"We tried it with a lot of different people in the studio, a lot of different types of sound, and I even had back-up singers on that album for two or three days, a lot of percussion, a lot going on. But as it got down, I got more irritated with all this sound going on and eventually just settled on bass, drums and violin." Bob Dylan 1978.
"I had started a song on Joey myself and I showed him what I had. He made some shifts and changes to it and some additions. He could make additions to something...[using] the same words you had written...he'd always astonish me. People just don't realize that one of the greatest things about Bob is his phrasing...Sometimes he could take the same words and do something to the phrasing of them that made them so much more extraordinary than they were, just normally spoken." Jacques Levy 1996
Beginning with the January release of "Blood On The Tracks," and ending with Night of the Hurricane in Madison Square Garden in December, 1975 was a very interesting year in the life of Bob Dylan. In March he performed at the SNACK concerts in San Francisco with Neil Young and various members of The Band, and in June, Columbia finally released the long awaited and much acclaimed "Basement Tapes." Late in October he began the first leg of the celebrated Rolling Thunder Review which would run for six weeks and culminate in the aforementioned concert at Madison Square Garden. In the summer of that year, Dylan revived a friendship with Jacques Levy, a man he had met a year or so earlier through art teacher Norman Raeben, and an unlikely musical collaboration was born. Levy, a producer and sometime lyricist was probably best known for his work with Byrd Roger McGuinn with whom he wrote, among others, "Chestnut Mare." Dylan had visited imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter and was anxious to write a song about his situation, but was struggling to come up with one, "Bob wasn't sure that he could write a song...he was just filled with all these feelings about Hurricane. He couldn't make the first step. I think the first step was putting the song in a total story telling mode. I don't remember whose idea it was to do that" said Levy. Keen to avoid the distractions of New York city, the two men decamped to Dylan's Long Island beach house and over a period of two weeks wrote the songs that would become "Desire." All but two of the songs on the album ("One More Cup Of Coffee" and "Sara") and several outtakes are credited with being Dylan/Levy compositions, and it was the first time that Dylan shared writing credits with anybody. He was eager to get these newly written songs on record but the early session in mid July lacked focus and was weighed down with too much personnel. When he tried again two weeks later, the results were pretty much the same, and Eric Clapton, who's presence has never really been explained, called it "...madness" and suggested that Dylan use fewer musicians. Thankfully, Dylan took his advice and the band of backing musicians was stripped to the bone, resulting in the sound that we associate with the album, in fact, more than half of "Desire" was recorded in one night, July 30th 1975.
The opening track "Hurricane" concerns imprisoned middleweight boxer Rubin Carter who had sent Dylan a copy of his autobiography The Sixteenth Round hoping Dylan's sixties association with the civil rights movement would help his appeal against his 1967 conviction for a triple murder. In the song Dylan assumes Carter's innocence "The man the authorities came to blame/For something that he never done" and the story of social injustice unfolds chronologically in much the same way as those of Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evers some years earlier. Carter, in typical Dylan outlaw fashion, is portrayed as an unfortunate pawn and a victim of a brutal and racist system as in "If you're black you might as well not show up on the street" and "The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed/And the all-white jury agreed." The justice system is seen as corrupt "The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance," and Carter a blameless innocent merely going about his business "It's my work, he'd say, I do it for pay/And when it's all over I'd just as soon go on my way." Dylan was perhaps a little naive in making this such a black and white issue as the song does contain some inaccuracies and would create a few legal problems for him. Lines like "An innocent man in a living hell" and "...sits like Buddha in a ten foot cell" were probably overstating the issue. Typically, when there is an issue at stake, Dylan jumped in feet first, and the song "Hurricane" became the focal point of Rolling Thunder and the unofficial anthem of it. Partly due to the efforts of Dylan and others, Carter was granted a retrial in 1976, but was again found guilty. With Carter's innocence looking less and less likely, Dylan distanced himself from the cause and the song which he last played live at the second Night Of The Hurricane, a poorly attended event at the Houston Astrodome on January 25th 1976. "Hurricane" was not performed during the second leg of Rolling Thunder. Carter was eventually released in 1985, and when asked why he no longer performs the song, Dylan's answer was a terse "Hurricane's out now, we don't have to play that one no more." The take of the song that was originally intended for the album was among those recorded at the productive session of July 30th, but some Columbia executives became concerned that some of the lyrics could be considered actionable, so Dylan was forced to re-record it (with amended lyrics) on October 24th, a week before Rolling Thunder kicked off. As a result, the backing vocalist is Ronee Blakely and not Emmylou Harris
