Song lyric Sunday: Comparison

This week’s song lyric Sunday is all about comparing two different songs. I have done a cover version compared to the original as they are both very different.
Not to say this makes for an inadequate cover as there are plenty of cover versions that are completely different to the original. There is one really stood out for me though as I think the difference is quite stark.
I am talking about Bob Dylan’s desolation Row compared to my chemical Romance’s version of the same song. My chemical romance covered the version because of a film called the watchman which is based around some comic. (Can you tell I have never seen/read this) and they released it as a single. I think they mainly sped it up because of the time of the original (11 minutes) and also to give it a more up-to-date sound.
I really enjoyed both versions, although the slower original is probably my favourite out of the two as you can really hear the lyrics and the thinking that there has gone behind it.

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

Deep dive, sorry for the long read


Desolation Row is a state of mind representing the developing counter culture of the 1960s that is outside of the establishment, convention, and the mainstream culture. The artists, free thinkers, and misfits congregate on Desolation Row to strip away the false illusions of society. The use of the characters leads ultimately to why Dylan, and “Lady” (Joan Baez) are a part of Desolation Row.

The name, Desolation Row, may have been a combination of Desolation Angels (Kerouac) with Cannery Row (Steinbeck) and influenced by the writings by Woody Guthrie about the underclass of society desiring change. Musician Al Kooper asserts Desolation Row is in Greenwich Village in New York City, based on personal contact with Dylan, but this appears unlikely from the lyrics.

The characters on Desolation Row are a part of the carnival show that represent, verse by verse: politics, traditional roles, evil, religion, science, medicine and love. Many of the characters are counter culture misfits, both good and bad, that have caused society to question the status quo.

Likely, the first verse has historical basis from Dylan’s days in Minnesota when he discovered that people commercially sold postcards of local hangings (see footnote below). The setting is the absurdity of a world (circus) with “blind” politicians “tied to tight rope walkers” pleasing only themselves with “one hand in their pants” the “riot squads need some place to go.” Historically, the riot squad hung three persons from the jail of the “blind commissioner.”

The second verse with a meeting between the “easy” virtue Cinderella, who through her will power (and a slipper) changed her place in society, and the traditional lover, Romeo, does not go as expected when he becomes possessive (“you belong to me I believe”), and he is told be does not have a place (“You’re in the wrong place, my friend, You better leave”). That another resident stepped in to forcefully defend (“ambulances leave” or that Romeo committed suicide again) shows how far Romeo has strayed from the expectation of assigned roles when this fairy tale romance does not end with Cinderella falling in love with the prince. The traditional roles of women do not apply anymore.

The third verse is in stark contrast to the second as the storm builds (“The stars are beginning to hide”) and “everyone” goes inside and “is making love” (“or expecting rain”). Excluded are Cain and Abel, presumably as they represent jealousy and evil, and the Hunchback, for his betrayal of family. The Good Samaritan is in contrast as he “does unto others” and is invited to the carnival in contrast to the evil.

The fourth verse centers on the suicidal Ophelia who is an outsider due top the “iron vest” of her traditional religion. She is old before her time because she is not true to herself (“Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.”). She is fixed on Noah’s Rainbow (a time for judgment after purification), and so she only peeks into the life of Desolation Row as an outsider. She is the stereotype of a religion based on self denial and not allowing one to experience life.

The fifth verse centers on the disheveled Einstein and “his friend” (“With his friend, a jealous monk”) (Isaac Newton was a monk that would have been jealous of Al’s abilities) who was known for “playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.” There is a famous black and white picture of the middle-aged Einstein playing his violin. The reference to Dylan’s electric guitar at the Newport Folk Concert that changed music, as Einstein did Newton’s physics, is unmistakable. Einstein is still misunderstood “and reciting the alphabet” (presumably e=mc2) while investigating black holes in the universe (“went off sniffing drainpipes”). He wears a disguise (Robin Hood a do-gooder) to shield himself from the potential uses of his discoveries that he keeps locked “in a trunk.”

