Desolation Row

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Dylan’s recording of Desolation Row was the longest track (at just over 11 minutes) on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, it’s been in my head for most of my adult life. It’s one of my defining anthems that, together with Roy Harper and Leonard Cohen’s songs, I love more for the lyrics than the melodies. It’s pure poetry set to music.

The Getty Museum owns the Ensor painting and paired it with Dylan’s song with it in the book The Superhuman Crew, noting

Ensor’s huge, vibrant, and startling canvas presents a scene filled with clowns, masked figures, and barely visible amid the swirling crowds the tiny figure of Christ on a donkey entering the city of Brussels. “Desolation Row,” from Dylan’s classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, presents its own surreal portrait of modern life in strangely similar terms.

That “surreal portrait of modern life” becomes more appropriate with each passing year. As I listened again to the song I know so well, themes emerged. It is a song rooted in the time Dylan wrote when cracks were appearing in 50s America, and those with open eyes and ears witnessed the “chimes of freedom flashing.”

Dylan sings of the contrast between two world-views: those embracing emerging freedoms and the guardians of the old order. He paints this contrast in both stark black and white terms (Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”)  as well as shades of grey.

There have been endless interpretations about the meaning of the lyrics.

This is my response to what I hear.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown

The dystopian scene is set. Repression, autocracy, and violence rule in a time when hangings were public events. These might be images of lynching’s in the Deep South or scenes from The Handmaids Tale. What sort of society trades in picture postcards of the dead? One where individual identity is subject to a brown-out. Arguments about the color of passports were part of the Brexit debate that consumed Britain. Painting passports is something “they” do to restrict our liberty to travel and escape the dystopia. Internal passports restricted movement in apartheid-era South Africa, North Korea, and modern China.


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Yet, the scene is not monochrome. There’s a rambunctiousness in a world where the sailors (presumably men) fill the beauty parlors, and the circus is in town. Dylan sets the scene in a port city–one he visits again in 1974 when he tells of a man who “Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in” (Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks). What would groups of sailors want in a beauty parlor? More than a haircut. Hello sailor! Perhaps some eye shadow, a waxing, or lip gloss? Anything to juice up their shore leave.

The opening two lines contrast repression with freedom, heralding an awakening sense of personal expression at the dawn of the ’60s. Soon enough, many would choose the option to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free (Mr. Tambourine Man--recorded six months earlier.) Meanwhile, the representatives of the old order are on parade, like Shriners striding down Main Street in Anytown, USA.


Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

The first of the old order makes an entrance. I see the blind commissioner four rows back in the Ensor painting — the man with the handlebar mustache, center stage. An authority figure (perhaps the port commissioner?) who is both literally and metaphorically blind. Blind like Lady Justice holding her scales. Except “they” (the ones selling postcards of hangings and painting passports) have him in a trance. Hypnotized. In their power. Unable to function.


One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

Not only blind and hypnotized but bound. Guided by the tight-rope walker from the circus, accomplished at balancing in his own way, just as Lady Justice balances her scales. He is leading the blind commissioner, who is all the while pleasuring himself with his free hand. While some might see his free hand resting innocently in a trouser pocket, the words “in his pants” always implied something far raunchier to me — long before Borat filmed the blind commissioner Rudy Giuliani in the hotel room with one hand in his pants.


And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

Three years before the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention and decades before the last US President stirred the restlessness of his own rioting squad and suggested somewhere they could go (down Pennsylvania Avenue and up the steps of the Capitol), Dylan has the measure of the inherent restlessness of the enforcement arm of the old order.


As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Meanwhile, above it all, the poet sits with his “Lady” looking out over the unfolding nighttime scene, not “on” but “from” Desolation Row. The home of the residents of the emerging zeitgeist. I see Desolation Row as the New York apartment Dylan writes about in Visions of Johanna:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

They look out over the dystopian landscape of blind commissioners and riot squads, perched on an island of sanity, observing the crazy world.

Lady is the mythical companion of the Tramp in the Disney film of a decade earlier. Dylan as the Chaplinesque Everyman “Tramp” alongside a woman who might be slumming from the aristocracy in those timeless dystopian times.

Desolation Row might also be a knowing reference to California’s Cannery Row, described by Steinbeck as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” The sardine industry had collapsed, in desolation, a decade before Dylan wrote his song. Cross-referenced with Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which declared, “Everything’ll be all right, desolation is desolation everywhere and desolation is all we got and desolation ain’t so bad.”

