Although he now disavows any studious intent in the construction his songs, Dylan's absorption of high and low culture and fashioning it into masterpieces of allusion is undeniable.
"You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images" Wasteland, line 21
I had always thought Desolation Row was his best song in its glorious Highway 61 version, delicately punctuated by acoustic guitar breaks. But now it is bookended by the earlier take, with electric guitar, on the No Direction Home soundtrack CD, and the strummed acoustic Live 1966 version; each is in its way nigh-perfect, but the minor changes in the lyrics emphasise just how precisely right the rest are.
It is a commonplace that the overall shape and structure of the song parallels that of T. S. Eliot's Wasteland, but as I looked at each line possible references came flooding in. This isn't to say that they were in Dylan's head when he wrote it; but they are there in mine when I hear it. I have marked the parallels with ** where I believe they are close enough to represent conscious references, and * the less definite ones.
Lyrics are copyright Bob Dylan.
They're selling postcards of the hanging
The bleak thrown-away horror here is masterful. Without the anger driving overt protest, it is as if the commercialisation and celebration of execution were too expected to be worthy of note.
Wasteland reference: line 55 'the Hanged man' [Tarot card reference: tarot=postcard] *
They're painting the passports brown
This line is less clear, although it is notable that the emphasis in this line is on the 'they' at the start: in line 1, it's almost lost, just syaing 'postcards are being sold', but here it is a They who is doing the painting. Brown is associated with soil, shit and death, and 'means noone no good'. My image of this is of visas or identity cards being stamped 'cancelled' before being returned to the now trapped citizens.
Wasteland: line 208 'under the brown fog of a winter noon' and line 211: 'documents at sight'
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
What are the sailors doing there? Presumably being sexually transgressive. The world is turned upside down.
The circus is in town
I connect circus here with carnival and in turn to a feast of the senses, or debauchery, and with the 'freak show' cover photograph of the Basement Tapes.
Wasteland: line 56 "I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring" *
Here comes the blind commissioner
On first hearing, you automatically interpret this as a commissionaire, dressed up in hotel finery: a blind one might not be much good, but unworthy of note. Actually, thouygh, he quite definitely sings and writes 'commissioner', in which case he is presumably meaning some government official with quasi-judicial functions. The 'blind' then presumably relates to his powerlessness or unthinking fairness (blind justice with her scales).
Wasteland: line 46 "(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)" *
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
I connect this with walking the plank: justice is not only blind but imperilled. In the early take, his hand is 'nailed in his pants', perhaps a cricifixion reference, but in the final version it appears the commissioner is choose to keep his hand there, presumably masturbating. And you know that makes you go blind.
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
The 'mob' of riot police is another aspect of the overturning of authority, when those supposed to uphold the law are keen to breach it.
As the Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
Wasteland: lines 49/50 "Here is Belladona, the Lady of the Rocks, / The lady of situations" **
Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
The narrative here starts in the midst of a scene: clearly the singer has just said something while flirting with her, and she appears to respond positively.
Wasteland: line 253 "When lovely woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone, / She smooths her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramaphone." *
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."
He's in the wrong place because love and sincerity of feeling do not operate on Desolation Row. The 'someone' who answers is presumably the singer.
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Obviously Romeo declines to leave quietly, and a fight ensues.
Dylan, "Pledging My Time": "They called for an ambulance, and one was sent / Someone must've got lucky, but it was an accident"
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row
Sweeping up the broken glass from the fight. No Prince Charmings on Desolation Row.
Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
Hidden by gathering doom-laden clouds.
The fortunetelling lady
Wasteland: line 43 'Madam Sosostris, famous clairvoyante' *
Has even taken all her things inside
The time to worry is when psychics panic.
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
Cain and Abel are too busy fighting; Quasimodo knows his beloved is dead. But sort of rain can be expected from such an ominous cloud?
And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing
He's getting ready for the show
He's going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row
Charity and good fellowship have been replaced by cynicism and hedonism.
Now Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
Because she has gone to the Nunnery.
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
She chooses death rather than devotion only to God.
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
The rainbow is supposed to be a sign of God's ultimate forgiveness, so she hopes for redemption.
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row
But she is too aware of reality to succumb.
Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
Einstein presumably regrets the consequences of his genius.
Wasteland: line 362 "There is always another one walking beside you/ Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded" **
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Einstein is reduced to an idiot savant.
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row
Fame is transient; nothing endures.
Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They're trying to blow it up
The doctor's name hardly inspires confidence, and neither does the reaction of his patients. He sounds like a Nazi doctor in the death camps.
Now his nurse, some local loser
She's in charge of the cyanide hole
The medicinal use of cyanide confirms the interpretation.
And she also keeps the cards that read
"Have Mercy On His Soul"
Wateland: line 52 "And this card, which is blank, is something he carries on his back, which I am forbidden to see". *
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 Last Supper.
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 Outta Here If You Don't Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row"
Casanova is being punished by being crucified.
Now at midnight all the agents
Wasteland: line 232 "A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare, One of the low on whom assurance sits"
W. H. Auden , 'The Fall of Rome': "Agents of the Fisc pursue/ Absconding tax defaulters"
And the superhuman crew
This wraps up Nietzsche's Superman and Shaw's 'Man and Superman', covering both left-and right-wing politics.
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
The hatred for educated people is a good indicator of tyranny, shared by the book-burning Nazis, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the lunacy of Pol Pot's victimisation of anyone wearing glasses.
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
Industrial evil: death factories.
Kafka (the insurance clerk): the Castle, the tyranny of bureaucracy
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row
Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Wasteland: line 56 "Fear death by water" *
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
Wasteland: line 261 "The pleasant whining of a mandoline / And a clatter and a chatter from within / Where fishmen lounge at noon" *
Between the windows of the sea
Wasteland: line 47 "the drowned Phoenician sailor" *
Where lovely mermaids flow
Wasteland: line 96 "In which sad light a carved dolphin swam"
Prufrock: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each" *
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
Wasteland: line 411 "I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison" *
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
Wasteland: line 115 "I never know what you are thinking." *
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
My reality is unique to me and we can't even agree on what to call things that are 'out there'.
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
The letters here are a reference back to postcards at the start, making the song cyclical.