Desolation Row

Album: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
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  • The opening lines of this song ("They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown...") refer to three men who were in town with the circus and were accused of raping a girl in Duluth, Minnesota. On June 15, 1920, a mob broke them out of jail 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.
  • This is the last track on the album. It is eleven minutes long, and was Dylan's longest song up to that point. Dylan rarely plays it at concerts, but when he does, it can stretch out to 45 minutes.
  • When trying to interpret this song, keep in mind that Dylan was experimenting with LSD around the time he recorded it.
  • This was never released as a single, probably due to its length, but the Highway 61 Revisited album went to #3 US and #4 UK.
  • Dylan performed this for the first time at the Forest Hills Music Festival in Queens, New York on August 28, 1965, after he electrified the Newport Folk Festival. It was part of the acoustic set Dylan played before bringing on his electric band.
  • Live versions are included on Dylan's MTV Unplugged, and Live 1966.
  • This was covered by My Chemical Romance for the end credits of the 2009 superhero movie Watchmen.
  • This was the first Bob Dylan recording that bassist and guitarist Charlie McCoy played on. He would go on to contribute to every Dylan album from 1965 to 1970. His initial contribution, however, was the result of an apparent accident.

    When McCoy was in New York for a visit, his friend, producer Bob Johnston, arranged for him to go and see a Broadway show. Johnston suggested that he drop by the nearby Columbia Studios to pick up the tickets. "He introduced me to Dylan," recalled McCoy to Uncut magazine March 2014, "and he said to me, 'I'm getting ready to record a song, why don't you pick up the other guitar and play?' We had time for one take, one playback and then for another session. And that was 'Desolation Row'."

Comments: 68

  • Rich Swanner from CaliforniaBob might have wanted to just fill the album up. An 11 minute long song would do that... He was never short of words when writing his songs. I always thought the greatest thing was people get so much out of his words. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what he was saying or thinking...
  • Ocean from GreeceEveryday is a Desolation Row day. Thank you, Mr. Robert.
  • Jim from West VirginiaTo me this song represents a place or a state of mind that seems attractive on the exterior but on the interior is not no pleasant and difficult to escape from. Throughout the song, Dylan describes Desolation Row as a an inhumane, chaotic, unpleasant place. "There selling postcards of the hanging, their painting the passports brown" Dylan describes a lynching that occurred about 20 years before he was born in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. "here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance, one hand is tried to the tight rope walker, the other is in his pants" authority has little to do in Desolation Row, in Desolation row, it is a inhumane, Chaotic, unjust way of life. In the second verse Dylan talks about Cinderella and how easy she is, How Romeo is looking and attempting to court her. However, Cinderella turns him away. The verse describes a more promiscuous side of her, contrary to the fairy tale version. Romeo also does not go for Juliet, he goes for Cinderella, and she turns away, and after ambulances come and go, a inference that Romeo has killed himself or intentionally injured himself, Cinderella sweeps up on Desolation Row. This verse talks about how in Desolation Row, fairy tales endings don't exist, that a darker side of life exists and Desolation Row represents that. To this point we have learned that Desolation Row represents a darker side of humanity, one where fairy tale endings do not exist, the world is shown to be what it really is, it is not sunshine and rainbows all of the time. Dylan goes through and weaves Biblical characters and historical figures into describing additional characteristics of Desolation Row, and what happens there. If one line he says "and though her eyes are fixed upon Noah's great rainbow, she spends her time peeking into Desolation Row." This comes and the end of a verse where he describes the heartache the Ophelia has gone through by not being able to obtain her love, Hamlet. On Desolation Row, she cannot obtain him, but even through she can see the peace, hope, and love that is represented by Noah's rainbow, she does not want to leave Desolation Row. This brings a major point to what Dylan is trying to say. Although these people are stuck inside Desolation they do not necessarily want to leave, or they are having trouble leaving. This could be applicable to a regular person looking at a celebrity or a professional athlete and aweing and wanting to be them. However, if that regular person was in the shoes of the celebrity, they might not find it so glamourous, they might find it a bit chaotic, maybe a bit inhumane, a bit overwhelming, just a what Dylan describes Desolation Row is like. However I would be willing to bet that even though celebrities might be feeling this pressure, they would not be willing to leave the spotlight or give up their fame or fortune. This song could also be applicable to someone going through drug abuse. The drug looked appealing before they tried it, but once they tried it, it ruined their life and turned their life into a Desolation Row. However drug abuse if extremely difficult to escape from.
  • Infoanalysis from WaDesolation when looked up in dictionary lists waste several times as in Wasteland-- a reference to Eliot a poem about the waste of carnage in World War I, Desolation Angels by Kerouac about his own disenchantment with Buddhism and finally Cannery Row by social justice author John Steinbeck about a bunch of delinquent but lovable factory workers in Monterey Ca not far from Steinbeck's home in Salinas. Dylan also mentions "Sheet Metal memories of Cannery Row" in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in reference to his new wife Sarah Lownd's political and intellectual tastes. Using the word mermaid in the same stanza with Eliot is definitely a nod to Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock, a poem about the futility and dispossessed life in modern times. He is throwing all these snapshot images from other works which collectively challenge the sacred cows we held dear at that time when the absurdity of the Vietnam War was just ramping up. Hadn't we learned the lesson from the Wasteland he may be asking? He takes no prisoners as he mocks religion with Ophelia who hopes to be saved by Religious superstition of eternal life conjuring Noah's rainbow vs a peek into Desolation Row. Her sin is the lifelessness of suicide, forbidden in the Catholic Church, as opposed to just gritting it out in Desolation Row. Or the sin may be the lifelessness that we all choose because we accept the teachings of the bible which serves to opiate the masses. Notice how he stirs clear of Jesus in his biblical references. He is afraid to compete with the Elvis of status quo challengers, later to become a born again christian himself contradicting the vibe of this song. He also challenges government and justice with Postcards from the hanging -- how absurd to think of a post card from a hanging. It is as if he is an alien ( or like the abundance of Canadians who dominate our comedic scene) coming down and looking objectively at the absurdity of American Culture, veiling itself in our never ending promises of that great society and sentimental altruism when underneath all our materialism (Leopard skin Pillbox hats like a mattress balancing on a bottle of wine)lies great sadness or a desolation row.

