Still reeling from his divorce from Sara and his impending divorce, Dylan decided to try a few new things and try to reclaim his youthful spirit of authenticity. He cowrote songs for the first time, enlisting Jacque Levy, a playwright mostly known at the time for co-penning the Byrds’ cowboy bestiality fantasy “Chesnut Mare” with Roger McGuinn. He started hanging out in Greenwich Village again, though it was mostly a tourist trap by now. He caught some really early punk acts, drank a lot with people he hadn’t seen before and people he’d just met and started writing cinematic songs in a very different vein than what he had written on Blood On the Tracks. Somewhere around this time, imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter finished writing his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, in prison and sent a copy to Dylan. Carter had a rap sheet about a mile long for crimes he had committed, but claims he was innocent for the triple murders he’d been sent to prison for. Dylan was moved by the book and went to visit him in prison. They struck a repoire and Dylan agreed to write a song for Carter. “Hurricane,” Dylan’s first protest song since 1973’s “George Jackson,” and the first one Dylan actually cared about since probably The Times They Are A-Changin’, would be a major hit and is seen by many as the centerpiece of Desire. In truth, almost everything in it is a major stretch, some of it is completely fabricated, and the amount of untruth just makes the whole thing ring hollow after you’ve heard it about a hundred times. When I first heard it, it was probably my favorite Dylan song for a year and a half after that, but then its star began to sank, and, while it isn’t my least favorite song on Desire, it isn’t in the top three either. Rather than just raise awareness, though, Dylan wanted to raise money for Carter’s defense fund, and so a tour began to stir in his mind. Any cares about Carter, which I doubt had much influence on Dylan anyway, began to fade a bit as the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s greatest tour, began to take shape. It was to be a travelling troupe, a gypsy caravan. The show would feature multiple performers and would have a vaudeville feel to it. The idea of this grand tour swelled. There were seventy-five people on the tour, including writers like Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg, a Native American spiritual guru named Rolling Thunder, other folk legends like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Joan Baez, and a fantastic band, including such contemporary luminaries as David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and future luminaries as T-Bone Burnett. Guests such as Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young frequented the tour, sometimes just to hang out and sometimes joining in the action onstage. Dylan even decided to make a film based on the tour, which would eventually become Renaldo and Clara. To go along with the grand tour, he wanted a new sound. One day, while walking around the streets of the village, Dylan came upon a street performer, a gypsy violinist named Scarlet Rivera. He hired her on the spot and her sound came to dominate both the tour and Desire, the album that followed it. The cinematic scope of the songs was influenced by Levy’s eye for screenwriting. They were like epics, or else like Eisensteinian montages. The tour had a grand first leg, announcing concerts just hours before playing them, romping though old gothic theatres in the Northeast. A second leg toured the South in early ’76, but the magic was mostly gone. The tour had changed and things had gone sour. Some great music was made, but it was of a different kind: angrier and less open to what is. As Rolling Thunder began, Sara had briefly reunited with Dylan after walking in on him recording “Sara” and being moved, but by the time the second leg was winding up, she was standing in the wings of huge stadiums holding divorce papers. Desire was recorded early on, and while the songs are more polished, less frenetic and certainly less emphatic than they were on Rolling Thunder, they were still great.
Best song: Black Diamond Bay – A strange frame story populated by a stranger cast. This may be based on a short story – its hard to say – but it certainly has the flavor of literary fiction. Human folly plays out and we are to find it is fruitless against a backdrop of apocalypse. Soviet espionage, homosexual midgets, a French poker dealer and a mysterious woman in white: this song has it all. The story is then revealed to be at two removes, being told by a narrator who is imagining the story based on a newscast by Walter Cronkite.
Worst song: Mozambique – Dylan’s attempt at a pop song. This was released as a pop song, but failed miserably. I was tempted to put “Joey,” an epic eulogy of gangster Joey Gallo, who Dylan seems to have confused with the grandfather in the Werther’s Originals commercials, but at nine minutes, I thought “Joey” just might be too painful to anyone listening to a soundtrack of this monstrosity.
Best outtake: Abandoned Love – This song was debuted at the Bitter End club before the Rolling Thunder Revue started, and has never been played live since. One take was recorded at the Desire sessions, but it wasn’t considered complete. It is a beautiful song though. Inventive, jumping melody with intriguing lyrics. This early, unfinished version is better than several songs that made the album.
Best live version: Isis – “Isis” is a great song on the album, but it is a whole ‘nother beast live. On Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan introduces it as “a song about marriage.” That is true, but truer is when, at other concerts on the tour, he introduced it by saying “this is a true story; actually, they are all true.” It certainly is true, if you read it slant. The song, as I read it, is an allegory for Dylan’s marriage to Sara. He falls in love with her, they marry. He is lured away on a journey to find turquoise and gold, which I would assume is that cash cow that the ’74 tour was seen as. He found it hollow and unfulfilling, and realized the time away was ruining his relationship. Like any good writer, though, he reshapes the ending in his favor – Sara takes him back.
Rhymes: middleweights/out-of-state plates (“Hurricane”); who-knows-when/accordion (“Joey”); cantina/Magdalena (“Romance In Durango”); floor/ambassador; night/Cronkite (4-5 from “Black Diamond Bay”)
Images: “a high place of darkness and light” (“Isis”); “your voice is like a meadowlark” (“One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”); “hoofbeats like castanets on stone;” “serpent eyes of obsidian” (“3-4 from “Romance In Durango”); “the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind” (“Black Diamond Bay”)
Axioms: “I still can’t remember all the best things she said;” “when he died I was hopin’ that it wasn’t contagious;” “what drives me to you is what drives me insane” (1-3 from “Isis”); “you can take your money, but I don’t know how you’ll spend it in the tomb” (“Black Diamond Bay”); “a messenger sent me in a tropical storm” (“Sara”)