Home > Culture, Music > The Ten Verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, Ranked

The Ten Verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, Ranked

The eleven-minutes-plus closing track on American folk-rock balladeer Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, “Desolation Row” is a rambling, evocative surrealistic trip through history, literature, society, and politics, with poetic images and resonant vignettes featuring enigmatically-sketched characters separated through ten verses. Each of these verses close with a line referencing the titular location, a place both romantically symbolic and agonizingly real, a grimy but indistinctly paradisical setting for the grinding suffering of proletarian life whose simple truths are repeatedly desired by the song’s numerous broken dreamers and fallen luminaries.

Like the modern poems that it references and self-consciously resembles (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a clear touchstone, and not just because its author appears in the lyrics), “Desolation Row” can be a difficult work to approach interpretively, so dense is its allusiveness and ambiguous is its symbolic imagery. Perhaps through the current online media ranking listicle format, that interpretive work of one of Dylan’s greatest compositions can be done in a manner that is as readable as it is modestly insightful. Therefore, here is an analytical ranking of the ten verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.

Desolation Row from Paul Tattam on Vimeo.

10. Verse 3

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

The weakest of the verses of “Desolation Row” reads like a parody of its strongest: poetic descriptions turned on their heads by wry jokes (the astrologist frustrated by a clouded night without celestial reference points for her predictions) and suggestions of social inversion (the dandy Good Samaritan preparing for a bacchanal) alongside a classic decontextualized gnomic Dylan couplet (“Everybody is making love / Or else expecting rain”). What drives this verse to the bottom, though, is the unclear shout-outs to Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike most other figures referenced by Dylan in the lyrics, these aren’t really doing anything, and it’s uncertain if they are there of their own accord or as the fortune-telling lady’s “things”. Most of the better verses in the song build a tone, a mood, and a character as well, but this third verse is just there, existing. Sadly, it’s filler.

9. Verse 10

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Or’s that some kinda 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

The song’s final verse offers a clever departing post-modern reframing of what has come before, returning to the ordinary and mundane realm of gossiping letters, broken doorknobs, and petty disagreements after the phantasmagorical name-dropping of the first nine verses. It’s a self-conscious and self-deprecating move in classic Dylan form: these iconic figures from literature and history and the imagination embroiled in their symbolically-elevated struggles are just stand-ins and aliases for mutual acquaintances of the narrator and his letter-penning frienemy. The reductiveness of it is knowing but kind of archly so, as the fiery young Dylan could often be, especially in his immediate post-electric period when much of his folk fanbase was calling for his head as a sell-out betrayal (ironically, “Desolation Row” is the sole acoustic folk track on Highway 61 Revisited). Separated musically from the dreamscape verses by a trademarked wheezing harmonica solo, these lines are far less imaginative and striking as those that led up to them and grate slightly in their suggestion that none of those words really mattered or meant a thing. Ever ready to confound, Dylan does return to the semi-chorus repetition of the titular locale at the end, however, suggesting slyly that maybe it wasn’t all such a lark after all.

8. Verse 6

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 the pennywhistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The difficulty in the verse ranking begins to show at this point, when the quality distinction between Dylan’s word clusters becomes so fine and slight that prioritizing one over another becomes a matter of personal preference. So I will say that Verse 6 is more or less one of my least favourite. Its ambiguity is nearly impenetrable and there are few truly memorable phrases that jump out and arrest your attention. Dylan is on an anti-medicine kick, one supposes, challenging the authority of medical professional in his iconoclastic way, but little of it coheres, let alone enthralls. The verse’s rhythm has a good flow, anyway, which distinguishes it a little from those ranked below it.

7. Verse 1

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

The opening verse of “Desolation Row” is a scene-setting one, and as such is far from its finest. That said, for a song full of the surreal, the seemingly-unlikely opening line is actually a chilling reference to an all-too-real American horror: the lynching of African-Americans in the South, which often manifested as twisted communal events which would sometimes be photographed and commemorated with prints and cards for sale depicting the extrajudicial execution of other human beings. The reference to the restless riot squad, itching for “somewhere to go” to violently put down uppity citizens, is also a wry critique of the pre-conditions of police brutality. But why are the passports being painted brown? Is this a reference to a fascist bureaucracy? And the blind commissioner stuff just does not land.

6. Verse 7

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”

A priestly Phantom of the Opera presiding over a fashionable feast, ostensibly thrown to punish the consummate romantic lover Casanova by inflating his ego with flattery before tearing him down again. The young Dylan’s notorious distaste for social functions and the polite niceties that sustain them is expanded here to a tableau of institutionalized social torture, directed by a posing cleric of the church played by a refined gothic-romantic monster of the underground. It’s not the strongest verse or the point most worth making, but it’s certainly consistent.

