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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  • +10
    General CommentDesolation Row was written in 1965, a crucial year in Dylan's career. He'd made a break from the folk scene that has brought him his early success. He'd broken up with Suze Roloto and had an affair with Joan Baez that had recently ended. He'd met Allen Ginsburg the previous year and made a personal connection to the original Beats. He'd taken hallucinogens. And the success of the Beatles had revived his childhood love of rock music. If you look at the themes of other songs he'd written in the year past, he made a lot of direct references to the changes going on in him and him relationships and his art: "Positively 4th Street," "My back Pages," etc. I think this is another. Desolation Row is a place outside of normal society. It's where the Beats live. (Two lines are lifted from Kerouac's "Desolation Angels.") It's Bohemia. And he's writing about the world as he sees it from there. The song isn't overtly political, though there are images that could be government agents and politicians (Nero, the commissioner). The characters are given names from literature or history -- a technique he used widely at the time. I would say that he had people in mind when he wrote the characters, although, in their depiction, the primary consideration is probably writing a good lyric rather than accuracy of any kind. It was Ginsberg's favorite Dylan song, so something tells be that Ginsberg saw himself in it somewhere. I think Ophelia bares a sharp resemblance to Baez, peeking into the Row but outside of it, an old maid in spirit at 22, the age Dylan met her. The "iron vest" possibly a reference to Joan of Arc's armor; a zealous devotion to her profession, looking for (political) salvation, but "lifeless" in the sense that she wouldn't cut loose and enjoy herself. Watch some footage of the super-serious Baez in the mid sixties, and you'll see what I mean. But resemblance to real people is secondary to their role as archetypes -- characters who will always be a part of life, in any era. And likely Dylan himself is in there, or previous incarnations of him. Cassanova certainly sounds like a rock star who's being tightly managed, punished for dabbling in the freedom of the Beats. Einstein/Robin Hood sounds like someone from an older generation, but the "electric violin" seems a reference to Dylan's adopting electric instruments. So it's probably part experience part people he's observed, and, in the end, a collection of universal images that will outlive the people who may have inspired them.
    thedroidon May 18, 2012   Link

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