What does Desolation Row mean?

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Bob Dylan: Desolation Row Meaning


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Covered By: My Chemical Romance (2009)

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Desolation Row Lyrics

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...


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    Apr 12th, 2016 4:31am report

    The first thing you need to know about this song is that you are not going to "figure it out". It raises several questions to the careful listener, and none have pat answers. Can you relate to what happens to Cinderella or Romeo? Have you been in the wrong places my friend? Or are you more likely to tell someone that and or do something about it? You can only have your view of matters.
    To me, desolation row represents a place that those with questions go to seek understanding and a place that those Babbitts without these questions fear. The power structure realizes what desolation row is and wants to keep people from going there (check to see that no one is escaping to), since that is the location from which the morally bankrupt are overthrown. It is the place where all is stripped bare except the self. It is where the singer, and one can only assume the addressee of the song are at. "Not unless you mail them from desolation row" is a challenge to respond with substance and meaning, not the hackneyed drivel that the characters in the song so often represent. My view is that Einstein represents science and the atomic era and the monk the waning power of religion in the face of scientific advance (hence he is "jealous" of Einstein). Of course science is only going to blow us up - it is not Robin Hood, the answer to our ills and questions, but is immaculately (religious comparison) frightful.
    IF you work hard at the verses you can probably find some similar explanations, Cinderella (the woman who is "liberated" = in the original story so I suppose she represents the emerging modern woman ) has now become "easy" but really you are just the same. romeo (why must it always be the wrong man) doesn't get it that Cinderella belongs to no one and is willing to "fight for her" or course he is really only fighting for himself and it seems he loses. It is unclear what happens, but it is clear that Cinderella gets to clean up the mess (which is what she was an expert at in the original story anyway). Her consolation is that she is now more self aware (on desolation row).


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    Jun 4th, 2013 6:22am report

    it amazes me that each new post about this song brings forth something I and many others never gave a 2nd thought to. this site just gets deeper and deeper into an all time great set of lyrics. i suppose an interpretation does depend what mood the listener is in when they hear it! what was a collection of funny phrases in '65 when i first heard the song, seems to have changed into an 11 minute scolding of society's useless standards. or maybe i'm just hearing it differently as i have aged


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    Jun 3rd, 2013 6:15pm report

    Of course the first verse is about a hanging of black circus performers in Duluth MN


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    Mar 26th, 2013 3:51pm report

    That's a good observation (message just prior to this one) about how he seems to be pointing out how messed up everything in the world is. I think Everything is Broken could indeed be an extention to that notion.

    A couple of things stand out in my mind which do a good job of supporting this notion (in DR, that is)...

    At one point, Dylan seems to go off on a tangent/rant about how corrupt and crooked Insurance companies are. I think most people would tend to agree that these said companies can really go a long way in making people have to do a double-take and scratch their heads, while not having any clue at all as to how they've managed to rake us all (collectively) over the coals, so to speak.

    And let's not forget the line about what could possibly be considered the most interesting oddity of the entire 11 minute song...the line about Titanic sailing at dawn.

    The notion about 'Everything being Broken' really stands out, perhaps more so with this line than maybe any other in the song.

    But the whole entire song is still a masterpiece, nonetheless...and will continue to force me to rack my brain trying to figure it all out, I'm sure.


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    Mar 25th, 2013 3:55am report

    i.m almost positive the subject at the end of the song is Carla. she hated Bob and the feeling was mutual. the more i listen or think about D.R. the more interpretations i feel. right now a thought entered my brain, that the song was about how screwed up the world was then, how everything was out of place and people were not what we thought they were! "Everything is Broken" could be a hint at what D.R. was about, but written so we could understand what exactly it was he tried to put forth in D.R., which is probably his deepest and most mysterious song. it was like he wrote " Rolling Stone" and dared us to find the meaning. then told us if you think you figured that out, try this one


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    Mar 24th, 2013 3:42am report

    Considering all of these possible interpretations about DR, it also gets me to wondering who the chief target character was that he was thinking of he penned the words to, 'Like A Rolling Stone'...

    Could it have been Carla (Rotolo's) sister, possibly? Or perhaps it might have more correctly been a "High Society" person such as Jackie O'Nassis, or Marilyn Monroe, or someone like that.


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    Mar 24th, 2013 3:48am report

    right now i can't see too good
    don't send me no more letters,no
    not unless you mail them from Desolation Row is Dylan's reply to Jackie Kennedy's letter to various poets? why would she write Dylan anyway? she was in high society and more likely to send letters to Robert frost and others that appealed to her level of what the "Arts" were. i know the kinds of concerts she went to, Leonard Bernstein, operas and classical music were her idea of a fun night out. i just can't see her smoking a joint with her cigarette lighter lit, rocking side to side while Dylan is singing " Visions of Johanna'. but you might be right as only Dylan knows why he wrote that song


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    Mar 23rd, 2013 3:49pm report

    I heard an interview with a professor on NPR some years ago -- don't remember his name. He said a year after the JFK assassination, Jackie sent letters to lots of poets, asking them to write a poem in commemoration of the slain president. The last verse is about that letter.