A much more complex and rewarding song is "Isis," one of the finest that Dylan has ever written. This long allegorical poem/song takes us on a journey away from and back to the mythical goddess of Egyptian legend. "I married Isis on the fifth day of May/But I could not hold on to her very long" he says and after the ritual cutting off of his hair he sets off for the "...wild unknown country where I could not go wrong." He meets a mysterious stranger who offers him an equally mysterious "...somethin' easy to catch" and after an assurance that they will "...be back by the fourth" they begin their journey. Our narrator is thinking in terms of material treasures, but also about Isis and all the promises that she made, but significantly "...can't remember all the best things she said." His partner tells him that the quest is for a body that "...will bring a good price" if he is able to carry it out, but unfortunately dies before he is able to do so. The narrator carries on alone and upon reaching the tomb finds it empty "There was no jewels, no nothin', I felt I'd been had" and in a fit of pique "I picked up his body and I dragged him inside/Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover" ironically leaving a body instead of removing one. Having now rid himself of the burden of his alter ego he is free to return to Isis "...just to tell her I love her," but this is a strange form of love "I come in from the east with the sun in my eyes/I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead," and the verbal exchange that they have in the penultimate verse suggests that he is staying under duress "She said, You gonna stay? I said, If you want me to, yes." Finally we come full circle as the last line of the song mirrors the first when he remembers their wedding day "I still can remember the way that you smiled/On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin' rain."
"Mozambique" brings little or nothing to the album and the best thing that can be said about it is that "Desire" would have benefited by its omission. I can't understand why Dylan would want to sing the praises of a country he has probably never visited.
The familiar themes of outlaws and the Texas/Mexican landscape are revisited in "One More Cup Of Coffee" as Dylan paints a picture of a (possibly illicit) liaison between two young people. "Your breath is sweet/Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky" is how he describes her beauty as he searches for a way, "One more cup of coffee..." to delay his return to the sinister sounding "valley below." We are given a brief aural snapshot of this family from the tyrannical father, the outlaw who "...oversees his kingdom/So no stranger does intrude" to the fortune-telling mother and her two daughters who "...see the future." This is a pointless relationship, another one of Dylan's one sided affairs as he says "But I don't sense affection/No gratitude or love," but perhaps he is drawn to her by her very mystery "But your heart is like an ocean/Mysterious and dark." This is a short but evocative piece of writing as Dylan creates the sense of a hot Spanish night (at least we assume it's night) and a pervading feeling of doom, with the valley quite possibly being the biblical valley of death.
"Oh, Sister" is another relatively short piece (in terms of the other songs on the album) that is beautifully performed. Emmylou Harris' vocal is confident and matches Dylan note for note, while Scarlet Rivera's violin is almost painfully moving. The theme of lost love or unreturned love is again in evidence "Oh sister, when I come to lie in your arms/You should not treat me like a stranger" or is this a spiritual love? as in "We died and were reborn/And then mysteriously saved." The secondary theme of death which is never far away in this album is also revisited here as the final couplet forebodingly predicts "Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore/You may not see me tomorrow." Dylan performed this song (along with "Hurricane" and the earlier "Simple Twist Of Fate") for a television special dedicated to his first producer, John Hammond that was broadcast on December 25th 1975. An obviously tired Dylan, accompanied by Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth and Scarlet Rivera taped the songs in the early hours of the morning and afterwards remarked, "For all John Hammond's done for me, it was worth staying late."
