Monday, October 17, 2016

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood: or, why Dylan is a freaking genius






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'd 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.







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
NOW, he looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
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 ARE 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 penny whistle
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
In a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon-feeding 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.

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
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 me how I was doing
Or 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.






They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown


Here Dylan immediately establishes a macabre atmosphere of heartless exploitation. Human execution has become the subject of postcards, a cheap and superficial means of communicating usually associated with vacations. Passports are similarly associated with travel (being "transported") and escape, a theme running through the entire lyric. That the passports are painted brown means that they are blurred, defaced, shat upon, or otherwise rendered invalid. Might it also be a weird twist on "painting the town red'? 


The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town


The sailors swarming the beauty parlour might be there to ogle women, or to become them, transforming themselves in garish drag. It's our first hint of a sense of dislocation: no one seems to be in the right place. "The circus is in town" is a familiar cliche (and let's not forget he grew up in a small town, in which the circus was a very big deal), which Dylan turns on its head: this motley parade will lead us to a hellish place from which there is no escape.

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


It's worth mentioning that "they" are never identified. I remember hearing someone say, "They've shot John Lennon." Facelessness and blank masks and constantly-shifting identities inflame the lyric's rampant paranoia. The "blind commissioner" is some sort of deposed authority figure reduced to dragging along helplessly behind a circus performer walking a tightrope, while simultaneously masturbating.





And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.


The police are out there and looking for trouble, hoping for a good riot. Like juvenile delinquents, they're hanging around waiting for something to happen. Desolation Row seems forever on the point of exploding in apocalyptic violence. "They need somewhere to go" speaks of a lost traveller, one of the many figures in this song who is dislocated and "a stranger everywhere". "Lady and I" adds a sudden incongruous but very Dylanesque romanticism: or is it Our Lady, Mother of God that he speaks of?

Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style


Cinderella portrayed as good-time girl is remeniscent of a line from an Auden poem: "And Jill goes down on her back." Bette Davis gives her a touch of old Hollywood glamour, but we can see her posturing as if her body is for sale. And hey, how about that line "it takes one to know one"? Just what is she implying about the songwriter - has he similarly sold himself to the public - or does it have nothing to do with him?

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'd better leave."






Enter Romeo, stage left. But doesn't he belong with Juliet? Apparently not, but he doesn't belong here either. "Someone", that notorious "they", is telling him to leave. Wrong play, perhaps? And doesn't Romeo end up dead? Whereas Cinderella ends up transformed. In a manner of speaking. And who is the "someone" telling Romeo to get lost? Some stray Prince who's just as much out of place?

And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row.


"Ambulances" implies twenty-nine harrowing violent movie scenes that we never get to see because we don't have to - it's all condensed down into a couple of lines, a few sirens wailing (and after the fact - they've already gone). "Something" has happened, but we're never told what. Cinderella is like the fairy tale in reverse: she ends up sweeping the street, back to her rags and tatters, and tricks.

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside


Dylan does this, he suddenly and dramatically varies the tone so that the lyric is shot through with beauty. The fortune-telling lady is a magical, almost paranormal figure, her palm-readings and Tarot cards (more about that later) predicting a future that seems, at best, uncertain. But it's so late, so dark, so spooky out that even she has to protect her wares.

All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain






Impenetrable lines, but they inexplicably work, like all genius does: Biblical references pop up constantly in Dylan's writing, so Cain slew Abel, perhaps raising Cain in the process, and the hunchback is just another grotesque soul seeking "sanctuary". And the next two lines are Dylanisms just as surely as "he not busy being born is busy dying". They seem to say: choose life/Eros, or choose dullness and the conventional life with its boring expectations, where everything is "right as rain".  Or is this really about Noah's flood and its inevitable culling of the sinful?

And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing
He's getting ready for the show
He's going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row.

Another Biblical reference, but a sardonic one: the figure whose name is synonymous with selfless help and even personal risk is now reduced to just another performer, donning the motley for the "show". And Biblically, the Samaritan was at the bottom of the heap socially, almost an untouchable, which is what gave Jesus' parable such punch.


Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid


This is a strange one, but then, the characters on Desolation Row just get stranger. Unlike Cinderella who turns tricks, Ophelia goes crazy while Hamlet seduces his mother. And 'neath the window - is that some sort of weird inversion of Romeo and Juliet? (By the way, what DID happen to Romeo?) This is someone who has apparently died before she even had a chance to live.

