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The Illustrated Desolation Row

[WRITER’S NOTE: I made this nearly 13 years ago and yet, today, it seems more on the money than ever.]


Submitted for your approval the most enduringly prophetic Dylan song.  I have juxtaposed the lyrics with images found in the Life Magazine Image Library, and supported by the extremely strange but somehow successful “Desolation Row – The Marionette Performance” by Vlamik.  Created some 12 years ago, it only becomes more prophetic the deeper we go into the dying sigh of a botched civilization.

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 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 fortunetelling 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

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

EINSTEIN, disguised as Robin Hood

With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago

With his friend, a jealous monk

He looked so immaculately frightful

As he bummed a cigarette

Then he went off sniffing drainpipes

And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago

For playing the electric violin

On Desolation Row

DOCTOR 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 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

A perfect image of a priest

They’re spoonfeeding 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 Outa Here If You Don’t Know

Casanova is just being punished for going

To Desolation Row”

NOW 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

And 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 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…

[September, 2009]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Stargazer August 22, 2020, 3:25 PM

    How long did it take you to make that collage. Very impressive. I believe the ship that is pictured sinking was the Andrea Doria in the 1950’s.

  • Terry August 22, 2020, 6:57 PM

    That grotesque video could be a visual record of today and then later as the democrats/communists fully steal control of the world. Sickening to me how stupid the citizens of our once great nation have become.
    A blood bath is awaiting the go word for sure. No reconciliation is possible. When the ammunition runs out, the knives, swords, clubs, stones and ropes will finish the work.

    • LP September 8, 2021, 5:23 PM

      So what can we do now?

      • Terry September 8, 2021, 6:38 PM

        After a year since my comment and your current question, I am still trying to maintain my sanity and at the same time, remain calm. Not an easy task for my aging bones.

        The government of Australia is showing the world that Hitler is still alive. Along with Stalin, Mussolini and other world class sh*t bags. The worst Tyrant may be the resident of the White House at present. Too early to make that call I’m guessing.

        I have totally lost all respect for the “medical practitioners” and their houses of death.

        I had no idea how thick the world is with tyrants.

    • EndOfPatience March 14, 2022, 4:37 AM

      “When the ammunition runs out …”

      That will take a while for some of us.

      But we’re still training on knives and bare hands in case it happens.

  • ck August 22, 2020, 7:25 PM

    Probably my favorite Dylan song. I liked the Grateful Dead’s live versions the best. Kind of funny, Weir never forgot a single word, but I saw him flub Truckin’ a couple of times.

  • Tom Hyland August 22, 2020, 10:07 PM

    A tribute to victims… and villains. Great job, Gerard. The black & white imagery holds so much gravity. I had to stop and ponder Nixon for a bit… and then Hillary… such greedy psychopaths. The mermaid deserved more dignity. We all do.

  • Roy Lofquist August 23, 2020, 7:06 AM

    “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”

    And therein lies the tale. The tale of a love affair gone lame. She was more into her circle of friends than into him. The “Blind Commissioner” and “Cinderella” and the rest are the sobriquets he bestowed upon them.

  • Frequent Reader August 23, 2020, 7:44 AM

    Sorry, but I found the vocals on that soundtrack to be utterly unintelligible.

    • tim September 9, 2021, 5:13 AM

      I find ALL of Dylans vocals to be utterly unintelligible, like a worn-out chainsaw – eeeeeh eeehhh…

      Though I did appreciate the written lyrics, and the accompanying pics, provided by Gerard.

      • Gordon Scott September 9, 2021, 8:40 AM

        As I have noted here before, my last wife saw Dylan and the Stones at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, famous for its soft surfaces that absorb sound. The acoustics were so bad, you could actually understand what Dylan was singing.

        I used to wonder what the big appeal was. I’ve listened to some of his stuff since, looked into some of the lyrics. The guy has a talent for lyrics, and capturing a societal mood. And he did it without being political. That’s a freaking amazing thing in itself.

        Dylan for the Nobel prize? Hell, he was modest and self-effacing. They’ve given it to a lot of genuine bums over the years. There might be better choices, but the committee wouldn’t even look at them nowadays.

  • Casey Klahn August 23, 2020, 9:38 AM

    The top of ProTrumpNews this morning:
    (Portland) Antifa rolls out guillotine.
    YouTube takes down dislikes of Biden speech vid.
    Van passes out shields to rioters.

    Going to be interesting till November.

  • Auntie Analogue August 23, 2020, 10:23 AM

    The original album-release recording of “Desolation Row” has always been my favorite Dylan song, chiefly because it is densely crammed with nigh nightmarish vivid imagery, but also because its instrumental backing lays a formidable foundation for the lyrics.

    The track’s insistent rhythmic strumming, accented frequently on the last two beats of a bar with an accelerated syncopation, garlanded with masterfully improvised riffs by ace Nashville session picker Charlie McCoy (who, in my understanding, had never heard the song before he stepped into the studio to record it), combine musically to lend the lyric imagery a gravity that reifies the words’ borderline baffling absurdity. (All of that, plus the original’s far finer vocal as commenter Frequent Reader astutely encapsulated, is sorely lacking in the live rendition in this post’s YouTube video.)

