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The Illustrated Desolation Row

The most enduringly prophetic Dylan song juxtaposed 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, in two parts.

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 door knob 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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jwm January 13, 2019, 1:10 PM

    This is my favorite Dylan song. My first copy of Highway 61 Revisited was on monaural LP. The picture essay is perfect.
    In another life I taught high school English. Desolation Row was going to be one of my best lessons. I started out by handing out a list of every image and character, real or fictional, in the song. The kids had to look it all up, everything from penny-whistles, to Noah’s rainbow. Then I gave out the typed up lyrics, and played the song for them.

    Wouldn’t you know. Most of them hated it.
    It’s still my favorite Dylan song.


  • Tom Hyland January 13, 2019, 6:56 PM

    I am wondering… JWM… what year did you present the Dylan lesson? A classroom of high school kids and they hate the Dylan song? Albeit… not the sweetest sounds emit from Bob… but they HATED the whole deal? Never could have happened at my high school but I graduated in ’73.

  • Larry Geiger January 14, 2019, 5:46 AM

    Well of course they hated it. It was Dylan. That he was ever allowed on a stage is a crime. Yuck.

  • jwm January 14, 2019, 8:43 AM

    @Tom Hyland.
    That would have been late 80’s/ early 90’s. Inner city Los Angeles clientele. Go figure.


  • KPN January 16, 2019, 12:07 AM

    Great job on Desolation Row, Gerard!

    I wonder what you could do with Visions of Johanna.