To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness


"Lifelessness is the Great Enemy & always wears a hip guard—he is very hipguard,
" Dylan wrote in Tarantula, and if you can figure THAT out, you've nailed these lines. The iron vest sounds like medieval torture, or else kinky. This whole poem/song is about the sin of lifelessness or, perhaps, the deathwardness of the eternal Show. "Her profession's her religion" is a little too opaque for me to fathom, as her profession isn't the same as Cinderella's. 






And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.


Ah, Bob! You know more about the Bible than the average monk or Catholic priest. "Expecting rain" may well be a reference to the Great Flood, but here the flood is over and the rainbow has appeared.  "Peeking into" means that Ophelia has been cast out and has to "peek in", as in some great existential peep show. Funny that both she and Romeo stand beneath windows, on the outside looking in.

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk


You can try to pull this apart or leave it alone, but it pulls apart like a wishbone and spills weirdness like a cornucopia. 

Einstein, being the ultimate enigmatic genius, is headed for the carnival dressed up like Robin Hood, some sort of ancient folk hero who fires arrows, robs from the rich and gives to the poor. But he's already gone, folks, he passed this way an hour ago and you missed him. Memories in a trunk - another version of the iron vest, the lifelessness of self-suffocation? And why is his friend so jealous, and of what (and why is he a monk? Maybe it just scanned, we don't know.)





Now, he looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet


This implies some sort of hobo in disguise, a fraud, somebody who gets off on sniffing sewer gas or else is a kind of health inspector. Reciting the alphabet implies childishness, or the failure of the greatest mind in human history.

You would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row.


Interesting that Einstein really was a quite gifted violinist. That line "famous long ago", three little words, Bobby, you really can spit them out, became the title of a book, and everybody knew where the title came from, it was just self-explanatory. The author of e=mc2 is now nothing but a musician standing on a street corner in a neighborhood which might be called degraded.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They are trying to blow it up


This stanza really chills me. It is past grotesque: it's harrowing. Who the fuck is this Dr. Filth, why are his patients (like Ophelia) so sexless? Where is the riot squad when you need them? Is the leather cup sort of like Baudelaire's image of a woman's vagina (so stomach-turning I can't reproduce it here)? For surely the literate Dylan would have read Baudelaire. And it's obvious that sexlessness is next to lifelessness.





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"


There are those who would say this is Joan Baez, the great unnamed saint of the Row. Even Joan Baez thought it was Joan Baez. Calling her "some local loser" (and what in fuck's name is a "cyanide hole"? That's quite possibly the worst thing I ever heard of) seems harsh, but then come those two impossibly tender lines, which Baez quoted in Daybreak as "I also keep the cards that read have mercy on his soul". She might also be the same person as the fortune-telling lady taking all her things inside (because it might rain?). In the song She Belongs to Me, which as usual might be about Baez or might be about his first wife Sara Lowndes, Dylan portrays a lady full of mystical power ("she can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black"). 

They all play on the penny whistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row.


"Blow" could be taken a couple of ways. Sexual? A drug reference? Or just "blow"? Pennywhistles imply innocence, childhood, and being too poor to afford a real instrument. Pennywhistles are irritating, shrill and unmusical. It's also never clear whether we are ON Desolation Row, looking INTO Desolation Row, or trying to get the hell OUT of Desolation Row. Dylan's camera darts all over the place.






Across the street they've nailed the curtains
They're getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In a perfect image of a priest


Who is whom here, and whom is who he appears to be? No one. The curtains are already nailed up for this ghastly dumbshow (and remember how in old gangster movies they say "it's curtains for you"?) Nailed-up curtains certainly aren't fancy and won't open and close like normal ones. They're crude, and - nailed in place like so many of the crippled characters. But it is also, as in the Catholic Church, a feast day, a holy celebration. And thus the Phantom, some sort of spiritual kin to the aforementioned Hunchback of Notre Dame, is wrapping himself in priestly raiment. Enough clergy here to start a monastery.

They are spoon-feeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they'll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words


The cast of this thing grows ever bigger, and each character is somehow laden. Spoon-feeding Casanova might allude to cooking heroin, or it might not. It might allude to feeding a baby, or it might not. He is traditionally a legendary lover and seducer. There's a weird take on sexuality in the song, of exploitation (the blind commissioner whacking off, Cinderella selling herself, Ophelia in her kinky iron maiden) and the uglifying of something that should be beautiful, even sacred. (Dylan is nothing if not a romantic.) And we're back to that amorphous, vaguely disturbing "they". Whoever they are, they are not too damn friendly.