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    Dec 13th, 2012 12:46pm report

    suze is the girl on the cover of "Freewheeling Bob Dylan" she was living with bob, or bob was living with her; depending what month i might be. suze was the girl in "Boots of Spanish Leather" who was taken to Spain by her family to let her forget about dylan, whom they felt was a leech, as her family was quite wealthy a lot of his songs written about that time had her as the female character of the tune. carla was suze's sister who hated bob and his dealing with her is told in Ballad in plain D i believe. anyway by time he wrote desolation row he was far more wealthier than the Rotello family. which was suze's last name. she died this summer and her death was noted in many media sources as the girl on the cover of the album"Freewheeling" taken on Jones Street in the west village. there was a rumor going around that the first 500 or so covers had shown dylan's fly was open and Colunbia records tried to get back as many as they could but some are out there! if the lucky New Yorker realized what he had and didn't toss the cover when it got worn he/she is sitting on a gold mine. true or not?


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    Dec 4th, 2012 12:28am report

    desolation, is very close to desperation in the dictionary, but miles apart in meaning. both terms can cross poverty levels. the poor are more desperate in their search for honest good paying jobs, to make a better life for themselves and family, than they are desolate, which is another word for lost, or given up
    many more wealthy people are desolate rather than desperate. as Dylan points out, in my mind at least, that the people wandering around are desolate as they have no lives and are alone so they take on different personas to get through the day. their fame and fortune have prevented them from having a normal life even with all the money the possess a poor person is desperate that the next job interview will offer them a chance to improve their state in life, by hard honest work and make life better for their families. if given the choice i would rather be desperate than desolate. but that's only my 10th different interpretation of the song


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    Dec 2nd, 2012 12:42pm report

    desolation row,is where all the peasants live. like the average american worker.all these figures in this poem are displayed as they would be in our world of under 20,000 a year.a really entertaining piece of poetic mastery.really this is a masterpiece.for those who have the intelligence to understand it.cinderella she seems so easy.how many ways can you interpret that? is she sexually easy,is she easy going,is she easy to understand.thats what makes this such a great piece.you can think it over and over and always amuse yourself with the different meanings.like an awful lot of mr.dylans work.


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    Nov 26th, 2012 11:45pm report

    every comment here has merit! personally i believe "positively 4th street" sums up his feelings about the change he nade by going electric. desolation row is the type of song 100,000 people can study and come up with 100,000 different views on it's meaning, i think every line and verse is different than the one before it but when joined together make one fantastic tune! i elieve the "bard" was just having a bit of fun with us , while not knowing himself what the true reason he wrote it was. besides, i don't believe he thought this song would have an avid effect on dylan freaks almost 53 years after it was written. but that's just bob, and that's what makes him so unique! the person who wrote that einstein and the monk might be simon & garfinkal might not be off the mark, as the duo did diss bob in a song that ended with" i can't find my harmonica albert"


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    Nov 23rd, 2012 11:19pm report

    Another thought to consider to add to what I just said (above):

    Einstein disguised as Robin Hood....with his friend a jealous Monk (does this sound like a reference to Simon and Garfunkel)?

    Simon and Garfunkel had been a part of the Folk scene around the early-to-mid '60s, but would eventually experience somewhat of a shift over to the other (electric) side, by way of their single The Sounds of Silence being made from a primarily accoustic version to an electric-sounding song


    Which might have something to do with the line: "...was famous long ago, for playing the 'lectric (electric) violin on Desolation Row."

    I don't know...I might really be reaching here, but it is fun to try and see what we can come up with, with stuff like this.


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    Nov 23rd, 2012 11:56pm report

    I think that Anonymous (May 18th) may have hit the nail right on the head here.

    Thanks for that interpretation. There are parts of the song that really make a lot more sense to me now.

    To follow this logic a little bit, take for example the line about the "two sides" in the reference about (the) Titanic. The 2 sides he is refering to are obviously the Folkies and the Beats. Makes perfect sense.

    Other parts are still not so clear, but gaining an understanding of some of the differences between the Folkies and the Beats helps quite a bit.


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    Nov 12th, 2012 11:28pm report

    Everything in the song is the opposite of what it was in real life. Who would expect Einstein to be insane or Cinderella to be working in some bar? The song just goes to show that no matter who you are, life can still drag you into a state of desolation and despair. Misery loves company.

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