94. (Bob Dylan)

A professor at Cornell, who was in the village in the early 60s as Dylan was rising there, nonchalantly remarked once that everyone knew about his ties to the pre-Stonewall scene; that world was, after all, right there, near his own. She may have mentioned “Desolation Row” too, but whether or not she did, the point has likely been made: far from an ahistorical carnivalesque, it’s pretty clearly a song about the loneliness of drag queens and the queer and gay community at Stonewall. Giving the song the context it deserves, and which it hardly hides, though people do not want to see it, makes it more powerful to my eyes: it clears up some puzzles without explaining away the mystery of its success. The song’s beauty, still evident, becomes more humane; it is further proof that Dylan never abandoned songs of social conscience, but that social conscience for Dylan was deeply about those excluded and isolated by categorical inequalities and stigma.

Below are the lyrics, and I’ll offer comments along the way, pointing to details that seem to settle the matter.

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

Some have said that the “circus is in town” and “hanging” refer to an event in Dylan’s childhood, wherein African-American members of a circus troupe were hanged when visiting Duluth; perhaps, but more broadly, the line establishes a celebration of persecution and government paranoia and abuse (brown passports are for foreign agents; Desolation Row will be a different country; but the American government is also to be seen as failing in other contexts besides this one); the beauty parlor filled with sailors should be an obvious clue as to the song’s queer orientation, and the blind commissioner who will persecute that at the inn is in effect getting off to the persecution or to the scene itself. The riot squad are the cops waiting to be loaded into the paddy wagons, which will appear later, and Dylan is in the inn, or imagining himself to be there, with Lady, who is not a lady.

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

Cinderella is a drag queen; she’s not in drag though. Maybe she’s just a gay man: she’s waiting, with her hands in the back of her trouser pockets. Romeo wanders in, the straight young lover, and has to be told to leave. Then the paddy wagons, the ambulances, arrive, and Cinderella is left to sweep up, the dregs of people, or the bar (proprietor/proprietress?).

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

Two options in the world of the song: make love or expect rain. Unless you are a malformed (hunchback) misfit, or fighting murderously and enviously (Cain and Abel). The Good Samaritan might be another guest; or it might be an outsider going to view the spectacle, with a liberal appreciation for difference, anointing himself a “Good Samaritan,” while actually indulging in a sexual equivalent of “slumming.”

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

The saddest verse of this or any Dylan song. Ophelia only peeks in; she refuses to enter the place she belongs, because she has denied her sexuality, probably for religious reasons (she has joined the nunnery). She looks on the great rainbow, pining after God’s promise, but deeply lifeless, because she, even at her young age, will not let herself love. Dylan remembers her in his orisons.

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

I don’t have anything coherent to say about this one.

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 pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Here’s the easiest of all: the psychotherapeutic treatment of sexual disorders. Dr. Filth keeps his world in a leather cup, because a leather cup is used to protect the male genitalia. His patients are sexless because they have been denied their sexuality and his nurse promises death, and offers only a prayer on behalf of those who are killed by the treatment—a prayer that assumes their sin, “Have Mercy” because they will need in. They are no longer in Desolation Row because they have been taken away for treatment.

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”

What happens when the great straight lover, Casanova, yields and goes to Desolation Row? He is punished. Or else: what happens when Casanova finally shows up at Desolation Row? He is lauded and celebrated. In the former, the punishment is genuine, meted out across the street by another masked outcast (albeit not one on Desolation Row); the skinny girls are Casanova’s admirers. In the latter, the skinny girls are told Casanova is being punished in order to dispel them. He is not really being punished, and the Phantom, an outcast inhabitant of the row, feeds him with confidence and praise, perhaps poisoning him in order to feast upon him…

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

The climax of persecution in the song; and, once caught, the fear is that the prisoners will return 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

Perhaps a change of perspective: “nobody has to think too much” suggests that he refers not to the people who are in Desolation Row, but instead to the rest of the public who worry about it, or else those who have been hauled off and are prevented from going back. “It’s easy to ignore, with this massive spectacle happening around us ; it’s easy to ignore, with the world sinking in flames; it’s easy to ignore, when we are concerned with the fate of our culture (Eliot and Pound).” The lovely mermaids are the mermaids of Eliot’s “Prufrock,” the women who are inaccessible to that queer sad figure. But we are supposed to see also that the spirit of Desolation Row gets into the efforts at distraction too: the “lovely mermaids” are a play on the female, are a category between two worlds, are themselves redolent of drag, might even be in drag.

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

Let’s assume it is Dylan singing and that the perspective here is his; he is locked in some place, the doorknob is broken, and he can’t get out (I don’t mean he is closeted; but if we detach the voice from Dylan, that possibility feels acceptable). The puzzle is “I know them, they’re quite lame” which is delivered with a biting drawl. It hardly seems likely that Dylan would be putting down the outcasts of Desolation Row that he has just mentioned (whether you accept my contextual frame of the song or not, he certainly has sympathy for a character like Ophelia). But the word “lame” is more interesting than that: it might be an honest assessment—they have been lamed, by their stigma, and he had to rearrange their faces and give them new names because he could not speak up for who they really are. There might be some resentment in the line too because Dylan is himself lamed, with the doorknob broken (the doorknob might mean he is locked in; it might be a euphemism); the resentment might linger because he is at a remove, has been removed, from something. It might also be that Dylan refers to another group of people entirely, others who are not the persecuted in the song, who are persecutors or the in-crowd of “Positively Fourth Street,” scattered throughout the album as a whole (this refrain comes at the end of Highway 61, after a long harmonica interlude), or just this song. We might even take seriously that Dylan says “name” and not “names”: the singular suggests that the the interlocutor mentions are just given one name, which would make it easier to identify them with one group that deserves to be derived as lame: the superhuman crew, for instance. That would be both people, plural, and a name, singular. And the song ends with a reminder: don’t send me letters till you are in Desolation Row yourself, until you understand better than you do now.

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