Desolation Row

Lyrics: Bob Dylan
Music: Bob Dylan

Played by Bob Weir with the Grateful Dead from the mid-1980s, as well as with Ratdog and Weir/Wasserman, and more recently with Furthur.

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor's filled with sailors
The circus is in town
In walks 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

Now 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 walks Romeo, he's moaning
"You belong to me I believe"
And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend (note 1)
You better leave"
And the only sound that you can hear
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
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 gaze is fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
She spend her time peeking in
On 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

Now the moon is almost hidden (note 2)
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune telling lady
Has already 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

Doctor Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
And all his sexless patients
They're all 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
On Desolation Row

Across the street they've nailed the curtains
They're getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In the 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 out of 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
They go and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
They take 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
Make sure 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
They're fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen throw flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And no one 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 mentioned
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 so good
Don't send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
(1) this line is as Weir sings it (and as on the 'official' Dylan lyrics). But I recently heard Chris Smither do a great (if truncated) version where he sang "... you're in the wrong play my friend" which is a great variant.
(2) Bob Weir misses out this verse on the version on "Postcards Of The Hanging." He includes it on the version on "Downhill From Here" - but note that in the original Dylan version it's the third verse not the fifth. Thanks to Tim Cahalane for clearing this up for me.

Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
     26 Mar 1987 Dave's Picks Volume 36
     19 Jul 1989 Downhill From Here (video/DVD only)
     24 Mar 1990 Postcards Of The Hanging
     19 Jul 1990 Dave's Picks Volume 40
Bob Weir Recordings
     Date Album Recorded By
      5 Sep 1989 Fall 1989: The Long Island Sound Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman

Further Information
For more information on recordings see Matt Schofield's
Grateful Dead Family Discography
For David Dodd's discussion of this song on see Greatest Stories Ever Told


Home | Find words/phrases| Find Song lyrics| Dead originals| Dead covers|