraham Zimmerman, was 8 years old and living in Duluth at the time of the hangings.  If you try to interpret the lyrics of this song, you should keep in mind that Dylan was experimenting with LSD around the time he recorded it, and also this song represents the developing counter culture of the 1960s that was outside of the establishment and the mainstream culture.  The setting of this song is the absurdity of a world circus with “blind” politicians “tied to tight rope walkers” pleasing only themselves with “one hand in their pants” and the “riot squads need some place to go.”

Many people feel that this is Dylan’s crowning achievement, it is a true listening experience and by the time this song ends, you feel like you’ve just seen a movie.  It is a simple song and it reminds me a lot of Highway 61 where anything can happen out there, but it contains more awe-inspiring imagery and Dylan crammed this song with a myriad cast of literary fictional, biblical, and popular famous characters.  Desolation Row is a lawless police state, rather like John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row following the misadventures of a down-and-out group of Great Depression era, and despite having mermaids, it is a waste land.  The visuals and unseen plots and relationships contained within the words of this song make it become an apocalyptic epic poem in the tradition of the modernist literary movement.  Dylan said in this song, look everyone the world, our country with its unsavory history, and our place in it and everyone’s place in it, is not something that you can just summarize in a neat sentence.  It’s extremely complicated, and deserves your consideration on as deep a level as you might care to take it to, especially if society continues on its current path.  The “moon is almost hidden” and “the stars are beginning to hide”, are signals of what foreshadows a storm, a metaphor for the problems the world will encounter on its present course.  “The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside” because she recognizes the pending storm/disaster.  Those who are paying attention are taking precautions and shielding themselves from the coming problems.

Cinderella gives a cynical response to the speaker saying “it takes one to know one”, because she is no longer waiting for Prince Charming, and wants to take matters in her own hands.  Romeo, like Cinderella, is also in the wrong place, he represents ideal notions of romance, but rather than speaking sweetly in verse he moans and chases Cinderella, instead of Juliet, upsetting conventions.  Bette Davis was known for putting her hands in her back pockets and leaving her thumbs out.  Cain and Able are too busy being involved in conflict to notice anything else that is happening around them.  Everyone else is “making love, or “expecting rain”, so they do not notice or see the storm brewing, however the Good Samaritan is going to go into the approaching storm and deal with it in some way.

Ophelia hopes that Hamlet will marry her, but that is not going to happen.  “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood”, to shield himself from the potential uses of his discoveries that he keeps locked “in a trunk’, symbolizes modern science’s attempt or tendency to be hailed as the answer in our times.  What kind of hero goes around “bumming cigarettes”, “sniffing drainpipes”, and stating his dogmatic findings by “reciting the alphabet”, and is this E=MC2?  Dr. Filth is a reference to an actual holocaust official who cut off the genitals of patients and put them in a pouch made of skin.  Sigmund Freud and his reliance on drugs to medicate patients might be who Dylan was referring to when he mentioned the “sexless patients,” and his atheist viewpoint that led to his split with Carl Jung, thus requiring his nurse to keep the cards that read “Have mercy on his soul.”  “The agents” and the “superhuman crew”, are probably references to agents of the establishment and religious leaders, “rounding up everyone that knows more than they do” and punishing them.  Dylan gives us images of unpredictability and impending doom that we face if we stay on our present course, mentioning Nero the insane Roman Emperor, Neptune the changeable god of the sea and the Titanic, a ship destined to sink, that is sailing on these unpredictable waters.

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are wrestling with the problems of their time and trying metaphorically through their poetry to call for the enlightenment of the masses to address the problems of a harsh reality.  In the final verse, the speaker addresses an unnamed person saying that he received a letter from them yesterday, “about the time the door knob broke”.  The door knob represents the way out of Desolation Row, they way back to the conventional way of thinking, the way not concerned with the new awareness of reality.  Now that the door knob is broke, there is no going back to the conventional way of thinking.  “When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?”, shows a general disdain for the conventional unenlightened way of thinking.

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’d 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.
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
NOW, 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 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 penny whistle
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 are 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 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
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 me how I was doing
Or 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.

Written for 7/8/18 Helen Vahdati’s This Thing Called Life One Word at a Time Song Lyric Sunday Theme where the prompt is “think”.

21 thoughts on “Nobody Has To Think Too Much About Desolation Row

    1. The song really makes you think about things, however it is very long and it took me another 1,000 words to describe it, so most people will not take the time to read my post today. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will try and remember that, but as I said in the past many times I write for my own enjoyment and I don’t care too much if my posts ever get read by anyone. I wanted to do this song and I knew that it would be overwhelming for most readers, but the challenge of describing Desolation Row became irresistible for me. I wanted to succeed and do justice to this song, so I quit procrastinating and just started writing. I found that the limits of what is possible extend into the realm of impossible, beyond what I thought that I could actually do.

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      1. If I was asked to write about you I would say, the man who outshines himself, naturally now, but because of his back-breaking labour earlier. He took no shortcuts in his quest to amass knowledge, in which as everyone knows, he succeeded.

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  1. I think I enjoyed the comments almost more than the song. 🙂 As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge fan of The Grateful Dead, but I do appreciate their talents and their storytelling. Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Dylan was mad about the way the three blacks were lynched, but what made this such an atrocity was that these vigilantes were so proud of what they did that they made postcards about the event and maybe even worse than that was that people actually bought them. Allen Ginsberg championed dissidents and victims of persecution wherever and whenever he encountered them and he formed a close friendship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Ginsberg said that Desolation Row was his favorite song.


  2. Hello! Lovely article. I just had a quick question about one of the facts mentioned. You stated Dr. Flith was a reference to a “holocaust official who cut off the genitals of patients and put them in a pouch made of skin”. I was just wondering who the official was? I’m writing a paper for my intro to literature class about the song, and I would love to include this little tidbit. Thanks!

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