    He does not make it clear that Desolation Row is such a bad place( as was Steinbeck's depiction of Cannery Row). I don't think Dylan ever takes himself or other literary figures seriously to the disdain of those who object to his Nobel prize. Maybe it is a place we all must go to in this big experiment called life from time to time to escape as an alternative to death which Eliot is more deliberate about. This song's style is somewhere between folk, with its taking itself too serious stance, and the light hearted frivolity of rock and roll; Desolation Row is in the purgatory between life and death or haven and hell. He may also be poking fun at all the seriousness we place on the great works of literature because on its face the song is totally nonsensical as he is a master merry prankster throughout his career urging us and his despised critics into interpretation when he would most probably shrug at any suggestion of great allegorical or prophetic intention. When asked where Desolation Row was he said in that now famous press conference in San Francisco obscured by the clouds formed by his chain smoking: Somewhere down in Mexico, Yeah a coke factory,where they make coke machines. He is coy and always a moving target. With an eye on his legacy and prolonged career, he never wants to get drowned by the media in order to have everyone guessing and thus addicted to his message and commentary for over a half century and still rowing.

  • Martin from LondonWay back in the mists of time, - say 1970-ish I remember reading in a music journal (Prolly "Melody Maker") about the writer discovering a film somewhere entitled "Postcards of the Hanging" and speculating on Dylan sitting in some ancient movie theatre in Hibbing or Duluth and scribbling down the title for future reference in a song or something. The implication being that Dylan nicks ideas from other art works, (What else is new?). I'm not at all concerned about that, but for decades I have tried in vain to find the film so sardonically entitled. Anybody any ideas?
  • Martin from OsloIs there a "Desolation Row" Society? I have memorized all 10 verses now. I sing it several times a week. I like to sing it while I ride my bike to work. It is like a Buddhist meditation for me. The meditation on "Desolation Row."
  • Sadrak Kabir from AmsterdamI consider this a love letter to former love - right now i cant read too good - tears in his eyes - describing her pointless position in her environment - analyse try out at
  • Louis from Calhoun, GaDesolation Row is one of many songs that Dylan wrote around the time that he was breaking free from the Folk scene, and turning his focus more toward the electric (or rock) scene of popular music of his day. Desolation Row may have represented the "middle ground" between the two. Many of the characters he mentions is actually a pseudonym of a real person he knew or knew of. For example, Ophelia was most likely a reference to Joan Baez, who might have been gazing ... or looking into Desolation Row, with hopes of one day escaping from the strict Folk Scene ties of that time (which Dylan had already managed to escape from). Another song of his which even more vividly conveys this reality is one off of his 'Bringing It All Back Home' album (the one released just prior to 'Highway 61 Revisited'), called "Maggie's Farm". Go back and listen to the verses in that song. He is totally dissing the whole entire Folk Scene Community, in favor of the electric Rock and Roll Scene, which he had chosen over it at that time. I believe that Desolation Row is very similar in this respect. But more in the sense that it is the "middle ground" between Folk abnd Rock ... Maybe Dylan was having somewhat of a dilema or confusion as to which side that he needed to be affiliated with. After all, recall the line (during the Titanic stanza) where he said, "Everybody's shouting, 'Which side are you on...'"
  • Josh from Columbus, InSong was written shortly after the publication of Jack Kerouack's "Desolation Angels," and contains lines taken explicitly from that book, including the line "In a perfect image of a priest" (and at least one other that I can't remember off the top of my head).
  • Kevin from Lawrence, KsI become spellbound by the lyrics and immensed in a peaceful splendor by the guitar. There are times when I wish I could remove the vocals and hear only the guitars; and there are times when I find myself alone in thought and a line or two from this song pop into my head, and a needed reciting of that line makes for such pleasure.
  • Ger from Limerick, Irelandreally enjoy this song. it seems to me that dylan and lady are in desolation row. but i'm not sure all the other characters are. a lot of them seem to be trying to get into desolation row. casanova is punished for going there, ophelia is peeeking in there,the samaritan is going to a carnival and insurance men try to stop you escaping to it. perhaps its a place outside of the madness and chaos he describes in the song.
    also think nero's neptune and the titanic might refer to the band playing as the ship sank,and nero playing fiddle as rome burned
