Song of the Day #1,436: ‘Desolation Row [Alternate Take]’ – Bob Dylan

Exactly one week ago, I predicted a flood of Bob Dylan tracks on Random Weekends to match the onslaught of Elvis Costello. The two artists most represented in my music collection should, over time, be the two artists most represented in this series, no?

Well, here we go. And while it doesn’t seem fair that two songwriters who have had their own dedicated weekends (lasting close to a year in total) should dominate this one, I can’t feign disappointment over the selection of this alternate take of ‘Desolation Row’ culled from the No Direction Home soundtrack.

Al Kooper, who supplied the famous organ riff on ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ plays electric guitar on this recording of the classic Dylan track that emerged in far gentler form on Highway 61 Revisited. Kooper calls this the “punk rock” version, an amusing exaggeration.

This is the second-longest track in Dylan’s discography (which contains five songs clocking in at over ten minutes). I love that Dylan made his songs as long as the lyrics needed them to be.

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 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

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

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 pennywhistles
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

6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,436: ‘Desolation Row [Alternate Take]’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    I’m not sure I have the patience for a 10 minute song, nor do I necessarily feel this or any song needs to be that long. I’ve made it through about half of the song while reading your entry and writing this comment. That’s enough for me,,,hitting “post comment” now.

    • Shawn says:

      You need the album on vinyl, Dana. It helps to control itchy fingers and all forms of ADD so one is able to get their musical vegetables.

  2. Ólafur Haukur says:

    I can have this great song on replay !

  3. David, Belton, Missouri says:

    I have thought since the first time I heard the album in 1973 that Desolation Row is the best song on the “Highway 61 Revisited” album; considerably better than the track on the album generally considered rock’s greatest song. The first line of the song is historically true; it was not uncommon at one time for photographs of hangings (lynchings) to be made into postcards. Check out horrific, shameful examples at

  4. HildaIrene says:

    It is always difficult for me to listen to a different version of a song of which I now every note by heary….but it grows on you and near the end I want to hear it again….

  5. HildaIrene says:

    Excuse for the typo…I meant heart of course….looks silly that way…

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