    My dear Stargazer, your identification of the Andrea Doria is correct. Given that the photo montage is figurative and that no photos were taken of the stricken Titanic, let me suggest that using the photo of the doomed Italian liner is forgivable.

  • Vanderleun August 23, 2020, 10:54 AM

    I’m down with Auntie on all of that.

  • Tony August 23, 2020, 7:42 PM

    Fuck Dylan. A plagiarist like slow joe. Voice of a generation: bullshit

  • Gerard vanderleun August 23, 2020, 7:48 PM

    He’s won the Nobel Prize. Before the Chinese Virus he was still touring at around 80 years old. His life has been very big and very full. He’s pretty much run the table.


    • Gordon Scott September 9, 2021, 8:43 AM

      I am not a Dylan worshipper. I was about ten years too young, I think. But I have come to appreciate that he is a phenomenon.

  • Tony August 24, 2020, 5:58 AM

    Gerard, it is your blog and you do get the last word, however:

    Nobel Prize, low bar see: Neville Chamberlain & Pres #44.

    Personal Achievement: Five self supporting children, all love America, are tattoo free and each knows to keep the tires straight when stopped in traffic to make a left.

    Blowing in the wind: I was raised Protestant and tend not to.

    Love your blog, but can’t stand Mr. Zimmerman.

  • Vanderleun August 24, 2020, 8:21 AM

    I take your point, Tony. And withdraw my intemperate remark.

  • John A. Fleming September 8, 2021, 3:34 PM

    It’s been my observation that the folks that really like Dylan and think he’s profound are the older boomers. He just leaves me unmoved and I never got why my older contemporaries were and are so smitten. I’m not like Tony, for me he’s an i-don’t-care. I wonder, will there be anyone alive 30 years from now who gets Dylan?

    It may be that the zeitgeist of a generation can only be truly known by those who lived it. Those who come after can only know it dispassionately.

    Sorry GVDL, there are plenty of examples of famous literary persons who were big in their day but faded into obscurity afterwards. I should live so long to see what will happen to him.

    • Arty September 9, 2021, 6:26 PM

      I doubt there’ll be many Americans alive in 30 years who get anything more complicated than a three-word slogan.

  • jwm September 8, 2021, 4:48 PM

    Consider pop music circa 1965. Yes, there were The Beach Boys, Elvis, the Beatles, and the rest of the British invasion. There was a lot of pop music, sweetened up with strings, and background vocals but no one turned on the radio to listen to the lyrics of the songs.
    I was thirteen when Highway 61 Revisited came out. “Like A Rolling Stone” was unlike anything on the radio, then. It most certainly wasn’t sweet, and those angry, mocking lyrics, in the second person, grabbed me like nothing I’d heard before. I often slept with the radio on.”Ballad of a Thin Man” would occasionally come up on late night broadcasts, wake me up, and just chill me to the bone. What could that song possibly mean? The lyrics simultaneously made no sense, and perfect sense in the fractured logic of a nightmare.
    Desolation Row has long been one of my all-time favorite pieces. Back in another life I decided to use DR as a project for the 11th grade English class. You have to be reasonably well-read to know who all the characters, are, and get all the allusions. I listed all that stuff, and had the kids look it up. They had to go to the library and everything.
    Once the assignments were in, and we had a class discussion on the who, what, and where, I brought in a CD of Highway 61 Revisited, talked a little about Dylan, and played “Desolation Row.”
    Ever had the experience of introducing a beloved piece of music to someone, and then finding yourself sort of hearing it through your his ears?
    And you can tell he really don’t like the music at all.
    Yeah, that’s what it was like.
    So I do get why some folks don’t care for Dylan.
    (not really)


  • LP September 9, 2021, 6:52 AM

    I just want to take a moment to thank Gerard for creating and maintaining this site. I appreciate it!

    • Jack September 9, 2021, 7:42 AM

      Absolutely…I do too. Great way to start the morning and thank you GVL for providing it. As for Dylan, I always enjoyed listening to him and I’ll admit, I scarcely understood a word he sang and I probably missed his messages completely.

      Love him or hate him, that’s always a choice. And as I try to always remind my daughters: Make Good Choices.

  • gstaud September 9, 2021, 7:39 AM

    Regardless of how you feel about Dylan [I’m pretty ambivalent myself], an excellent piece GVL! The cuts to Bosch[?] in the piece by Vlamik are disturbing and prophetic, for those with the eyes and imagination to see. Well done!

  • Vanderleun September 9, 2021, 5:13 PM

    Thanks folks for both the likes and the loves and the dislikes and the hate. This thread is very, very Dylan.

  • gwbnyc March 14, 2022, 4:19 AM

    Dressed for success& at the drop of a hat, he died a swinger en chapeau.

  • ghostsniper March 14, 2022, 4:22 AM

    The huge manatee.

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  • Lance de Boyle March 14, 2022, 11:43 AM