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...

  1. m320753
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    Dec 4th 2012 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

  2. anonymous
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    Dec 2nd 2012 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.

  3. m320753
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    Nov 26th 2012 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"

  4. anonymous
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    Nov 23rd 2012 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.

  5. anonymous
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    Nov 23rd 2012 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.

  6. anonymous
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    Nov 12th 2012 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.

  7. anonymous
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    Nov 4th 2012 report

    all views posted offer something worthy of consideration. perhaps 'desolation row' is just a metaphor for life's crazy nature. we find bits of meanings and answers in literary artifacts, in zany folklore and fairytales, in life's bizarre twists and turns, in meta-narratives of quest and purpose, nevertheless always left seeking a better answer around the next corner. like the existentialists life is angst, and meaningless unless we can find a meaning that suits us. 'desolation row' is that place of angst in which our lives flounder for a reason why we are here. his song expresses our despair and wonder at life's frustrating and inspiring
    ystery. indeed a place of desolation and struggle. then again, maybe not.

  8. twopockets
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    Jul 30th 2012 report

    Ophila as Joan Baez is interesting. I always thought it was a nun who is cloistered.

  9. anonymous
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    May 18th 2012 report

    You have to look at what was going on for Dylan in 1965. He'd left behind the folkies and taken up with the Beats. Although both groups lived side by side in Greenwich Village, they didn't care for each other or agree on much. The folkies were political, straight laced, orthodox, puritanical, and trying to save the world. The Beats might comment on the world, but they wanted no part of it and were content to stay outside politics and live life to the fullest. Desolation row is where Dylan finds himself after he abandons the folk scene. The last verse sort of explains it: The narrator has cut himself off from the world (the doorknob broke)and gets a letter from someone he used to know, asking about how's he's doing and does he know so-and-so. He says yes, but they're lame. For the purposes of the song he's rearranged their faces and given them new names. For example, I expect Ophelia is Joan Baez, probably the folkie that Dylan was closest to. She's "neath the window," nearby but still distant to him. He worries about her. At 22 (She was 22 in 1963, a year they were together a lot) she's already an old maid: (Baez was serious beyond her years, didn't know how to enjoy her youth). To her death is romantic (she sings about it but has no real experience with it), she wears an iron vest (possibly a Joan of Arc comparison, the metal breast plate of the armor, Baez as a crusader) Her profession is her religion (she takes folk music too seriously) her sin is her lifelessness ( a line lifted from Kerouac's then-new book Desolation Angels, and another reference to how she doesn't seize life.) Her eyes are fixed upon Noah's rainbow (the folkies' constant search for political salvation) she spends her time peeking into Desolation Row (she's outside the window still, on the fringes of Dylan's new Beat existence, curious about what he's up to.)

  10. m320753
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    Feb 15th 2012 report

    it is a funny story that mentions mostly famous people. but to write the verses in perfectly poetic form, makes this song show us what Dylan is capable of. we can only stand in total awe of his writing. he is well known for rhyming 7 or 8 lines in a row several times in one song. everytime i hear this it blows me away

  11. fistofate
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    Feb 7th 2012 report

    This song is a big high level joke about historical and literary characters seen in situations living outside of the stories and situations they're known for and creating hilarious ironic situations.
    Much has been made of the likeness between this song and artist James Ensor's "Christs' Entry into Brussels: 1889"

  12. anonymous
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    Nov 26th 2011 report

    To me people read too much into it. I look just at the vague images in the song and find a more concrete meaning. Burning pasports, draft cards? beauty parlor with sailors - tatoo parlor. Desolation row is skid row, or big city neighborhood. Blind commissioner is a corrupt stupid polition. Riot squad is a gang of grease balls with switch baldes. Cinderella is a whore who isn't interested in romatic attention. Good samaratin a salvation army captian at a mission? Jealous monk is gay? Einstein was brilliant and famous but now is old and demented. Dr. filth is a dope connection. Sexless patients are heroin addicts, nurse is the pusher, blowing on the penny whistle is a dope pipe. Agents are detectives, super human crew are cops.
    The factory is the cop shop, castle is prison,insurance men are prison guards.
    Titanic and sides, perhaps first class and steerage class? Intelectuals and working class? No more letters, he uses 4 negatives which makes a positive, just like Shakespear used up to 3. Its like a lot of his vague songs. To me he is describing what he is seeng on an evening looking out on Desolation Row. He just describes and leaves the judgement of the situation to the listener.

  13. MCRsavedMYlyfe
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    Nov 22nd 2011 report

    This song was made for the watchmen movie. I dont think they wrote it but you never know

  14. anonymous
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    May 15th 2011 report

    I don't know much about Suzie and Carla, but I've always thought Desolation Row was a headspace where it's OK be sad and display negative emotions, but society frowns on that and we're expected to upbeat 24/7. Men aren't allowed to cry etc. It's even worse these days where you can't be allowed to deal with anything bad in your life without being offered counselling.

  15. m320753
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    Jan 17th 2011 report

    many people , way more educated than me have died from self inflicted wounds to the head, caused by banging their heads against the wall trying to find the meaning of the lyrics from this song. i think it has a lot to do with suzie rotello's sister carla. while most of the verses seem to be from a drug induced hallucination in the end it comes together when he tells carla not to give him anymore information about suzie unless she writes them from the desolate place she has put him for breaking him and suzie up.

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