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style

Alongside Lady, Cinderella is another Disney character, an archetype of emerging freedom. She is ignored by her establishment sisters, standing free, knowing the power of her sexuality. A woman who only “seems so easy” (as in easy to seduce, or perhaps at her ease?) acknowledging others (like Dylan?) who hold the same appeal. Insouciant, seductive, captivating. Someone who would have turned heads in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.


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.”

Cinderella’s anthesis arrives on the scene. Romeo sans Juliet, desperate to own whatever woman he can find. Down on his luck, off his game, and “moaning.” A visitor from the dark side. His inappropriate advances earning a rebuke–not only to put him in his place but to tell him, with the threatening tone of a nightclub bouncer or mobster’s bodyguard, that he needs to leave. The two lines of dialog tied together in rhyme are polar opposite in intention. Those who claim ownership (capitalists, The Man?) having no place in the communal world of Desolation Row.


And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
.

And so we come to the end of Act One. The sirens are silenced. The riot squad has done its worst. Chaos has reigned off-screen. We’re witness to the cleaning-up operations, with Cinders doing what her stepmother required — sweeping up the broken glass on the street. Indeed, it must be broken glass. After all, if it was just the

empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The Waste Land, Fire Sermon, lines 177-178

of Eliot’s Fire Sermon, we wouldn’t hear her at work.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide

The night is growing darker, colder, older. Clouds are moving in.


The fortune-telling lady has even taken all her things inside

Another circus refugee has called it a night, signaling the transition from one part of the day to another. Her tarot cards, crystal ball, and tasseled gown are now inside whatever she calls home – gypsy caravan, tent, or tenement building. Minus the fortune teller, the future is an unknown.


All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
/ Everybody is making love or else expecting rain

But wait, not everyone has quit the scene. Three more archetypes of the old order are introduced. The brothers from the Bible and Quasimodo –monsters in their own way–are the exception to others, engaged in the trivial and the profound. When is making love as trivial as expecting rain? Family members from my English childhood often commented on the weather. They rarely spoke about lovemaking. Depending on which group of people this describes the juxtaposition either challenges the romantic ideal of lovemaking as no more significant an option than commenting on the weather (“Do you want to make out or put on your Wellingtons? It’s all the same to me…”) or the hipsters are making love while the squares look to the cloudy sky. Dylan is unclear about which “everybody” it is — everybody in the apartment, everyone on the street, or the whole world? Shades of grey.


And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row

Again, a contrast. While the fratricidal boys in the Bible represent murder and martyrdom, the Good Samaritan signifies freedom, preparing for the evening’s entertainment (the night is young). Whether the “show” is something the circus is putting on or the carnival Ensor painted is unclear. However, Desolation Row seems like the fun side of town, more benign than the disorder in the debris-filled streets.

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
.

Switching back to Shakespearean archetypes, Dylan notices Ophelia beneath the window (that Lady and he looks out of, standing where Romeo would have wooed his Juliet on her balcony). He’s empathetic, concerned, aware of the limitations playing out in her young life. A tragic career woman (her profession’s her religion), she is a lifeless “old maid” — one of Shakespeare’s ‘cold maids’ in Ophelia’s death scene:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7

She’s fixated on her namesakes’ romantic death, armored against feelings of passion, or trapped like youthful Polio victims in an iron lung? Her goal cemented by Old Testament certainty:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

Genesis, 9-13

Ophelia is missing the mark, the juice having been squeezed out of her life, denying her true feelings, but trying to make a break, curious about what she’s missing. Despite being an uptight career girl, she can’t help “peeking into Desolation Row.

This echoes Dylan’s admonition in the opening track on the album (Like a Rolling Stone) to embrace our feelings, recognize our freedoms:

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

While there are those like Ophelia who sense the possibility of freedom and might be tempted to overcome their fears to experience it, other sad unfortunates have been destroyed by madness. Among them, as Ginsburg noted, “the best minds of my generation.” (Howl, 1956). What more impressive mind than Einstein?

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

Archetypes nest like Matryoshka dolls. The father of relativity, whose theories upended the certainties of space and time itself, now disguised as the folk-hero of Sherwood Forest, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, accompanied by Friar Tuck. There’s a nod to Einstein’s lot as a refugee, forced to stay in the United States in the 1930s to avoid Hitler’s Germany, who would have no doubt have a store of photographs and diaries from the Europe of his youth in a trunk.


Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

This heroic figure is down at heel, a hobo like those who rode the rails Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie sang about. As disheveled as he might be, he appears “immaculately frightful” (a state of dishabille that perfectly describes a street person I once saw in Paris, where a sense of fashion doesn’t desert those without the means to buy new clothes)—now compelled to neurotically sniff drainpipes and recite the alphabet—a far cry from authoring the Theory of Relativity.


