Desolation Now: A Look Back at Dylan's Masterpiece

Bob Dylan accepts the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year award on stage at the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year show at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” off the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, is considered one of the greatest songs in the history of popular music. The extended acoustic track forcefully answered critics who had assailed the composer of “Blowing in the Wind” and other folk classics from “going electric” on 61 and its predecessor LP, Bringing It All Back Home.  A lyrical masterpiece of Dali-esque, Fellini-esque, and Dante-esque imagery, like all great works of expressive art, “Desolation Row” is open to interpretation.

Our interpretative assignment is to explore how excerpted verses from the song may be viewed through the prism of the COVID pandemic, and Joe Biden’s counterintuitive rise to presidential power.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging; they’re painting the passports brown…

Dylan biographer and critic Mark Polizzotti has offered a chilling connection with regard to the first clause of the song’s opening line, citing an incident in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, where three falsely-accused black men were taken from jail and hung without trial for the alleged rape of a white woman. Postcards were sold depicting the execution.

The second clause is germane to the present moment, and can be interpreted to evoke what appear to be the Biden administration’s dangerously lax immigration policies. If a passport is painted over, its information and authority become obscured, and the document becomes meaningless. If passports, (in the vernacular: “papers”) become meaningless, borders become meaningless.

The riot squad is restless, they need somewhere to go…

The penultimate line of the first verse conjures a recall of last summer’s disastrous antifa riots, which the Democrats roundly ignored before going on to actively persecute former President Trump for the January 6th debacle. Here is the sense of a law enforcement community so accustomed to politically-motivated urban violence and destruction that it is on permanent standby status, seasoned by street battle, and ever ready to spring into action.

And the only sound that’s left, after the ambulances go,

Is Cinderella sweeping up on, Desolation Row…

The ambulances haven’t quite gone, but this couplet from the second verse depicts oppressed and left-behind sister Cinderella sweeping a desolated street which bears haunting resemblance to the streets and cities of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s COVID-ravaged New York. Had these two grandstanding falsifiers availed themselves of President Trump’s various pandemic relief facilities, the death count could have been much lower.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide,

The fortune telling lady, has even taken all her things inside…

The first lines of the third verse suggest in a contemporary sense that the prophesiers, the poll-takers, and other self-proclaimed prognosticators have inflicted upon themselves an aura of shamanism. They are now couching projections about the future in increasingly guarded conditionalities. At this point in time, with Biden and his far-left ideologues in power, any attempts at oracle can be summed up in the phrase “hazarding a guess.”

And though [Ophelia’s] eyes are fixed, on Noah’s great rainbow,

She spends her time peeking into, Desolation Row…

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? A rainbow to mark the return to whatever normalcy will be under the shifted paradigm? Hopefully, but a period of reflection and due consideration of how things might have been done differently mandates that we look back on the hard rain that befell humanity. Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover is hopeful, but dares to look back.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup,

But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up…

The COVID Communists, a virus escaped (released?) from laboratories. The gruesome evocation of “bat soup.” Sexless (older, prostrate) patients, lying abed, millions interred, the truth perhaps someday told, or forever untold.

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…

This verse, the eighth in its entirety, can be interpreted to characterize the means alleged by which the Democrats ascended to control the executive and legislative branches of government. “At midnight,” was fraud perpetrated in the urban counting houses? The “factory,” a place where people go when their jobs disappear and domestic suffering becomes the real pandemic? Beset by surging illegal immigration, U.S. sovereignty is torched. “Insurance men,” understood here as governmental agencies, act at the directives of centralized power. There is no escape.

Are Whitmer, Newsom, and Cuomo locking down and “rounding up” the economic vitality and freedom of citizens in their states?

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn,

Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”  

Little interpretive license is needed to associate the import of this verse within a current sociopolitical context.  The doomed luxury liner serves as metaphor for the Democrat agenda. Answer the question.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke,

When you asked me 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 letters, no,

Not unless you send them from, Desolation Row.

This final verse accomplishes a brilliant narrative flourish which takes the listener from a broad vantage which includes historic, biblical, mythical, and literary characters, to a personalized focus on two people whose lives have been torn asunder. For Dylan’s protagonist, something is over, has ended, a former life he led with the letter-writer has undergone existential change. He is not interested in revisiting the trivialities or irrelevant personages of that previous life. Don’t contact him unless the fear, alienation, and loss experienced over a recent period of time has been fully integrated into spirit and soul.

There is a sense of permanence in one possible interpretation of Dylan’s masterful conclusion. That Desolation Row is the future.

But a positive note can also be construed out of the ruins—that if we look back unerringly and rigorously at what led to the desolation, we can learn from mistakes, reconstruct our strengths, and change our trajectory.


Mark Ellis is Associate Editor at the Northwest Connection, Portland, Oregon’s only conservative web/print publication. He is the author of the political thriller A Death on the Horizon.