In many ways "Joey" is the other side of the "Hurricane" coin. Where Carter was perceived as a victim of the penal system, Joey Gallo is one who seemingly exploits it for his own benefit. Dylan came in for some criticism for his glorification of this modern day Robin Hood who was "Always on the outside of whatever side there was" but there is a certain irony in the way that he relates the tale of this deeply flawed character, this "King of the streets, child of clay." Joey is depicted as a victim of the streets "But it always seemed they got caught between/The mob and the men in blue" but his true activities are only hinted at and never fully revealed, "No one ever knew for sure where they were really at." His sordid street battles are elevated to the status of wars as the saga unfolds in almost cinematic fashion and Joey is shown to be something of a pragmatist "It's peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again." When he is eventually brought to justice there is more than a suggestion of corruption "They got him on conspiracy, they were never sure who with" sings Dylan with undisguised distaste and describes his ten years in Attica "His closest friends were black men 'cause they seemed to understand/What it's like to be in society with a shackle on your hand" again depicting Joey as the victim. His first thought on release is to "...find a way back into the life he left behind," he is shown to be a man of compassion in the way that he will not carry a gun with children around, but still a psychopath, "Yet he walked right into the clubhouse of his lifelong deadly foe/Emptied out the register, said Tell 'em it was Crazy Joe." When his end finally comes (fittingly in a clam bar in Little Italy) his reputation lives on "I heard his best friend Frankie say, He ain't dead, he's just asleep" and his father has to say goodbye to "...to the son that he could not save." The story ends with a mass in a Brooklyn church and the sinister note of "I know the men who shot him down will get what they deserve." "Joey" (dubious content aside) is typical of the strongly written, movie-like story songs on this album, although this one was largely Levy's. Dylan's list of outlaw anti-heroes is long, but Joey Gallo does not really fit into his dictum of "To live outside the law you must be honest." Dave Marsh in his Rolling Stone review was particularly critical. "But [Dylan's] neatest ellipsis is to avoid all mention of the public execution of Joseph Colombo, which the evidence suggests that the Gallo mob ordered. In which case it is hardly relevant that Joey Gallo did not carry a personal weapon and much more understandable that he himself was gunned down in front of his family. Gallo was an outlaw, in fact, only in the sense that he refused to live by the rules of the mob..." Strong words, sure, but Marsh goes on to describe "Joey" as being "...musically seductive."
Those same words could be used to describe "Romance In Durango," a re-write of the 1959 Marty Robbins song "El Paso" with the action moved across the border from Texas to Mexico. The plot, characters and action are all fairly stereotypical, but skillful writing brings freshness to an often told tale. You can almost feel the dry, dusty heat of the opening line "Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun" as the fugitives flee from the approaching pursuers. Dylan slips easily into the guise of a Mexican outlaw as he and Magdalena make their way to Durango and freedom "Past the Aztec ruins and the ghosts of our people/Hoofbeats like castanets on stone." He reflects back on the murder of Ramon and the reason for their flight "Was it me that shot him down in the cantina/Was it my hand that held the gun?" but he is also thinking ahead to their idyllic wedding ceremony "I will wear new boots and an earring of gold/You'll shine with diamonds in your wedding gown." As he ponders on the length of their journey "The way it is long but the end is near," an ominous note of foreboding is introduced "The face of God will appear/With his serpent eyes of obsidian," an angry God looking for revenge. The end for this ill-fated couple is as swift as it is poignant "My head is vibrating, I feel a sharp pain" as all his hopes and dreams are shattered by one bullet. We leave them with him mortally wounded and relying on Magdalena in a hopeless situation "Aim well my little one/We may not make it through the night." This song is the only survivor from the July 28th session, where the chaotic studio conditions forced Dylan to rethink his musical line-up. Uncharacteristically, Dylan was prepared to re-record "Romance In Durango" but was persuaded to leave it as the only "big band" track on the album. Everything else, with the exception of the re-worked "Hurricane," comes from either the 30th or the 31st of July.
There doesn't seem to be any reason why "Romance In Durango" should blend so seamlessly into "Black Diamond Bay," another story song, but one asking far more questions than it answers. Seven long complex verses, chaotic and bizarre events coupled with strange, unexplained behaviour and snatches of obtuse conversation - only Dylan can write like this. The "she" of the opening lines "...wears a necktie and a Panama hat," and is being accosted by "...a voice from the gambling room," but is not what she seems, temptress, gambler, whore or spy, all of these or none because "...all the remnants of her recent past are scattered in the wild wind." The cast of characters is as outlandish as the adventures that befall them; the Greek whom the woman mistakes for the Soviet Ambassador inexplicably hangs himself after asking the desk clerk (the fez and French language suggest North Africa) for "...a rope and a pen that will write." The soldier and the "tiny man" are "Doin' business..." that is possibly sexual and almost certainly illegal and the "...loser in the gambling room" whose only response to each catastrophe is "Open up another deck" all form part of this unlikely sequence of events.
