• Old 'Stache

Objects of Desire: Inside Dylan’s Last Great Album

written by: on January 27, 2012

While Blood on the Tracks before it is regarded as Dylan’s masterpiece, Desire is just as strong an effort, with far more candor and narrative. It’s an album in stories—of madmen, star-crossed lovers, corrupt policemen, gypsies with eyes like “jewels in the sky”; epic in its scope, effortlessly tangling fact and fancy. It is by ways topical and literary, sacred and secular.

Whereas before even his most sneering protest songs were veiled in metaphor—Dylan took off the mask and confronted problems with even-handed candor, fire and heart. It begins with the ominous, swirling “Hurricane,” the tale of middleweight champion Rubin Carter who Dylan portrayed as framed by a racist New Jersey police force snarls with irony, casket calling in long-form the hypocrisies of a nation where “justice is a game.” Then there was the 11-minute elegy “Joey.” The song mythologized notorious New York mafioso Joey Gallo as a hero worthy of the ranks of Jesse James and Robin Hood. Remarkably, Dylan was told the story by Jerry Orbach who had met Gallo while playing a character based on him. Inevitably, a song glorifying a mass-murderer, and extortionist critics Robert Christagau and Dave Marsh hopped on the bandwagon, the former going so far as to hail it “deceitful bathos.” Lester Bangs called it “repellent romantic bullshit.”

Desire might not have happened were it not for Dylan’s return to Greenwich Village, where he was reunited with longtime manager Bob Neuwirth and Bowie/”American Pie” session bassist Rob Stoner. He was also in the company of lyricist Jacques Levy, While in New York he saw the young (and as of yet album-less) Patti Smith perform with her band, and was struck by the group’s chemistry. Though Dylan had been accompanied before—most famously by The Band—he wanted to form his own permanent group. From his old stomping ground, the bard set about assembling a band.

It took some weeks and chaos, splitting time between the Hamptons and Studio E, for Dylan to assemble a lineup he was pleased with. According to Eric Clapton, who was present for the New York City sessions, Dylan was anxious and hesitant in front of a larger group and struggled to keep the honesty and confessionality of his solo act. For whatever reason, the cast was eventually cut down—the choice players who made the cut became The Rolling Thunder Revue—a chemistry that was nothing short of magical. Stoner formed the crux of the rhythm section on bass. His friend Howie Wyeth’s drums were perfect; loosely cascading, sometimes trailing and sometimes ushering the songs onward they have a rare sympathetic ear to the leads that without, Desire would not be itself. Young star Emmylou Harris joined the cast, dueting with Dylan on most of the tracks, her vulnerable, down-home quaver complementing Dylan’s own voice wonderfully. But the most distinctive and unforgettable contribution came from Scarlet Rivera, who was carrying her violin case down the street when Dylan drove by. The two struck up a conversation and a few jam sessions later she was asked to be on the album; no matter the truth behind that, her mystical violin strains are as hauntingly lyrical as Dylan’s verses.

Dylan, as always, had changed.  He began painting his face white before shows, wearing headscarfs and feathered suede hats atop fur-lined coats and printed neckscarfs, his curls hung to his shoulders—his voice, though urgent and powerful, was noticeably more husky and damaged from his young, whiny days. Desire was recorded between the two legs of The Rolling Thunder Revue (named from Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaign of North Vietnam), between riding out hits like “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm” and debuting new material. The band’s live set included folk standards like “The Water is Wide” and what’s remarkable is that Dylan doesn’t seem any less storied in comparison.

There’s a sheen to his songwriting of this era that makes it seem like even upon their release, these were old songs, folk songs—songs that emerged from the myth of the land itself.

The all-night recording session involved chatter, comprehensive rewrites and copious amounts of tequila. It was recorded mostly in single takes, making it near-impossible for producer Don DeVito to correct a pitch or dub over a track. Often, you can hear Dylan stumble or slur, Desire is chock full of “happy accidents.”  What’s more: Harris was given no time to rehearse harmonies. Longtime companion Joan Baez, who accompanied Bobby at shows, admitted she rarely knew how long he would hold a note or how he would inflect it. Mostly, there’s two voices scraping around in the dark, one trying to find the other—there’s a passionate dance to it.

Take the travelogue “Isis.” the protagonist meets a strange man who enlists him in a mad search for an ancient treasure. As their treacherous journey unfolds “the wind was a-howling/And the snow was outrageous,” our hero is lost in thoughts of his bride, Isis. The imagery is awesomely surreal as they come “to the pyramids all embedded in ice.” The pair break into the tomb only to find it was meant for the treasure-seeker, who soon dies and is buried in it. The hero scolds himself for taking up the offer and returns home to Isis, “Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed.” She forgives him for his leave and begrudgingly takes him back. The piece was one of the most popular from the album—a lesson in fidelity and pride, foolhardy idealism but also, like Don Quixote before it, a hilarious jaunt. From its first lines, “I married Isis on the fifth day of May,” there is an epic cadence and virtuosity where Dylan stands alone.

Other moments of the album are delightfully irreverent. For instance, “Mozambique,” began as a contest between Dylan and Levy to see who could come up with the most rhymes for Mozambique. What could have been a political comment on the African nation, which was embroiled in a bloody war for independence from Portugal, filled with harrowing images of the senseless violence is instead a nursery rhyme, “The sunny sky is aqua blue/And all the couples dancing cheek-to-cheek … plenty time for good romance.” In a way, it is a protest; a cathartic break from what ought to be said—just finding light. When one heckler shouted, “Play a protest song,” between numbers at the Revue Dylan. Instead of strike back (as he might have a decade earlier), Dylan broke softly into the opening chords of “Oh, Sister,” saying “Here’s one for ya’.”

It is a protest song. Not against Vietnam or injustice but against scorn itself, blood feuds never ending, “Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore/You may not see me tomorrow.” It touches on a central theme of the album—abandonment and loss—begging for forgiveness. It’s easygoing sometimes, others cutting straight at the heart, but it struck a chord that’s still sounding. The story of “Black Diamond Bay” is more relevant than ever—a woman in “a necktie and a panama hat” trying to escape her past checks into a volcanic island resort hours before it sinks into the ocean. The characters—a Greek, gambling room attendant, a soldier and a tiny man—all react differently in their last moments: suicide, pawning off, attempting escape all the while a man sits at home when Walter Cronkite breaks the story of an island sinking, tired of hearing “hard-luck stories,” he goes to the kitchen for a beer. An eerie foreshadowing of information oversaturation—today’s “Black Diamond Bay” is a blip on a Twitter feed.

Critics still hold there’s nothing personal about Desire, especially not compared to Blood on the Tracks. Frankly, that’s bullshit. It was in the midst of that late night recording session that Zimmerman broke into a new song he had written, unheard previously– as the band picked up the changes, he began reciting the lyrics to “Sarah,” the winding ballad to his former wife, while she sat behind the studio glass. That take would eventually be pressed and ranks as one of Dylan’s most passionate performances. This wasn’t the ratty Minnesotan kid with a guitar and harmonica nor was it the abstract prophet in pinstripes with a fro—Desire peaked the 1976 charts. Make no mistake, Dylan was already a legend; he just had something more to say.

Bob Dylan – Desire tracklist:

  1. “Hurricane”
  2. “Isis”
  3. “Mozambique”
  4. “One More Cup of Coffee”
  5. “Oh, Sister”
  6. “Joey”
  7. “Romance in Durango”
  8. “Black Diamond Bay”
  9. “Sara”