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Bob Dylan – Desolation Row Lyrics 13 years ago
Just a theory:
I think all the references in the song are allusions to the Cold War.
I think Ophelia in her iron vest is the nuclear bomb ("Her profession's her religion / her sin is her lifelessness"..."Noah's Great Rainbow" is a time when the rains stop and the Earth is purified.) In 1964-5, when "Desolation Row" was written, the Manhattan Project was exactly 22 years old. I'm beginning to believe that DR is supposed to be a story narrated BY the "masters of war" - specifically, LBJ - describing a certain level of hopeless guilt over the state of the world. I think the key to this is the line early on, "And the riot squad, they're restless / They need somewhere to go / as Lady and I look out tonight from desolation row"
Lady being Ladybird Johnson...Desolation Row being Pennsylvania Avenue. (I wonder if Bob is going to send me a prize for figuring this out.)
The song is full of references to a bipolar world. Every verse contains a life-and-death struggle between mortal enemies: Romeo and Cinderella (the chaser and the chasee); Cain and Abel (murdered and murderer); Einstein and the Monk (science and religion); Dr. Filth and his patients; the Phantom and Cassanova; the Agents/Insurance Men and Everyone Who Knows More Than They Do; Pound and Eliott. (Side note: These combatants are always black and white, good and evil, yet they each have something in common. Romeo and Cinderella have one thing in common: Bad timing. Cain and Abel for all their differences are brothers. Einstein's science supplanted the Monk's religion. The Agents want to find information; the people they arrest do, too. Pound and Eliott are both poets.)
Meanwhile, everyone besides the main combatants in each scene are "either making love or else expecting rain." All the calypso singers and fishermen are the other countries of the world, holding their breath in fear of nuclear war. Even Einstein has gone mad at the prospect of what's happened.
"Across the street they've nailed the curtain" is definitely a reference to the Iron Curtain. The "Phantom of the Opera" is tricky; but I think it might be Brezhnev, punishing Khrushchev for "going to desolation row," i.e. calling Kennedy and backing down from nuclear war.
Another theory is that Cinderella is South Vietnam, and North Vietnam is Romeo. "Puts her hands in her back pockets" may be a reference to American aid. "Sweeping up on desolation row" = leadership getting rich off American aid.

I also think that "Nero" IS "Einstein" -- playing the electric violin while the world burns down. "Nero's Neptune" is the cataclysmic Flood, the apocalypse, cross-referenced by "Noah's great rainbow."

"The Titanic sails at dawn" is another reference to the apocalypse pending. "Dawn" and sunrise in this song mean the final duel, the armageddon. That's why the fortune teller's bringing her things inside as the stars begin to hide.

"Yes I received your letter yesterday" - I think this verse is about the near-failure to open communications during the missile crisis. "when you asked me how I was doing" reminds me heavily of the scene in "Dr. Strangelove" where the President and the Soviet Premiere go back and forth for several minutes asking each other "how are you?"
I think the last three lines "right now I can't read too good / don't send me no more letters, no / not unless you mail them from desolation row" are implying a hardening of the willingness to compromise. They're saying, don't talk to me until you're on my side.

I could be wrong about any or all of this...I look forward to hearing what people have to say...
Josh

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Bob Dylan – Ballad of a Thin Man Lyrics 13 years ago
I think harperfan is absolutely right; the song is non-stop references to gay sex. I don't know why so few people seem to have gotten this over the years.
There's more than just what harper mentioned:

"and you say impossible, as he hands you a bone."
hands you a bone?

"you have many contacts/out there among the lumberjacks"
vague, but definitely sexual; lumberjacks 1. fell trees all day, 2. appear superficially straight but, like sailors, have a reputation for sodomy...I'd love to know exactly what Dylan had in mind with this one...

"you've been with the professors/and they've all liked your looks"
this one's pretty self-explanatory.

"you've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Books" - who was one of the greatest misogynists of the 20th Century...

and finally, the biggest one:

"you walk into a room/like a camel and then you frown/you put your eyes in your pocket/and your nose on the ground/there ought to be a law/against you coming around/you should be made to wear earphones ([alt.] telephones)"

Let's analyze this carefully. Picture Joe Camel; that long nose, the puffed-out cheeks; picture the outline of his face. It's a phallus. What's got its eyes in your pockets and its nose on the ground? Your penis. "There ought to be a law against you coming around" - hehehehe. this one makes me laugh. "You should me made to wear earphones." (Earphones are for PROTECTION. Just like you wear a condom to stop you from "coming around.")

Every line in song is just more incredibly childish and immature than the last -- it's like something 13 year old boys write in the backs of their Latin books. But the genius of it has stood the test of time -- most people who've heard it a thousand times still have no idea what it really means.

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