Eventually a succession of natural (or unnatural) disasters from a tropical storm to a volcano (and a blown boiler in the basement) destroy the island completely as "she" is back on the balcony being propositioned again. The final verse takes us to Los Angeles where our friendly narrator is watching the whole thing on television and sees that the earthquake "Left nothin' but a Panama hat/And a pair of old Greek shoes." Totally unmoved by this he goes to grab another beer because "...I never did plan to go anyway/To Black Diamond Bay." Proof perhaps that in today's world if it doesn't impact directly upon us it is of no consequence, as the desk clerk says "It happens every day." "Black Diamond Bay" is one of the high points of the album, almost like "Desolation Row" revisited but with a more linear if somewhat inaccessible storyline.
"Sara" is without question the most personal song that Bob Dylan has ever committed to record, some might argue that it is too personal and doesn't quite work, perhaps because he tries too hard. The opening verse is a snapshot of a family at peace, sand dunes, young children playing and Sara who was "...always so close and still within reach" but soon he is asking "Whatever made you want to change your mind?" As he recalls happier times he remembers her as his "Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress" and his "Glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow," and he recalls "Stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writin' Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for you" (this last is strangely inaccurate as that song was almost certainly written in Nashville and not New York). He paints an idyllic picture of life with his "Radiant jewel, mystical wife" and admits that "Lovin' you is the one thing I'll never regret." The final verse is beautifully written, we return to the beach but now it is deserted "...except for some kelp/And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore" and he ponders on what he is about to lose "You always responded when I needed your help/You gave me a map and a key to your door." Much as I like this song and admire Dylan for so uncharacteristically dropping his guard to write it, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when listening to it. Joan Baez said it best in her song "Diamonds And Rust" where she describes Dylan as being "...so good with words and at keeping things vague." Vagueness here might have been a better option, until one considers the conditions under which the song was recorded. Sara Dylan was an unexpected visitor to the studio that night (July 31st) and Dylan sang the song directly to her. Jacques Levy witnessed the event, "It was extraordinary. You could have heard a pin drop. She was absolutely stunned by it." he said, but the more cynical witnesses felt that Dylan was just playing to the gallery.
"Desire" is an album that works very well with each of its story songs (Allen Ginsberg called then "...cameo novels") being able to stand alone or to be part of the greater whole. How much of this is due to Jacques Levy's input will probably never be known and it is odd that such a rich and rewarding partnership was not repeated, particularly in light of the album's commercial success. Dave Marsh, who had been so critical of "Joey" gave it four stars, and referred to it as "...a very special album," and John Rockwell, writing in The Times said that it contained "...some of the most wonderful music Dylan has ever made." Emmylou Harris, who was an integral part of the sound of "Desire" was struck by the way Dylan worked, she told "Q" Magazine "...he just got right down to business...we sat right next to each other with two microphones very close. The lyrics were on the page in front of both of us and he would just nudge me, like, to sing...there was no preparation time I guess is what I'm saying." (February 2004 interview). The album was released in January 1976, a few months before the start of the second leg of Rolling Thunder, during which, oddly, very few "Desire" songs were played. On the first leg, six songs from the album had formed the basis of each concert, they were "Romance In Durango" (often dedicated to Sam Peckinpah), "Isis," "Hurricane" (of course), "Oh, Sister," "One More Cup Of Coffee" and "Sara." In 1976, of these, only "Isis" retained a regular spot, and the lightweight travelogue "Mozambique" was added. Some people maintain that "Black Diamond Bay" was performed at the final concert (see footnote). As well as being a critical success, "Desire" also sold well and topped the album charts within four weeks of release, although it only ranked number 174 in a 2003 Rolling Stone poll of Greatest Albums of All Time. Coming so soon after the classic "Blood On The Tracks" it continued Dylan's musical rehabilitation, and as infectious as the songs on it are, sadly almost none of them have found their way into recent live shows.
Jacques Levy, who contributed much to "Desire" and The Rolling Thunder Review, lost his battle with cancer on September 30th 2004. He was sixty-nine.
Footnote: The final official Rolling Thunder concert was on the afternoon of May 25th at Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah and apparently ran for some four and a half hours. It was here that Dylan performed the only known live version of "Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts," as a duet with Joan Baez. Some claim that he also sang "Black Diamond Bay" and as there is no tape in circulation, this is well nigh impossible to verify. As other sources insist that the song in question was "Romance In Durango," I would be grateful if anyone could either confirm or deny this.