You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
.

Just as you’d say about any down-and-out who was once a person of note, “you would not think to look at him, but…” he was once a banker, school principal, a respected member of the community, Nobel Laureate in Theoretical Physics. Or, in the case of a musician like Dylan, a violinist he shared the stage with before things took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up

We now come to one of the central characters on the dark side of the street. Dr. Filth is a name straight out of a Marvel comic book. The leather cup could be an athletic support cup around his manhood that his “sexless patients” are trying to blow (pun intended?). Or it could be a leather liar’s dice cup sitting on a barroom counter that the patients want to dynamite. Anyone who needs to keep their world inside anything as small as a cup must have a paranoid need to keep it safe. Like memories in a trunk, they might well be keepsakes. Or patient records. I wonder what HIPPA regulations require? What insecurities drive this?


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.”

The doctor’s assistant is “some local loser”—more likely to be found working as a waitress in a greasy spoon or matinee movie theatre attendant than as a qualified nurse. She guards (and administers?) a toxic substance whose only use in emergency medical situations is to effect a rapid decrease in blood pressure.  She’s also representative of the local losers recruited to administer gas into the cyanide holes above the Nazi death camps’ shower stalls. Coupled with overseeing the cards that judges read from when pronouncing the death sentence, we are firmly in a dystopian hell realm.


They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

These nightmare characters (Dr. Filth and the local loser employed as his poison dispensing, capital-punishment enabling nurse) create discordant noise blowing on penny whistles—discernable when you “lean your head out far enough” to catch the vague traces of the distant spinning wheels of sound.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast

Back in the low-rent district (Greenwich Village being affordable back then), neighbors nail curtains across their windows–cheap privacy for their nighttime feast.  Neighbors who also feature in Visions of Johanna:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough

Next, we meet the Paris opera house’s ghost, invited to the feast to berate Casanova, given form as a man of God, able to dispense judgment. Introduced in a line that hangs suspended in the song, held back for a beat.

The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest

Casanova–an archetype of masculine power and a master of seduction is reduced to the level of an invalid needing to be spoon-fed assurances.


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

He’s destined to be sacrificed on the self-improvement altar of positive thinking, poisoned by the words of authors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill.


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

The Phantom is reanimated, announcing that Casanova’s transgression is to have crossed over from the conventional world and embraced Desolation Row’s freedoms. His audience is the “skinny girls” who might welcome Casanova’s attention, but, like Romeo before them, have to leave. The stage is set: a group of girls, the Phantom and Casanova with his attendants. This echoes Deputy Duperret’s advice to Charlotte Corday in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play The Marat/Sade. Both women are ignorant of the politics of revenge and repression.

Dearest Charlotte you must return

Return to your friends the pious nuns

And live in prayer and contemplation

You cannot fight

The hard-faced enemies surrounding us.

The Marat/Sade, Act 1

Casanova, Jean-Paul Marat, the Marquis de Sade—three European libertines at odds with Middle America’s morality.

At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do

The dystopian frenzy is unleashed at the stroke of midnight. Scenes similar to those portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and lived by the victims of the Chilean dictators and Hitler’s brownshirts. Victims of a group of the Übermensch who accompany J. Edgar’s agents. The deplorables against the elites. The revenge of the conspiracy theorists against those with knowledge of the facts. Punishment Park a possibility.


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.

Conformity is enforced on the salt of the earth workers, whole-life policies for those with no life to live. Orwell’s’ 1984. Dictates from the mansions of the one percent keeping the workers from their freedom. A theme explored by John Lennon five years later:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

~~

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear

~~

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
.

Working Class Hero, 1970.

The conclusion, but not the coda, is in the next six lines.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned sets sail on the doomed liner. The pretentions of the entitled end up at the bottom of the ocean. Division in the land – Red states and Blue, Proud Boys and Antifa, them and us. Is any of it more than rearranging the deckchairs?


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.

Ivory tower intellectuals battle for supremacy while artists and artisans celebrate life in the wonderous watery reaches of this blue planet, an ocean of bliss, feeling without limitation, freed from analysis of current and future conflicts.

After an interlude on the harmonica, Dylan delivers a footnote, responding to a letter the mailman delivered.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me 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.

While the battle between the forces of good and evil rage, trite domesticity occupies others. He confesses that he sang about the people he knew, anonymized with archetypes and aliases. He admonishes his correspondent to stop sending trivial news. And only write if, and when, they have stepped out of their suburban cocoon.

Take a listen

If you’ve got this far in my endless screed about the song, you deserve a treat. Take a listen to Dylan as he sings the lines that so inspired me.

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