Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is one of those rare songs that can transfigure your existence if you let it in. It beholds 11 minutes and 20 seconds worth of musical and emotional riches to be discovered, examined, re-discovered and enjoyed as best as you let it. Dylan historians have composed essays around this single composition, attempting to decipher inspirations (Steinbeck, Pound, Kerouac, Eliot) and meanings. It doesn’t go much deeper than a collective f*ck off addressed to many people disguised with literary nonsense and then, in the song’s end, to the one person in mind—direct and biting.
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
Backed by Charlie McCoy’s mesmerizing acoustic guitar solo, Dylan introduces an apocalyptic gathering of foils, antagonists, fools, fictional, some biblical, many characters and great thinkers. Look, there’s Romeo, Ophelia, Casanova, Cinderella, Cain & Able, The Phantom of The Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Noah, Einstein, Dr. Filth, The Nurse, Robin Hood, Nero and whoever else you can imagine at this awful place. They all face the same fate onDesolation Row.
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”
Dylan’s lyrics aren’t as obtuse as they appear. Repeat listens expose cartoon bullets aimed at friends, colleagues, artists, cons and in the end, the ex-lover. Doesn’t it always go there? This is another place Dylan is leaving behind forever in 1965, about the same time he turned protesting peace-loving folkies into angry punks. The same place that put him on a pedestal is the same place he’s sending off to hell on Desolation Row. The irony, a generational performance art prank for the better of 1 person, Bob Dylan.
The titanic sails at dawn
which side are you on?
At the 8 & a half-minute mark, Dylan abandons the apocalyptic setting and character cut-downs for an epic harmonica hanging. The solo rings out the previous eight and half minutes— imagine wrists twisting water from a loaded rag before a final wipe off.
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
Heartbreak & a final f*ck off is the only reason you’re here at Desolation Row. It ends 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited on a final note Bob Dylan creatively succeeded to return to on Blonde on Blonde (with Visions of Johanna and Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands) though I’d argue he’s never quite matched this song’s poetic, fictional simplicity with personal depth since.
Desolation Row is no different from, say, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. It becomes something else entirely the longer you stare at it, and listen to it. Colors expose themselves at every turn, what’s at once bright and vivid becomes dark & violent; just as Row’s beautiful people become horrible, ugly, soulless, vile and pathetic characters. Desolation Row represents a mindset Bob Dylan plays host to, a goodbye party of many sorts; some collective but in the end, a singular, justifiable, truth-filled & slightly vicious send off.
To the grave we go.