  • Prithvi from Socorro, NmI think may be the song is based on the word tragedy...and dylan who always had a way with words choosed many events which are historical or events happenings at his time and just threw words on every image he could imagine and constructed it into a beautiful song....
  • Michael from Mesa, AzThis song speaks so much to me about people I knew in the 60's. The line about Romeo is kind of the story of my life back then. I was a biker and had gone to see various girls and had been told to leave more than once. Sometimes this led to a fight and even in the hospital once (not me, the other guy). I can think of other people who fit some of the descriptions given in the song. "Lady and I look out tonight" means Dylan was speaking of what he observed in human nature. Just a poetic view of people and life.
  • Dave from Goldsboro, Nc.
    Lady is Dylan's dog, or the guy, whoever is the
    first person. I figured that out only after a long time. I like the part where Dylan sings "right now I can't read too good", which is a tribute to himself, in a sardonic or sarcastic way. "When you asked me how I was doing, is that some kind of joke?", this line is a comment on how people he knows or knew at the time of the song were not interested. In how he was doing. Most of us know it is still a polite verbal gesture, although the question generally gets a prolonged answer. But Dylan's question back is not rhetorical. He is asking the person he is
    singing if he or she really cares. That he is directing the song to someone, an audience, is interesting because Desolation Row does not address a person or a listener until the end.
  • Alan from London, United KingdomT S Eliot once wrote that it is a test of genuine poetry that it can communicate before it is understood. This says it all about the song and other Dylan songs.

    One could also imagine Dylan answering in the same vein as T S Eliot when he was asked "What did you mean [in Ash-Wednesday' by 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree/In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety/On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained/In the hollow round of my skull . . .'" Eliot's answer: "I meant, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree/In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety/On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained/In the hollow round of my skull'".
  • Ben from Melbourne, AustraliaThis is probably to straightforward, but I've always interpreted the "Ophelia's 'neath the window" verse to be about a nun. We hear that "Her profession's her religion, her sin is her lifelessness." and her faith in God's salvation, "Noah's great rainbow". Her "iron vest" could represent chastity, and as a nun she is sure to believe in heaven and the afterlife, making death "quite romantic". Finally, in Hamlet, the titular characters famously screams at Ophelia, ordering her to "get thee to a nunnery!"
  • Craig from Bello, AustraliaI've always had a hunch the line "Is brought down/from the castle/by insurance men who go..." referred to Franz Kafka, who spent 16 years working in insurance in Prague. One of Kafka's novels is The Castle [1926].

    The opening line of this verse, "At midnight all the agents..." is also strongly reminiscent of The Trial, his most famous work.

    And I believe Kafka also had a short story (The Harrow [?] from memory) which was about something similar to a heart-attack machine.

    If he's not referring to Kafka, that's a lot of coincidences. But whatever, the song is superb. There are few songs better than this one.
  • Jim from Nyc, NyOne quick observation: Dylan sings "I received your letter yesterday ABOUT the time the door knob broke" not "just about" which could mean that the letter was about a time a door knob broke - whatever that may mean.
  • Brad from Lexington, KyI like MCR, but their version of this SUCKS. If one Dylan song is uncoverable, this is it. Sorry, but you can't cut 8 minutes off of this song and still call it "Desolation Row". That should be illegal.
  • Winston (forrest) from Sacramento, CaI always try in this song maybe the impossible, and that's what Dylan is attempting to define and get across. I think Desolation Row is more than a state of mind. It's what authority figures who tend to dominate and attempt to control our lives which seem to give us as an environement with their activities. Dylan is scornful of the the Lord class as always and describes the fallout as the Proletariat's (Rome's lowest citizens) in some way. Of course a lot of the activity that the proletariats are pushed into are viewed by the Lord class as a sick amusment. They are just the type to make a buck by selling postcards from the hanging. The Lord class has created the life for the proletariat and it's Desolation Row. If you mail me anything you better mail if from there (it's the only choice you have). Bascially, Dylan is telling us life is not fair, and it could be a lot fairer. It's definely my favorite Dylan song, and I do apprecate the people who have taken time to give their version of the song and especially a lot of the commentary from their favorite verses.


