Everyone has heard of Cinderella. You probably have some image in your head you’ve formed of her in a dress dancing at a ball or riding in a giant, ridiculous pumpkin on wheels or something from those cheesy Disney movies that I guess were kind of all right when I was a kid. But me, when I think of Cinderella, I think of her sweeping up on desolation row. And I always will. There’s a quote about Bob Dylan that goes something like, “Every Dylan song is only as good as its best verse, and every verse is only as good as its best line.” This quote represents the basic idea behind this website, and I think that the last line of the second verse of Desolation Row is a great example of this. For me, this line doesn’t only do it for the song, but it does it for the whole goddamned iconic image of Cinderella. With this single verse Dylan throws us into a mixed up universe where time, character and conventional narrative are thrown out the window like the bag of garbage Cinderella just tied up. We have a modern, promiscuous version of our blue collar beauty inheriting the mannerisms of Bette Davis and interacting with a wandering, possibly drunk version of Romeo who presumably starts a symbolic brawl that clears out the entire room, save Cinderella, into fleeting ambulances. Now I know that doesn’t sound very poetic, but when Dylan tells it, it just works, okay? Who else but Dylan could mix pop culture, ancient folk lore, and revered Shakespearean drama in a single verse like this AND tell it so beautifully? Not to mention, in only 3 lines.
In some interview Dylan in quoted as saying that American children should memorize Desolation Row in school instead of America The Beautiful. Who the hell knows what he actually meant by this, if anything, but at nearly 12 minutes long this song is a beast and may be a stretch for anyone to memorize. The second verse, though, is so bizarre yet somehow clear and elegant that it’s hard for anyone to forget after just hearing it once. This is what makes a great verse, it takes no effort on the listener’s part to memorize. After hearing it once, upon re-listening each word just follows naturally from the next without thought, as if you had memorized it in school as a small child.
As for the meaning of this verse, as with the song, we can only speculate, but we get the feeling that love and sex always tend to end in tragedy and we are always left alone sweeping up fragmented, lost possibilities. Possibilities fabricated from tiny bits of unrelated information about ourselves and others that we constantly try our best to put together to find some kind of purpose or direction. The same way Dylan makes his listeners feel in their outside world is the same way his characters feel in the world he has created. Maybe this is nonsense, but whatever Dylan’s intended message, the timelessness and universality of it is made abundantly clear with his varied cast of characters. In other verses of this song Dylan gets lost a bit, but this verse drives it home, drives it home in a big pumpkin on wheels.