Desolation Row Revisited: making sense of the masterpiece now we live there

By Tony Attwood

Updated 7 May 2018 with a link to a version of Desolation Row that seems particularly relevant.

“Desolation Row” was subject to a brief review in the early days of this website; brief because I found it hard to say anything that had not been said 1000 times over about this masterpiece.  But then a comment about that review was sent in from Mike Reynolds in 2017 to the effect that  “The song is loosely based on Tennessee Williams’ ‘Camino Real’.”

It was not something I had considered at all because I’ve always found Tennessee Williams’ work hard to approach (perhaps because of my Englishness), and indeed no one else had ever mentioned it, but I was really glad of the insight, and it gave me a completely new view.  Hence a second review of the song.

Heylin, in his fulsome review, notes that Dylan draws on Nietzsche, Kafka and Kierkegaard to “fuel a bleak, dystopian worldview”, but says that “references to the likes of Ophelia, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound in his oral epic in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or the authors of The Waste Land and The Cantos respectively.”

He adds that at this time Dylan “drew more from the world of painting than from any extra curricular reading.”

I had no grounds to argue with this at the time, but became increasingly uneasy about the commentary as I have followed Larry’s pieces on this site, in which he has repeatedly shown the depth of knowledge that Dylan has of writers past and present.  But it wasn’t until the comment about Camino Real was made that I decided to return to the song.  The knowledge of Camino Real takes me in such a different direction that I felt the need to write a totally new review, rather than to add to the old one.

Camino Real is a play written in 1953 relating to El Camino Real, a “dead-end place” in a town surrounded by desert with only occasional ways of reaching the outside world. The playwright described it as “nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in.”

You can see at once where this is going, I’m sure, and there are so many links with Dylan and “Desolation Row” from this play that the link to the play seems to me to be a key to understanding not just this song but a lot of Dylan’s work, and I am horrified by the fact that it has taken me so many years to find it.

The play contains Gutman, named after Sydney Greenstreet’s character from The Maltese Falcon and Signor Ferrari (again played by Greenstreet this time in Casablanca.  (Taking characters from movies, messing them around a bit and putting them in an new art work is so very Dylan, I feel, and something that again helps convince me that we are on the right track here).

There is also a range of literary characters who pop up including  Casanova, Lord Byron, and Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.   So yes it is possible that as Heylin suggests  “references to the likes of Ophelia, [etc]… in no way affirm an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, [etc]” but I don’t think this is the point.  The relationship with the world portrayed in Camino Real and its isolation from all these points of reference, is I suspect, the starting point of the song.

Camino Real has a storyline that is generally described as illogical and impossible, and focuses in fact on the point that there is no plot, because ultimately all these people and all their situations are irrelevant to anything else, (which in itself is ironic because the play closed on Broadway after just 60 shows).  The NY Times called it “a strange and disturbing drama.” 

That, I believe,  is what Dylan was expressing – the irrelevance of everything within the world we live in.  Even the horrors expressed in the opening lines which remind us of what actually did happen in the US, cannot burst through in a world where all these events just explode around us; there is so much out there nothing has a chance to make sense.  Indeed, too much of nothing.

We can perhaps also understand more about the song by considering Dylan’s writing in the months before and after the song including Subterranean Homesick Blues and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream in both of which he invented a way to take Beat Poetry into rock music.  These are not songs of explanation or insight, save the insight that nothing makes sense any more.

Also in this year Dylan gave us It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry which ends with the thought of the entire train getting lost – even having a set of rail tracks can’t actually help us find a direction or purpose.

At the same time Dylan was developing what I’ve called the songs of disdain – such as Like a Rolling Stone and (subsequent to Desolation Row) Can you please crawl out your window? and Positively Fourth Street.  What he has done with “Desolation Row” it now seems to me, is shown us that just as personal interactions with the world and the people we know within it, all break down, so the world itself in terms of being something that we can understand, also breaks down.  There is no makingssense of what we now see around us, be it on a personal level or with a broader perspective.