  • John from Portland, OrI like the painting that one commentator made, but I'm pretty sure that "Lady," in sixties Dylan Parlance is his dog. You should replace the woman who looks like Catherine Keener with a dog. Also, get rid of the naked lady sprawled on the bed.
  • Shane from Bismarck, NdTo set the story correct, I did months of research on this song and it is not about someone on death row. "Their selling postcards of the hangings" referrs to the infamous lynchings in Duluth Minnesota. This song is much more complex than just to say that it is again just one concept or topic,

    The Duluth Lynchings occurred on June 15, 1920, when three black circus workers were attacked and lynched by a mob in Duluth, Minnesota. Rumors had circulated among the mob that six African Americans had raped a teenage girl. A physician's examination subsequently found no evidence of rape or assault.

    The killings shocked the country, particularly for their having occurred in the northern United States. In 2003, the city of Duluth erected a memorial to the murdered workers.

    Bob Dylan's grandfather was in Duluth Minnesota the night the hangings occurred. That is just a little history from just the 1st line of the song. It gets much deeper. "The blind commissioner" is the police chief that allowed the mob to come to the jail and remove the 3 suspects in the middle of the night and within minutes they hung them on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street.

    My painting captures all of these details.
  • Shane from Bismarck, NdI spent over 2 years developing a painting that incorporates every aspect of the song, not one detail has been missed, you can see the painting at the below link, I would love everyones input.

    This is the first time someone has attempted to capture this artwork in the form of an painting.
  • Alicia from Nowhere, MiMy Chemical Romance's cover of this for Watchmen was released yesterday. It's AWESOME. They had to cut about 50% of the lyrics, as (and I quote Gerard Way) "There was simply no way I felt you could make it feel like a trashy punk song and play it for ten minutes...I think it's impossible to keep that kind of energy up without either burning out or boring yourself, as anyone will note that most Ramones songs don't exceed three minutes, and there's a reason for that." And I agree. =) i LOVE Dylan's version, though I'm not sure I could handle 45 minutes of it. Amazing song(s) =)
  • Corey Looby from Boston, MaWhy are you guys instantly discounting that fact that he can stretch this song out for 45 minutes. Have you never heard of Afrobeat, a genre that is famous for elaborating and improvising songs for over an hour. It is not musically impossible to make this 11 minute song a 45 minute one and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if he did
  • Daniel from Farmingdale, NyThousands of people have written millions of words attempting to interprety Dylan's lyrics in this song. I will not presume to have an inside track on what he had going on in his mind when these images were written down for the first time. But what I do think is obvious is that Desolation Row is not a place but rather a state of mind, probably the mental space occupied by those of us who felt at odds with the dominant society of the time. The words "Casenova is just being punished for escaping TO Desolation Row" would indicate this. The entire song is strewn with iconic images of Western culture, from Ophelia to Einstein to Betty Davis to the Phantom of the Opera; there is a kaleidescopic array of potent images that conjure up a sense of uneasiness, as if our society was cracking at the seems and in a state of nightmarish disintegration, which perhaps it was and still is today. "The riot squad is restless/They need some where to go/ As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row." If you are among the outsiders watching from the sidelines as your world falls apart there is little left to cling to but your own sanity, or at least your own perception that you, and not they (the dominant majority), are among the sane. This is a brilliant song, a surreal indictment of a world gone mad, and somehow remains as potent and powerful today as it was back in 1965. Despite our rapid technological advances over the past forty years little has changed on a human level and people still face the same stresses of life that they did then. In short, our world is still largely a crazy conflicted place that considers the sanest among us to be perceptual outcasts who must reside in a place called Desolation Row.
  • Michael from Starkville, MsWhether it is imitated or merely inspiration for "Desolation Row", you must consider T.S. Eliot's "A Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910) which alludes to and shares ideas of _The Waste Land_.
    Pound was the one who was responsible for getting the poem published even though there was some reserve. Pound was somewhat blown away on the change in Eliot's style. Masterful Wit, Allusion, Irony. It was radical. "He had modernized himself without help" (Pound) -- (Subtle parallel to the time of Dylan's career here, or maybe even revealing of his own perception of this period of his life and works?) Pound and Eliot's involvement with the poem could be in the two lines "And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/ Fighting in the captain's tower." Whether you see this or not, like Desolation Row, both are timeless and also are commentary on sin, or for a better word, undesired but necessary evil. It begins with lines from Dante's Inferno, referring to one trapped in hell to do, only because no one else would ever know or see what they are doing. You also must consider Kerouac's _Dharma Bums_ and especially _Desolation Angels_ . And Steinbeck's Cannery Row. The slums, the has-beens and nobodies.

