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
And he when 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'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 penny whistles, 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 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


Lyrics submitted by Jack

Desolation Row Lyrics as written by Bob Dylan

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Songtrust Ave

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Desolation Row song meanings
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  • +4
    General CommentI remain a firm believer that this this song is discussing, in no uncertain terms, the Holocaust. Now, whether Dylan is using the Holocaust as an alagory toward a greater meaning, or a greater warning, I do not know.

    The language shows clear indicators towards some key moments in the Holocaust.

    Verse One:

    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 maccabre facination with public violence, the crowds are gathering . . . the blind commissioner Hindenberg idly sits in the back doing nothing . . . the riot squad is restless . .. they need someplace to go . . . Something bad is brewing, something in the people, in the population. A storm is coming as he leans out the window, you can smell it, feel it . . .


    Verse two:

    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 better leave”
    And the only sound that’s left
    After the ambulances go
    Is Cinderella sweeping up
    On Desolation Row

    You're in the wrong plcae, friend. Listen and see what happens to Romeo -- the star crossed lover who dares cross the social fabric to love a hated rival. Romeo is in desolation row, the Jewish neighborhood, and is reminded, kindly (My friend) to leave, you're in the wrong place. The conflagration hinted at in verse one happens, in an instant, in between the lines of verse two. Abulances haul off the wounded and dead from a destructive rampage -- remember the riot squad is restless, they need a place to go, and they are getting ready for the hanging, the sailors are in town . . . and then its all gone. Windows broke, and Cinderella -- the poor orphaned step-sister is right back where she always is, in her neighboorhood, cleaning up after another anti-Jewish show of force and violence. Also consider Cinderella as a metaphor for the jews in Europe -- a member of the family, but not REALLY a member of the family.

    Third Verse:

    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

    Consider Cain and Abel, the first murderer and the first innocent victim. Consider the Hunchback, an inncocent victim who saw unjust things, and for years did nothing. Consider the Good Samaritan -- the non-Jew who helped the jewish man on the road after being robbed. Its dark, dead dark of night. The only people who dare hit the street are either those looking for trouble, the innocent soon-to-be-victim, or the few who stick their necks out to help.

    Verse Four:

    Now 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

    Ah, this is the Christian community, generally, in the form of a nun or otherwise religiously active soul. She is young, impressionable. Ophelia was a fool who mooned for Hamlet. This verse makes tremendous sense in the context of the dicsussion with Hamlet in the Nunnery Scene. And her eyes are fixed on Noah's Great rainbow -- a symbol of the promise of God to mankind that he will never again allow the world to be destroyed -- although she keeps her hopes facing the rainbow, she looks into desolation row, peeking, watching the horror and chaos of the persecution. In Hamlet, she gives mutes and cryptic reference to what is happening to the characters. Same thing here.


    Verse Five:

    Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
    With his memories in a trunk
    Passed this way an hour ago
    With his friend, a jealous monk
    He looked so immaculately frightful
    As he bummed a cigarette
    Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
    And reciting the alphabet
    Now you would not think to look at him
    But he was famous long ago
    For playing the electric violin
    On Desolation Row

    The intelligencia and those who have the ability are getting out. Einstein left Germany in teh face of harsh rising anti-jewish attacks. You wouldn't know it, looking at him now as a famous man, but long ago he was a just a simple Jew who lived in Desolation row.

    Verse Six:

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


    I have read a few other comments about this being Dr. Mengele. I don't think that is exactly correct. I think this is not likely far off. They all play on pennywhistles, you can hear them blow. The marching, rythmic music, all in unison. You can hear them, just out side, if you lean out far enough from desolation row. The music, the marching, the bad doctor and his helpless nurse -- they are not in desloation row. They may be coming. But they are far off, in another part of the city. If you listen, though, you can hear them . . . .


    Verse Seven:

    Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
    They’re getting ready for the feast
    The Phantom of the Opera
    A perfect image of a priest
    They’re spoonfeeding 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 Outa Here If You Don’t Know
    Casanova is just being punished for going
    To Desolation Row”

    I always felt that based on my understanding of the song, this was the most literal verse. Kristallnacht.

    Verse Eight:

    Now 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 round-ups of the super human crew. taken to a factory and murdered. Insurance men -- men who ensure nobody leaves the factory death camp and returns to desolation row. Zyklon B gas, dropped into the shower heads in death centers, was marked as kerosene for shipment during the Holocaust. I don't know that I can say more than Dylan says. As the song moves on, his point gets mroe clear and more horrible. As the holocaust marches onward, Dylan's own song decides there is little need for symbolism. And who can blame him?

    Verse Nine:

    Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
    The Titanic sails at dawn
    And 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


    Now Dylan takes a step back. And this, in my opinion, is as harsh an indictment as he can offer against the world which turned its back. Here we see TS Elliot and Ezra Pound, being feted as they sail away from exploding Europe. Nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row now -- not at sea, heading back to the US or England. Safe and sound. Praise be to Nero's Neptune, praise be the God of the Sea that will keep that madness and messiness far away from us! We can run away, we are free and safe and sound behind our ocean's walls. I love the line about the people shouting what side are you on -- on the Titanic. It doesn't matter what side you're on -- the ship is sinking. Morally, they are doomed for not doing anything. They argue about what side of the issue they are on -- but in the end they are all doomed.


    Verse Ten:

    Yes, I received your letter yesterday
    (About the time the doorknob broke)
    When you asked 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



    Our author is just about finished. Having stayed in Desolation Row as long as possible, they are coming for him. The door is kicked in. The bad guys are coming. And unless you are here, in Desolation Row -- or eventually cross back over the ocean to fight these people -- don't bother trying to contact me. I shall not hold out hope until you have reached desolation row. When you asked how I was doing -- is that a joke? A spiteful response, and angry person, who has just relayed all of the horrors of the Holocaust and the respondant askes how he's doing. He has been altering passports, trying to get people out. Changing faces, changing appearances. I have tried to take care of your people you ask about . . . but right now the Hun is at the door, and I am (likely) doomed. come soon -- or don't come at all.


    That is my opinion of the song.
    Sioux33on November 14, 2011   Link

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