The sixth verse centers on the medical profession that medicate (slang “cyanide hole” for closet of medications that kill patients who may question) the “sexless patients” trying to blow up their theories. Dr. Filth is likely Sigmund Freud based on the “F” name, the “sexless patients,” and his atheist viewpoint that led to his split with Carl Jung thus requiring his nurse “she also keeps the cards that read “Have mercy on his soul”.” Freud’s reliance on drugs to medicate patients, and personally, added with his sexual repression theories may make him Dr. Filth. “Penny whistles” would represent the common man who was not troubled by Freud’s sexual theories, and who’s lives were often at odds with the theories. [As a note, I have discounted the Josef Mengele interpretation due to his not using drugs (cyanide or other) in his experiments, unlikely to hire “local loser” nurse instead of Army personnel, nor being at the era of penny whistles].

Verse seven features Casanova being nurtured (“to get him to feel more assured”) by the Phantom of the Opera (a disfigured genius who nurtured Christine), as the great lover is being poisoned with word and self-confidence as a punishment for his visit to Desolation Row (where no pretense is allowed). The “skinny girls” are being urged to leave as, presumably, Casanova will return to his correct place in the social order and they have no place at the “feast.” Apparently, Casanova’s trip to Desolation Row was to find a love not “in an image of a priest.” They have “nailed the curtains” to prevent entry, or escape, or even a look, for those wishing to exchange their place in society.

Verse eight centers on what happens at midnight when the agents “round everyone up” that “knows more than they do.” This may be interpreted in many ways, but the “heart-attack machine strapped across their shoulders” is common slang for a guitar that is burning on “kerosene brought from the castles” as it is played at the club or “factory.” (see Andy Warhol “Factory” etc.). The insurance men are the police. [this verse has been interpreted to involve paranoid agents of the federal government enforcing the status quo and the killing of residents of DR, but I find this inconsistent with the line “strapped across their shoulders,” and the message of the song. No matter what, this verse is inconsistent with the characters of the other verses, and may have been added at a different time.]

In verse nine, everything is unraveling, and the unsinkable society (“the Titanic sails at dawn”) is about to to be sunk by the goddess of the sea (Neptune) inspired by the tyrant policies of a politician (Nero). A fight has broken out between Pound and Eliot (both had distinct ideas on the place of races and were in the “captain’s tower”) in the war of ideas over civil rights (and everybody’s shouting “Which side are you on?”). This sounds like the fight for civil rights that was occurring in 1965, that was being led by the residents of Desolation Row.

The last verse is separated by a long harmonica solo, and a personal tone that is separate from the circus of surreal characters of the previous verses. Dylan is unable to change the past (“the door knob broke”) and is residing on Desolation Row as the only alternative in repressive society where he is seen as a dangerous subversive for his leadership role in civil rights (“When you asked how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?”). He does not want to respond to the questions (from “the letter”) from mainstream society until the writer joins him in an understanding that the song is coming from the counter culture of dissidents on Desolation Row (“Don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”). Both Dylan, and “Lady,” (Baez) “look out” as members of a group desiring social change.

The rich set of cultural and religious stereotypes as metaphors to describe society is reinforced by the use of imagery in each phrase. No doubt, the song was intended to have many meanings, and was as Joan Baez said in Diamonds and Rust, to give all of us “some vagueness” that we need.

Perhaps, this song was the best description of the counter counter that was emerging at the time, and that paved the way for social evolution by a group that had previously been outcast from politics.

Footnote 1: On June 15, 1920, a mob of 10,000 lynched three men, Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth MN. The men were in town with a traveling circus and were dubiously accused of raping a local girl. (On June 15, 1920, Dylan’s then ten-year-old father lived in a third floor apartment at 221 North Lake Avenue.) The Police Commissioner instructed the guards not to use their guns to defend the young men who were broken out of jail by the mob. Postcards with a photo of the incident were sold as souvenirs. It seems likely that the opening lines of Desolation Row, refer to this incident and the players involved, or to Duluth in general.


2 thoughts on “Song lyric Sunday: Comparison

    1. A really enjoyed the post you did, and realised we came to very similar conclusions about the song. I am glad you enjoyed the cover version even though it is very different from the original


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