    As far as style: twelve lines per stanza/verse, ten stanzas/verses. it follows a specific pattern of-- I'll call (*) words/lines that don't follow a rhyming scheme, but when these (*) occur in the first line of the stanza/verse, then there is -- evident in every stanza/verse a */a/*/a/*/b/*/b/*/c/*/c: Praise be to Nero's Neptune (*)/
    The Titanic sails at dawn (a)/
    And everybody's shouting (*)/
    "Which Side Are You On?" (a)/
    And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (*)/
    Fighting in the captain's tower (b)/
    While calypso singers laugh at them (*)/
    And fishermen hold flowers (b)/
    Between the windows of the sea (*)/
    Where lovely mermaids flow (c)/
    And nobody has to think too much (*)/
    About Desolation Row (c)/. It is a beautiful song--so imaginative and perplexing and nearly epic in scope. I do not give much credit to criticism of Dylan's work, or speculation on his thoughts, but I thought I would throw in another perception of "Desolation Row" from one who has been there. I prefer the _Highway 61_ version, but appreciate the Unplugged version among the many other live recordings of the song. It is one of my very favorites of Dylan's songs and poetry.
  • Apeek19 from Atlanta, GaDesolation Row is a state of mind. This state is a meloncholy nilihst view shared by many including Eliot, hemmingway, and Van Gough. I could write a paper on this but to sum it up it a state of realizing that the world is nothing. Social structure and interactions are irrelevant.

    The reference to Eliot here is using the themes in Wasteland but auding more to "A love song for J. Alfred Prufrock." The verse about Eliot uses direst allusions to the last stanza of the poem (thats where the mermaids come from). and yes that poem is largely about a nihilst state of mind.
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaIt's clear to me: Desolation Row is a surreal song from the perspective of an individual on death row, waiting to be hanged. Listen to the bitterness and his world view turned inside-out. The entire mood of the song works perfectly from that perspective.
  • Steven from New Orleans, Laand the only desolation going on here is the destroying of the constructs of genre, archetypes, and stereotypes.
  • Matt from Baltimore, MdBob Dylan never ascribed to anyone or anything. Even his "selling out" when he picked up an electric guitar was his own choice. He saw that he had done everything he could with an acoustic and decided to move forward. He wrote just as well, if not better on the electric guitar ("Like a Rolling Stone" is one of his best known songs, and it is on the electirc guitar). This song is another attribute to who he is as a person. He might have read something like T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and was possibly even inspired, but to think he would write a song based on someone else's work is unheard of. He walked his own route and at most admired other ones, but never coveted them. This song is about how he sees the world. He sees them as charlatans, poets, murderers, housekeepers, and geniuses. There a whores around every corner whether of the sexual kind, mental kind, or monetary kind. People are their own entities and he exemplifies this mainly through celebrities such as Einstein or T.S. Eliot. The title "Desolation Row" pays tribute to life itself. In his mind, life is like a dead, desolate place at which people are still intrigued by. The fact that every verse begins with a relatively depressing story or idea and ends with something about "Desolation Row", it makes the connection that we all know Desolation Row will do us in one day, but we love it for what it is.
  • Steven from New Orleans, Lawhat if desolation row is metaphor for a state of mind, a utopian expanse of nothingness, like a desolate island paradise?
  • Dave from Westminster, MdThis song is a great account of human nature, every character in the song can be made applicable to somebody that you know. "I've rearranged their faces and given them all another name." Dylan is trying to express that everyone sits on Desolation Row, but the most despicable are those who refuse to admit that they are just as far lost as everyone else, i.e. The Phantom of The Opera vs. Casanova. In light of Dylan's later works the song gets better and better the more you hear it. Try listening to "Tangled Up in Blue" as Dylan's personal experience on Desolation Row, "Gotta Serve Somebody" as an explanation of why Desolation Row exists, and "I Believe in You" as Dylan's gradual exodus from Desolation Row. I gained a lot of personal insight from doing so, hopefully you can too!
  • Jonathan from Armorel, ArI used to sing this song to my niece at bedtime when she was a baby, years ago. It was one of her two favorite long songs--the other being "American Pie". I wrote a book several years ago and called it POSTCARDS OF THE HANGING, after the first line of this song. I dedicated it to her, and wrote of how I would hold her and sing to her as we walked "...under the red sky."
  • Bon from Boston, United StatesHey, what's the meaning of this?:

    "Yes I received your letter yesterday,
    Just about the time the door knob broke,
    When you asked me how I was doing,
    Was that some kind of joke?..."