The theme is now of the familiar characters in disturbing and different places, slightly familiar events but not the right events in the right time or place – like a nightmare where nothing is quite what it should be, and nothing can ever be resolved.

That is Desolation Row.

If you found this article of interest you might also like to read Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews



  1. ‘Well, they’re going to the country, they’re gonna retire
    They’re taking a streetcar named desire’ (Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dee: Bob Dylan)…another Tennessee Williams reference .

    The development in the desert of nuclear bombs, like the ‘Fat Man’, with the breaking of the atom, gave Reality the final blow, and victory over the Fantasy expressed in the myth of the American Dream; with the sign at the entrance to the street reading ‘Dead End’ where the bus stops –
    Desolation Row with its circuses, theatres, music and drugs, an escape, an exile, for many from a broken world, a dystopia, into a world of dreams and desires.

  2. Blanche: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them.” (A Streetcar Named Desire)

  3. Also: “Take what you have gathered from coincidence”

    Not what you have learned, or been taught, or deduced; just gathered by chance.

    And yet a deep morality is part of living in this distinctly weird world. In my opinion, Dylan expresses and resolves this apparent dichotomy throughout his career; many artists have, but none better.

  4. I always assumed the last verse explains his tactic, that these are all people, personal acquaintances, a friend had written about in a letter, and the singer “had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.” More a personal iconography than a universal one. Replying to a letter from a friend.

  5. It generally is considered that the last verse is Dylan’s retort to Sing Out magazine who wrote an open public letter to Dylan excoriating him for “betraying” the folk music “movement”. Dylan’s reply in the verse is “I don’t need anymore communication from you unless you come to where I’m at” (from Desolation Row). He had moved beyond them-the verse before “everybody is shouting, “Which side are you on”.

    What the folk music community did not realize is Dylan had escalated the political to levels far beyond what had become prosaic. Highway 61 Revisited, along with Masters of War and “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), are the greatest artistic musical assaults and ravaging of contemporary American materialistic culture ever created. Leonard Cohen’s later political songs “Everybody Knows”, “Democracy is Coming”, “Closing Time” etc are the only comparisons of an artist even near this work of Dylan’s.

    BTW, thanks for posting this version. I still prefer the original which is astonishingly forceful and has that amazing guitar of Charlie McCoy .

  6. Desolation Row, pure genius, how can one work of brilliance keep reflecting the now when now keeps changing but the work doesn’t yet it does. I am a new fan of Dylan after thinking I was a fan for 50 years but only came to DR about three years ago but it has made me explore so much more of Dylan’s works and the more you look the greater the joy, and confusion, but ultimately pleasure.

    But here is the thing, ( whimsically for all fellow Brits) how come he could write an Anthem for Brexit a decade before we had even joined never mind left EU/EEC.

    Look at it and you will see what I mean

    Postcards of the hanging/ judges pictures under banner “traitor”
    Painting passports Brown/blue
    Blind Commissioner/ Boris
    Tightrope Walkers/ERG
    Riot Squad/Brexit party
    Lady/ Theresa May
    Desolation Row/the place to reach, or escape from

    Every verse fits, just have an open , but not serious, mind

  7. Thanks for the mention. I probably would not have known about Camino Real except that I had a small part in a college production of it in 1963. Dylan is only a year older than me, so I knew he could not have seen the Broadway production, but there was probably more than one college staging of it. Or someone could have suggested that he read it (my guess would be Suze Rotolo)

  8. The only character in Desolation Row that also appears in Camino Real is Casanova, I think Dylan sees similarities with himself.

    Dylan has quoted more sentences from Camino Real. Examples: ‘I had a pony, his name is Lucifer. In Camino Real, a character is called “the survivor” who tells: “I once had a pony named Peeto.”
    In Camino Real is a conversation between Kilroy and Esmeraldo about Apaculpo, and Dylan has written a song about Apaculpo. I think there are more references if you search.