5. Verse 5

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

Most of the verses that feature historical or cultural characters mix them together in provocative combinations. Not (precisely) so Verse 5, which casts “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood” as a sad faded figure “with his memories in a trunk” who “was famous long ago” as a musician. Dylan has often returned to the tragic street-level ramblings of the homeless as a contemporary urban iteration of the nomadic hobo culture that fascinated his musical hero Woody Guthrie, and Einstein/Robin Hood (the modern paragon of scientific genius hiding in the guise of the mythical inequality-leveling sylvan outlaw) strikes a transient pose, bumming cigs, “sniffing drainpipes” (drug addiction?) and “reciting the alphabet” (low-key mental derangement?). Religion is poked in the eye again, with his monastic friend engaging in the sin of envy. Breaking the top half of the rankings among such marvelous collisions of words is no mean feat, but describing this engimatic figure as “so immaculately frightful” is the kind of magnificent use of language that defines Bob Dylan at his best.

4. Verse 2

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

I can now admit that, as a younger man, I nursed a considerable crush on Dylan’s insouciant Cinderella with “her hands in her back pockets / Bette Davis style”. This image raises this verse’s profile above a couple of those ranked just behind it in my estimation, although the suggestion that the insufferably moony Romeo is confronted and perhaps brutally beaten for his romantic excesses (one of many suggestions of genuine sentiment being strongly punished by an uncaring social order) provides a dark lining to Cinderella’s attitude and casual cleaning at the conclusion.

3. Verse 9

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

Dylan’s vocals gain such an uncanny force by the latter stages of “Desolation Row” that it elevates his lyrics and their meanings. This verse scarcely needs elevating, featuring his deepest and most evocative name-drop reference: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the exemplars of modernist poetry, fighting in the captain’s tower of the doomed Titanic, that maritime symbol of Gilded Age ambition and inequality. The whole verse has a marine theme from Neptune (the Roman god of the sea, linked disturbingly to that most infamously nasty emperor, Nero) to the great passenger liner to fishermen and mermaids and even the laughing calypso singers (reflecting the folk-scene vogue of Caribbean music, just as the fishermen holding flowers reference flower-child hippie subculture). There’s a troubling privileged escapism to these “windows of the sea”, as Dylan suggests the complacent rich elite walking the decks of their yachts and ignoring the socioeconomic deprivation (or does it represent a form of proletarian authenticity here?) of Desolation Row. There’s no need to interpret “Everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?'” as anything less than an invocation of the sharpening political divisions of 1960s America, divisions all the more stark and calcified a half-century later.

2. Verse 4

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

Ophelia’s verse is a singular character sketch, like Verse 5 but stronger, more focused, and more sympathetic. Dylan’s stance towards women in his songs is decidedly mixed; as great as his definitive song “Like A Rolling Stone” is, for example, it rather glories in schadenfreude at the diminished circumstances of its fallen elite socialite female lead before disingenuously suggesting that her poverty represents a kind of freedom. But here Dylan summons an empathy and understanding of the plight of Hamlet’s callously discarded girlfriend that even William Shakespeare fails to possess in one of the central texts of the English literary canon. Too much examination of and empathy for Ophelia would expose the Prince of Denmark’s self-involved quest for the irresponsible body-count-generating recklessness that it is. But Dylan feels “so afraid” for her and her lonely, suicidal, faith-driven romanticism. He sees her as a modern figure of tragic alienation, and gives her the most sublime of his images (“And though her eyes are fixed upon / Noah’s great rainbow”), delivered with a growing vocal force that exposes the prejudices against his singing as dull and unfounded. And yet this romantic aspiration of Ophelia’s is, as we know, ultimately fatal, and her eyes rise to the sky but continue to linger on the dirty gutters as well.

1. Verse 8

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

The most sinister and sharply political of the song’s verses is also its most powerful and hardest to shake. Employed by Alan Moore in his seminal graphic novel Watchmen to drive home his darkly serious vision of conflicted superheroes in a world of injustice, corruption, and oppression, the opening lines suggest an authoritarian regime rounding up dissidents and intellectuals before detailing their confinement not in dank prison holes but in the death-house production centres of industrial capitalism. This work-prison of productive exploitation suggests continuity from ancient feudal privileges (the reference to castles) and is overseen by not only the subalterns of state power but by the ordinary middle-manager insurance men. Desolation Row here is the last bastion of freedom, an enclave of liberty in a sea of strife. “Desolation Row” in general explores social decay, institutional breakdown, and the fuzzy margins of democratic capitalist society. But in this stunning verse, sung with waxing force by Dylan, the general critique becomes scaldingly specific: capitalism is the new force of oppression in the world, a sinister force to be feared and resisted.

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Categories: Culture, Music
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