    In and of itself, and I hate to suggest this, but this is an inside joke in itself, considering what one might be doing with a door knob that might break it. However, isn't this the joy of this period of Dylan's work? It is all so multi layered, so deliciously obtuse, so wonderfully entertaining. In the final analysis, IT MEANS WHAT YOU TAKE AWAY FROM IT and the commentary here proves that in spades.
  • Jason from State Of Fitz, Njnow his nurse, some local loser.Dylan could be so cruel
  • Jed from Los Angeles, CaI agree...a 45 minute version...doesn't anyone monitor the quack comments on here. You're apparently the only person on earth who has heard it...including Dylan himself.
  • Joe from Bethlahem, PaIn the film "I'm Not There", I belive the Richard Gere sequences were influenced by this song.
  • Liuzhou from Liuzhou, China"Wait...45 minute versions of this exist? How can I get my hands on them?"

    Er, you can't. They are a figment of the poster's imagination like most of the nonsense here.
  • Grace Newlin from Indianapolis, InDylan read a lot of things, i was just recently reading Voltaire's 'Religion' which begins with a vision he had of piles of bones all around and piles of treasures and money. At the end of these piles were rows of pine trees. Basically the piles of bones and treasures were explained to represent the greed and sins throughout human history and when Voltaire asked the guide "where am I?" the guide responded "in desolation". So he is in desolation and there are rows of trees. On the other side of the trees stand a series of virtuous men whom have died or been persecuted by the hypocrisies/greed/or sins of other men (among them Socrates and though left unamed, Christ). So while throughout the versus he points out other instances of sinners and whatnot that have been deciphered by you all, I believe the topic of the song (Desolation Row) derives from the divide between virtue and sin, and his last verse implies he is stuck on the side of sin.
  • Bill from Plano, TxI know this song isn't about New Orleans, but I always think of New Orleans when I hear it: counterculture, artists and crazy people, narrow streets, Old World, strange, off-center, fortune tellers and rip-off artists, failed dreamers, on and on. Sit on a terrace overlooking one of the little side streets off the French Quarter about 4:00 in the morning and listen to this song, and you'll see what I mean.
  • Johnnym from Toronto, Canadaeinstein described as robin hood could be a reference to allen ginsberg. einstein, dylan respected his intelligence. robin hood, ginsberg was a huge socialist who rallied for freedoms. memories in a trunk, he's a poet. his friend a jealous monk, ginsberg was gay, maybe his boyfriend was jealous of dylan.
  • Bob from Bobville, Mn"Pound took alot of Elliot's ideas and then criticized him."

    That's ridiculous. I'd like to see you back this up with something.
  • Ressie from Medford, OrI am not an outwardly emotional individual, but I remember sobbing the first time I ever read the lyrics to Desolation Row (and yes, I was sober...)...I didn't actually hear the song until three more years had passed. With plentiful allusions woven into glimpses of this corrupt society, glazed over in a surreality and drug reference, Dylan here has encapsulated an aspect of the human experience that we have yet to properly define: that point (place) that one reaches in life where there is so much happening that the world seems still, as if life were void BECAUSE of it's chaos. I suspect I am still not explaining it matter. This song is absolutely brilliant in it's lyricism.
  • Sam from South Kingston, RiMy interpretation is that the song is just about losers and misfits, but dylan say's there my losers and misfits. But definitly influenced by LSD.
  • William from Pensacola, FlMy favorite song EVER. So I am not going to wax all about it. This song is too sacred to me. I will, however, lust type a few interesting tid-bits I have found.
    - Painting passports brown ...U.S. Government Agents' passports are brown instead of blue..... pretending to be a gov't agency..hmm?
    - And though I hate all the drug interpretations out there, this song does contain one possible clever one. 'Dr. Filth he keeps his world inside of a leather cup, but all his sexless patients are trying to blow it up" ...Heroin is sold most usually in small bags called balloons. You blow up balloons - right? And heroin is notorious for killing libido's. Of course I prefer to go with the idea of souls which are sexless, and the nurse who keeps their merciful cards.
  • Nicole from Beaufort, ScI do not believe that this song is about war at all. It is just about a place which is filled with sinful people that Bob Dylan is trapped in. Here is my take:

    The beginning stanza is about the hanging in Duluth on June 15th, 1920. Three black men were hanged and the pictures of the incident were used as postcards. The blind commissioner is the judge who ruled the case and the rioters are the people who hanged the men. There are many interpretations of the "Lady and I" bit because the word Lady is capitalized which infers that she is an actual person.

