Black and White and Technicolor: An Interpretation of, “Desolation Row”
Bob Dylan is an artist whose impact was so great, that it still seems as though his music was just released; but, in fact, it is safe to say some people may have lived and died since the release of the song, “Desolation Row”. He is widely considered to be one of the, if not the greatest poet of the twentieth century. It is for this reason that scholars and fans alike are (even today) still examining and interpreting, “Desolation Row”. The audience can infer that “Desolation Row” is a place, but where exactly is not certain.
Perhaps it is a state-of-mind or the world in general. The excellence of this particular work is that it is so extremely open to interpretation even over different cultures and generations – a quality that all great works of music and lyrics include. Excellent music is music that is relatable by many, but more importantly, that one is able to find a personal significance with it. When many people can achieve this level of oneness with a work, the work can then be considered a work of genius (in the literal sense of the word).
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Some possible reasons why this work is so incorrigible will be examined. For the sake of simplicity and time, every instance there is an example of a highly relatable notion, it will be marked with an asterisk. * References to the music industry seem to be a common theme throughout the first part of the song. This is one of the very greatest qualities of Bob Dylan’s songwriting – he is able to step outside the box and examine himself as a musician as well as the music business for faults and hypocrisy which helps progress the industry as well as captivate the audience.
The inclusiveness of the fairy tale figure, Cinderella is possibly important because she is a well-known character who started with nothing and in the blink of an eye was given everything. This isn’t uncommon in the music business. In fact, it is the most common scenario for a musician and many people dream it may happen to them one day. * Romeo is seeking Cinderella but apparently does not have enough swoon to win her over and his told to go away. So he does, and his dreams along with him.
This is perhaps a reference to those without enough talent or right-timing to make it in the music biz which is unfortunately the majority of people with aspirations of rock-stardom. * Furthermore on the music industry, the line, “the stars are beginning to hide” in the midst of celestial talk may be referring to the fact that celebrities are neglecting their responsibility to use their influence for the overall good of mankind instead of their own selfish ambition. Later in the song, Bob Dylan seems to prod at famous scholarly figures.
On surface, it seems Dylan is clearly analyzing Einstein. Dylan says Einstein has disguised himself as Robin Hood which may be referring to how Jews in his day implemented Anglo-Saxon customs in order to be accepted. Many ethnic groups with different backgrounds also fall into this category. * Dylan goes on to talk about “Dr. Filth” who is never really revealed to the listener but it is apparent that Dr. Filth is a psychologist and can be presumed to be Dr. Sigmund Freud through the use of Dylan’s references. Freud was infamous for his emphasis on sex which makes the name, “Dr. Filth” suitable in a derogatory sense. Freud’s research was very influential to many but the fact that it was heavily fixed on sexual behaviors led the “sexless” to contest his research*. This led to controversy and may be what the line, “But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up,” may be referring to. The final major theme represented in, “Desolation Row” is influential political figures and government/social injustice. Through some clever imagery, one notable stanza undesirably references how the blue-collar individual is treated within capitalism.
The “superhuman crew…” “rounds up everyone” to “bring them to the factory” and strap on the “heart-attack machine” while the “insurance men” make sure that “no one is escaping”. This is one of the more straight-forward metaphors that almost directly references how the lower-to-middle class is forced to work degrading jobs in order to survive while the higher classes on top make sure they stay on the top by keeping the working class busy. The unfortunate yet uncontestable majority of people are of the working class even today. Furthermore, the reference to the Roman Emperor, “Nero” may be a metaphor for the negative way in which Dylan saw America being run at the time – by conservative imperialists. This was a very popular idea by the majority of young people at the time and protests were common.
* Dylan was particularly adamant in voicing his opinion of the government in this song. The following line referencing the titanic may have been a shot at how the “solid” government could sink just as easily as the Titanic – another popular notion at the time. Unfortunately, a 750-word guideline is just not enough space to cover the length and complexity of this song, but it is clear how important it is to remain open to interpretation as a lyricist. The lyrics Bob Dylan chose for, “Desolation Row” could have held a specific significance to him and because they were masked by metaphors and similes instead of making simple, accurate, and specific statements, the audience is able to find the same level of significance as the writer in their own way.
It is also possible that the lyrics may mean nothing at all, and that, “Desolation Row” is just a jumbled story including very popular mythical characters and factual famous people. But one thing is for certain; Bob Dylan knew what to say and how to say it – in way that people could draw their own meanings, and this is why he is still very widely respected and enjoyed by people even today.