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.


If Romeo has been cast out, if he's in the wrong place, my friend, then surely Casanova is going to be out on his ass soon. The skinny girls are - what? Models? The Andy Warhol crowd Dylan hung out with? I wonder if this whole thing isn't about being tossed out of Eden, except that this is nobody's idea of the garden. Or if Casanova really is a heroin addict, perhaps the law has caught up with him?





At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do


Here we get into the most delicious paranoia, a macabre vision straight out of a sweating, gasping film noir/spy movie. Who ARE these people - part of the unnamed "they"? Agents of WHAT? And I love that line "come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do". Are these people - "everyone" - really smarter? Or do they just carrying a burden of subversive, secret knowledge? 

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 heart-attack machine is the most sadistic thing I have ever heard of: not a defibrillator, but the opposite, something that GIVES you a heart attack. And then the kerosene. . . This is like "after the ambulances go", a couple of words slamming us against the wall. No mention of a fire or of someone starting a fire, but we don't need that, we already know. Insurance men in their dull facelessness seem to foreshadow the infamous, soulless figure, Mr. Jones, the epitome of the "establishment'. And let's not get into "escaping to", it's just too convoluted.

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody's shouting
"Which side are you on?"


Nero is the one who fiddled while Rome burned. The Titanic is a mite obvious, but like all of this bizarre imagery, it works. "Everybody" is "nobody" and could be anybody, and the question they're shouting, "which side are you on?", is one Dylan heard and had to try to answer or ignore for his whole life. And is no doubt still dealing with. (What do the lyrics mean?)

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers






This seems like a blatant contrast of intellectual elitism with simple, life-loving joy, not so much a mockery as a dismissal of violence and hate: so that yes, even in this song there is some sort of breath of hope. I see the fishermen and calypso singers all jumbled in with the mysterious ugly horrific vivid incendiary images of the song as in a Picasso painting, where everything is happening at once. But if you really want to dig (man), the singers do the same thing Bob does, and the fishermen echo Jesus' famous words, "I will make you fishers of men." Holding flowers is either a hippie thing, or a garden thing, take your choice.

Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row.


Unlike Ballad of a Thin Man, this song does have unexpected beauty strewn through it. Is Desolation Row a choice, a punishment, a purgatory leading on to greater glory, or to eternal damnation?  Is it just the bizarre baffling imagery of a genius on acid who hadn't slept in about 45 days? We know it is compelling, and hard to get away from. But it's not over yet. As with all great works of music, there is a coda. 





Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the door knob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?


I am virtually certain, though I cannot provide proof, that he chose "broke" to rhyme with "joke". But then, a broken doorknob does imply not being able to get in or out. "Was that some kind of joke?" dismisses all possibility that the asker even cares, or only cares in order to get something. The question has a sardonic Positively Fourth Street feel to it. What's it to you? You got a lotta nerve.

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


Thus does the artist casually create and destroy his own universe, so that all the characters come out looking like versions of himself. As for "give them all another name", remember his nickname in high school was Zimbo. The old saw "all the characters are really me" is even more of a stretch than what I'm doing here.


Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.





It's well-known that Bob really can't read very well, he's always been blind as the proverbial fruit bat, so maybe this is one line we can take literally. Don't forget "here comes the blind commissioner/They've got him in a trance." But "don't send me no more letters, no" means he's cutting himself off from contact with people. And - oh, this is a good one! - what was in the very first line of this thing? POSTCARDS. But typical of Dylan, they aren't sending postcards, but selling them. So the old saw "I'll send you a postcard" becomes, sardonically, "I'll sell you a postcard."

Bob Dylan's masterpiece, if that's what this is, reflects his profound ambivalence about the vertiginous and devouring carnival of fame, his own fame in particular: he lied about working in carnivals as a boy, then found himself IN one, magnetically attracting a horde of sycophants, sociopaths and losers.

But which character IS he, anyway? The most likely contender, in my mind (and this is MY essay, so I can surmise if I want to) is Einstein disguised as Robin Hood: genius in the guise of folk hero. Costumed poseur, lost troubadour shifting from identity to identity, the figure comes closer than any of the others to a self-portrait of the most unlikely Nobel winner in the history of the prize, that enigmatic gift to the world, Bob Dylan.



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