    Cinderella is being portrayed in this stanza as a person who doesn't care because when the ambulance carries off Romeo after he kills himself for Juliet she is sweeping. She is said to be "easy" meaning that when she saw the prince, she fell in love.

    Cain, Abel and the Hunchback all sacrificed someone. Cain killed Abel and the Hunchback didn't literally kill himself, but he hid from the world when Esmerelda broke his heart, hints the fortune teller. The Good Samaritan is a good person and he is going to Desolation Row to see the prisoners.

    The stanza about Ophelia is refrencing Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Ophelia killed herself after her lover Hamlet killed her father. She died when she was twenty-two and she was an old maid because she never wedded anyone. "She wears an iron vest" is referring to the fact that she drowned in the river because of her heavy clothing. She did, however, do it on purpose. "Her profession's her religion" means that she believes anything she says passionatley and "her sin is her lifelessness" means that her sin, suicide, led to her lifelessness. The reference to "Noah's great rainbow" means that she was religious and is still looking for the light in all the madness.

    When Einstein died, someone stole his brain in hopes to figure out a way to bless all of the less-fortunate people with his genius. The Robin Hood part is about how the person who stole his brain was "taking from the rich and giving to the poor". The monk means that the science that Einstein was associated with was covering up the religion at the time. The monk has lost all of his morals and is bumming cigarettes and doing sinful things that monks don't normally do.

    Dr. Filth is a real person in the holocaust who cut off male genitals and kept them inside of a cup around her neck made out of skin. I know, it's gross, but it happened and this is what it is referring to. The part which says "and she also keeps the cards that read 'Have Mercy on His Soul'" shows that his assistant was forced into running the gas chambers for her.

    The Phantom of the Opera's face is covered by a mask which means he is the "perfect image of a priest" because when you go to confession, the priest cannot be seen. Casanova is a legendary womanizer associated with many songs and a movie was recently put out about his life. The Phantom is yelling at skinny girls because in the time of Casanova, skinny wasn't in. The more plump girls were consitered to be pretty.

    The next stanza is about the government supressing society with their technology AKA atomic and nuclear bombs.

    "Nero's Neptune" is a reference to the Greek god Neptune of the sea. The sea brought down the Titanic. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot had an ongoing conflict, both being poets. Pound took alot of Elliot's ideas and then criticized him. The singers are laughing at the people fighting because they are alive and well and this is also stating the fact that pop culture was taking over the literature world and people were more concerned about the uprise of the modern pop. The fishermen are holding flowers for the dead people on the Titanic, like a funeral. The mermaids are a reference to Elliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". In it, he talks about the woman he finds attractive as mermaids. They flow because this is also another reference to the Titanic and how the people who died all died in the water and were floating around.

    The last stanza is one of my favorites. It states "Yes, I received your letter yesterday
    about the time the door knob broke" which shows that Dylan is, infact, locked on Desolation Row and does not want to be there. When he says "is that some kind of joke?" it means that he is miserable on Desolation Row with the sinners and whoever wrote him shound realize that and not ask him how he is doing. The rearranging faces and changing names part confuses me but it goes along with another interpretation of the song. It goes along with the theory that everyone in the song is either one of Dylans' friends or enemies and he has changed their name to point out their sins.

    This song is very deep and Dylan, himself, never explained it. I really wish he would because there are still so many questions unanswered about this song.
  • Juozas from Zagreb, CroatiaItalian singer-songwriter Fabrizio de Andre translated the song and issued his version in mid-70s on his album Canzoni. 2 guitars and 10 minutes. Brilliant, however unlikely it may seem to Yankees!:-)
  • Matt from Austin, MnThe thing about 45 minute versions is just plain false. How did that get put up as a fact?
  • Jonathan from Saginaw, TxTHE MEANING OF THIS SONG IS AS FOLLOWS: this is my first time to post anything but what the hell, i got really stoned one night and listened to this song on repeat for hours. The song is about the world war (the second), and events leading up to it that have to deal with those going to serve in it - "they're painting the passports brown" - they are trying to get out of the draft and skip town - "everbody's making love or else expecting rain" - couple are either spending their last night getting ready for the "rains" or just making love, also relating to the song with "the hard rains are gonna fall". He talks about the ship leaving and fisherman holding flowers and "nobody has to think too much about desolation row" - meaning the military makes everything look floofy and happy so that nobody is too bothered about where their loved ones are really going to. The reference to Einstein and how he "used to be famous" is because of his impact on the creation of the nuclear bomb used in WWII. also , there is the girl who "on her 22nd birthday, she already is an old maid", meaning her husband/boyfriend has left for war and is not expected to come home. In the beginning of the song he talks about the "blind commisioner" who they have in a trance at the "carnival" that's in town, relating to the festival and parades, and the blind commisioner - who stands as the mayor/governer, what have you.

    If anyone remotely agrees with me, post a comment and let me know.
  • Green from Johnstown, PaAlbert Einstein disguised as Robin Hood... it seems to me, that it can be portraying the questionable promise from modern science of being capable of bringing about a better life for everybody, specially the most in need, when in reality it's all driven by the dollar, building more destructive bombs and other lucrative deeds. For those who study science with that original promise in mind, desolation row is a certain ending.
    Or maybe he was just tripping balls and talking about a dude he met at a bar; who knows,right?
  • Dan from Lee, NhThere are some great long songs with humongous jams and wild guitar solos, but a song as simple as this can still out do it. Now that shows what a great artist Dylan is.
  • Barry from New York, NyThe Grateful Dead played this song, usually during their first set "Dylan slot." Bob Weir handled the vocals.
  • Justin from Florence, ScI've always felt that the last lines of the song, "Don't send me no more letters no, Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row" sum it up. All of the people who go to Desolation Row are similar in some way, whether they are all outcasts, or are all suffering, or what, I'm not sure, but the last lines seem to mean that if you don't have that common bond these people share, then Dylan won't listen to you, or won't take you seriously.

    However, I also know that Dylan has recently stated that he doesn't know how he came up with a lot of his lyrics, and I would assume he would be talking about more surreal songs like this one, so maybe he just liked references, allusions, and clever wording(which we know he did) and didn't really care for the meaning of the song as long as the lyrics sounded good together.
  • John Dylan from Blah, MsI don't think this song means anything really. It is just a skewed watof looking at the counterculture of the 1960s. He lived in Greenwich Village and was well aquainted with the type of people in the song. He is describing them from a different angle. It's like telling someone what something looks like through circus glass, all the faces and angles warped and out of proportion, the nameing of people after famous people is explained in his letter stanza,
    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
  • Marla from Columbus, OhI knew someone who claimed to have lived in the Village around '64 as a runaway, near Dylan, who reported befriended him. He identified every character in the song, and claimed Dylan had named them all. He claimed the the Monk referred to a young black kid who always wore a hooded sweatshirt. And Einstein disguised as RH was my friend, who had a genius IQ and was a petty thief, to survive. Prostitution, murder, drug addiction, it's all covered. Who knows.
  • Alex from New York, Nymy favorite stanza is the one about cinderella
  • Alex from New York, NyAs Dylan experimented with LSD, he also experimented with surrealism, which is where the idea for the song comes from. Every character who lives on desolation row has defied authority or is in some way different to the box of regular society. Even people such as Cinderella fit this description, having defied her step-mother and her step sisters by courting and eventually marrying the prince.

    Though this place is a dump, it turns out to be the one place that these people can go for some kind of refuge from the suburban, generic, mundane world; Dylan is said to make reference to this lifestyle, calling it "the heart attack machine," since it attempts to compromise the purity of the soul.
  • Kyle from Eglewood, Cothis song is about a place where outcasts of society are welcomed
  • James from WhangareiI get the most out of the message:
    Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
    With his memories in a trunk
    Passed this way an hour ago
    With his friend, a jealous monk...
    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.

    The song describes a town of some sort, with a bunch of people- basically he puts society in a nutshell. He describes aspects and what he feels that niche of society feels or is doing.
  • Christian from Richmond, WiThis song is too long, whuch is unfortunate, otherwise it's an amazing song.
  • Tony from St. Cloud, MnThe opening line, "Their selling postcards of the hanging", likely refers to the lynching of three young black men in Duluth on June 15th, 1920. Pictures were taken of the bodies still hanging from the streetlights and put onto postcards.
  • Elliott from Douglassville, PaI heard a bootlegged version with an electric guitar part and slightly different lyrics - for example, "They're spoonfeeding Casanova/To get him to feel more assured" was originally "They're spoonfeeding Casanova/The boiled guts of birds." Weird imagery...
  • Steve from Long Island, NyI heard years ago that he wrote (or outline) this in the back of cab while riding though Greenwich Village.

    The other two musicians on this cut are Michael Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on bass.
  • Chetan from Bangalore, IndiaI like the "Highway 61.." version, but the MTV unplugged version is abs awesome!! either way, it's more of a poem. i've read so many different stanzas of this song, heard only a few. and Matt, i want tht bloody 45-minuter too:)
  • Kieran from Harlow, United StatesThe song is inspired by TS Eliot's the wasteland and even makes a reference to him, as well as referencing Albert Einstein. Desolation Row is also inspired by Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
  • Matt from Durham, NhWait...45 minute versions of this exist? How can I get my hands on them?
  • Leanne from Narre Warren, AustraliaThis song is namechecked in Spanish Eddie, by Laura Brannigan. "The night Spanish Eddie cashed it it they were playing Desolation Row on the radio..."
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