  9. I have always felt that “Desolation Row” was a “Rough” history of our Civilization, with an emphasis on T.S. Eliot and “Nero’s Neptune”. One MUST see and understand this famous statue to get to the “bottom” of this Epic piece. “Nero’s Neptune” was an ancient Greek statue (owned my Nero) which shows the God Neptune “Destroying!” the Father and Sons who were about to warn The Trojans that “The Horse” contained the Greeks. This famous statue was at the Worlds Fair in 1964 in the Vatican Pavilion. I saw it there, and I am almost certain that Dylan did, too. (It was an “Artwork” that shocked me to this day. (Just Google it and be prepared!)…..This song is an anthem about our civilization. The last verse is our GOD admonishing the author (Dylan), at that moment America’s great “essentialist” poet, to get with the “Program”!
    (As an addendum, I would add that the opening lines refer to the Crucifixion of Jesus ; not some ransom lynching in America; also, the Jealous Monk probably refers to Mendel, the father of ‘genetics’

  10. There is so much useful intelligence in this post and the responses thereto! Let me focus on what Mel Kinder said. The “jealous monk” attending Einstein as Gregor Mendel–that’s just brilliant. (Biology jealous of the perhaps wilder concepts disclosed by Physics; Mendel jealous that Einstein achieved a comfortable setup in academia, wherein he had plenty of time to keep on theorizing, whereas he, Mendel, was eventually consumed by administrative duties). Mendel having to take Vows in the first place, to find some place for himself. (1 of 2)

  11. And Mr. K.’s connection of the tantalizing phrase “Nero’s Neptune” to the Roman sculpture of the Father and Sons being strangled by snakes at the behest of Neptune and/or other gods (different gods in different versions of the story)– this is a very brilliant and important intuition! This sculpture is the much discussed “Laokoön”.
    However, I’m pretty sure that sculpture was NOT exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC. I visited that Fair when I was 9 years old, and what I remember of Vatican-exhibited sculpture was Michaelangelo’s “Pieta”. All sources I’ve consulted online speak not of the Laokoön being exhibited, but rather the Pieta. Thus this is not something that seized Dylan’s mind at a World’s Fair, but rather something he came across through other learning.

  12. I’m quite impressed by the useful intuitions to be found in the post itself and the responses thereto. Let me focus on Mel Kinder’s contributions: (1) That the “jealous monk” is Gregor Mendel is a brilliant surmise, sir. He may be jealous of Einstein because (a) Physics can be thought of possessing grand concepts–‘really cosmic, man!’–beyond the comparatively mundane matters of Biology [I’m not saying this is true, but sometimes people
    eel that way] (b) Einstein had eventually achieved a comfortable academic post at Princeton where he could spend all day devrloping his notions, whereas Mendel had to take Vows to find any place in society, and eventually was overwhelmed by ecclesiastical duties so he couldn’t pursue his science, or so says Wikipedia… (1 of 2)

  13. [2 of 2] [version 2, more developed, as I wasn’t sure what happened to my earlier attempts to make my 2 posts]

    But what is MOST interesting is your identification of the tantalizing phrase “Nero’s Neptune” as referring to a ancient Roman sculpture. This is by name “Laokoö and His Sons” depicting the strangling of the Trojan priest L. and his sons by sea serpents, as ordered by the sea god Neptune and/or other gods (there are various versons; it’s all about their attempt to warn the Trojans about what was inside the Wooden Horse). This sculpture, ascribed to 3 sculptors from Rhodes) was displayed by Nero in his “Sun House” pleasure palace. However, I’m pretty sure this striking and much-discussed work was NOT displayed at the 1964 NYC Worl
    d’s Fair. What the Vatican, bless them, did bring to the Fair was Michaelangelo’s “Pieta”. I saw THAT when at 9 years of age I attended the Fair. No online source I’ve consulted indicates that they also transported the “Laokoön” to our shores. Bob must have encountered this great work not from being struck by it at a bustling Fair but by some more intimate moment of his self-education.

  14. Closer associated with ‘Robin Hood’ would be ‘Friar Tuck” , jealous because he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *