1976: Bob Dylan / Desire
by J A Gray
In the summer of 1979, Marcus came home for the holidays with an enormous stack of second-hand Bob Dylan albums under his arm plus an LP-sized book all about the man called Bob Dylan – The Illustrated Record by Alan Rinzler*. It was too good an opportunity not to dive right on in. He didn’t have every Dylan album ever released, but there weren’t very many missing. First of all I would read a chunk of the book to get an idea of where I was about to be going on my latest musical travels. Then I would play selections from each of the LPs. There were so many records that it was more than a bit daunting, so what I did was play the first track from each side of each record. I reckoned that everyone put their best songs at the start of a side of vinyl, right? It seemed a good way of getting a career-wide overview in double-quick time. I’d go back and listen to the rest later, if I liked what I heard and I had enough time.
And what I heard was strange and ever-shifting. Just when I thought I knew where I was with ‘solo acoustic hobo’ Bob, along came ‘surreal electric hep cat’ Bob, followed by ‘sincere country crooner’ Bob, and all the rest. I was certainly becoming fascinated by what I was reading and hearing, but it was hard to get a handle on Bob because there were so many of him. If you’ve seen that movie I’m Not There that presents each stage of Dylan’s career as though it were a different person, then you’ll know what I’m talking about here. I think many of us see him all broken up into a kaleidoscope of many selves like that. Just like Walt Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and one of the two teachers taking me for English was Mr Thompson. Mr Thompson wasn’t very orthodox. He was the first teacher I ever heard use the word ‘fuck’. He would leap around the classroom and enthuse and entertain. He would talk about the backs of women’s knees with an impish, though probably highly inappropriate, lasciviousness. Just about every lesson with him was a total pleasure, except for the once or twice that he arrived in a foul temper and made it quite clear that happiness wasn’t an option for anyone that day. But most of the time he was funny, passionate, incredibly egotistical but also charmingly charismatic. Everybody has a favourite teacher, and he was mine.
He also looked like TV and radio funny man Kenny Everett, probably a source of some annoyance to a man whose big hero was Bob Dylan. I spotted him once with a copy of New Morning under his arm. And then pretty soon his love of Bob became all too apparent when he started taking our English group out of its usual classroom and over to the sixth form common room. There he handed out photocopied sheets of Bob Dylan lyrics and played tracks like It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding or Gates Of Eden or Tombstone Blues. We were doing Dylan appreciation at school! I was absolutely delighted. Later on, we even branched out into Leonard Cohen too. Mr Thompson said he’d once been in a bar in Canada and Leonard himself had walked in with a beautiful woman, walked over to the jukebox and had selected his own tunes to play, presumably in order to woo said lady. Mr Thompson thought this was awful. Personally I found it rather amusing. I hope it’s true. But Bob was the main focus. I declared my allegiance to the cause, of course, and Mr Thompson was kind enough to lend me his copy of John Wesley Harding – an album I had yet to hear (it was missing from Marcus’s summer stash). All of this off-syllabus education came to an end when he decided to elope with a young and glamorous Geography teacher. On his last day, our class all chipped in to buy him a half bottle of whisky as a thank you. He seemed quite touched. I never saw him again but I hope he’s out there somewhere and still full of mischief and fun, and still has that sparkle in his eyes. Thanks, Mr T.
I’ve met my fair share of Dylan freaks since then. There was hipster Nick in the sixth form, with his Cuban heels (almost impossible to find in those days) and mop of curly hair. He even looked a bit like Bob. Well, probably more like Donovan. There was my friend Jill, in her leather biker’s jacket, who kicked the nerdy prog rock boys off the sixth form stereo so she could play me her brand new copy of Infidels. There was Bill and Chris in my student hall of residence, both playing different Bob albums simultaneously so that you heard a strange out-of-focus Dylan audio soup drifting down the corridor. And, very much further down the line, there was Sarah.
Sarah appeared at an after-hours party back at the flat I was living in. When I put some Dylan on the stereo she enthused mightily. For the next few weeks we spent a lot of time in each other’s company. She was stunningly beautiful, smart, funny, well-read, knew her rock history backwards, sang, wrote songs, played guitar. Pretty much my perfect woman right there. I was already imagining not only our romantic future but the rich legacy of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris-style duet records we would undoubtedly record together. I was smitten. But she was coming out of a relationship that had hit rock bottom. Sarah was in need of a shoulder to lean on, and, looking back, mine probably wasn’t the only one she turned to, or the only ear she whispered into. After weeks of uncertainty, she let me down flat on New Year’s Eve 1999. We weren’t going to be a couple. I saw in the 21st Century at home, alone. I remember waking up on New Year’s Day and going to run a bath only to find that one of my landlady’s cats had shat in it. It didn’t bode well for the new millennium. The only good thing to come out of the whole sorry business was a handful of new songs. Creativity often arises from heartbreak or hard times. Bob’s mid 70s return to form testifies to that.
I found it hard to play Bob Dylan records for years afterwards because of the association. In particular, the song Sara from Desire was always a difficult listen. A shame, because it had always been one of my favourite of Bob songs. The Sara in question had been Dylan’s wife for ten years when he recorded it. Some hear it as a heartfelt last-ditch attempt to save a marriage. Others are more suspicious about its sincerity. It’s certainly more explicitly autobiographical than most Bob Dylan songs, with its thumbnail sketches of their courtship, of Dylan family holidays, and even of a much younger Bob “writing Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for you”. The cynics point to the previous album, Blood On The Tracks, with its darker and less-forgiving (and often downright hostile) tone on songs which are also thought to be inspired by, and directed towards, Sara Dylan. They suggest that makes the sentiments of Sara ring false. I’m more inclined to feel that it’s as genuine as any of the Blood On The Tracks songs. Bob’s singing sounds passionate and convincing. The melody and musical arrangement are both romantic and yearning but also filled with tension and drama. If Bob’s faking it, then he gives good fake. But it sounds like the real thing to me. Besides, we don’t always feel the same way from one day to the next. We contain multitudes.
Much of the song’s romantic mood is conveyed through the haunting violin of Scarlet Riviera, arguably the musical superstar of the album. In truth though, there are no slackers. It’s mostly the work of a four-piece band: Dylan, Riviera and the superbly talented rhythm section of Rob Stoner on bass and Howie Wyeth on drums. Plus the added bonus of the angelic Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals, who was then starting to find her feet as a solo artist following Gram Parsons’s death. For my money, Bob never had a better band. Just those five people managed to conjure up a wide, deep and full sound. Scarlet’s fiddle high and keening, sometimes in tandem with Bob’s harmonica. Emmylou having to second guess where Bob was going to next (Bob doesn’t do rehearsals), yet always making it sound so graceful and effortless. Rob and Howie knowing when to lay back and when to add a splash of colour. It’s a masterclass. Bob may have made albums with better songs or stronger lyrics, but he never bettered Desire for musicality. It’s so rich.** Even Bob’s singing, an acquired taste and often mocked and unappreciated, hits an all-time peak on this record. Listen to the way his voice swoops and undulates on songs like One More Cup Of Coffee and Romance In Durango. I’m sure this is partly down to Emmylou Harris inspiring him to reach heights he may not have bothered with when singing alone, but he also sounds brimming with confidence in his own right.
Lyrically, Desire is an oddity in Dylan’s back catalogue in that seven of the nine songs are co-writes. That may not at first seem so strange as Bob had co-written songs with members of The Band before now, but in these instances it was the music that Bob delegated to others. For Desire, Bob worked with another words man, Jacques Levy. Levy had a theatre background, but had worked with at least one rock ‘n’ roller before then when he’d provided the words to a set of Roger McGuinn tunes, intending to stage a musical dramatisation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.*** The musical was never finished, but The Byrds inherited some fine songs like Chestnut Mare, Just A Season, Kathleen’s Song, and Lover Of The Bayou. It was through McGuinn that Dylan and Levy met, and pretty soon they were writing songs together. Why on earth Bob chose to write with another words man remains something of a mystery. Maybe he was having a dry spell or maybe he wanted a fresh approach, who knows. It’s impossible to tell exactly which man wrote which lines, but Levy’s influence on the songs is plain for all to hear. Hurricane, Isis, Joey, Romance In Durango and Black Diamond Bay are positively bursting at the seams with theatricality. Hurricane even opens with stage directions (“Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall/She sees a bartender in a pool of blood…”). Black Diamond Bay plays out exactly like a wacky 1970s disaster movie before panning back to reveal the narrator is in fact watching all this unfold on the news. I’ve always thought that this was a very clever touch indeed. And if that’s disaster movies ticked off the list, we also get a mysterious adventure tale (Isis), an overly-romanticised gangster movie (Joey), and a gritty western (Romance In Durango). Hearing it alongside such material, the naysayers might argue the case that Sara is just another movie-in-song, that its tableaux of fast-cut scenes from the lives of two lovers is no more genuine than these other dramatic fictions. Even the two songs concerning real-life characters, Hurricane and Joey, were criticised for taking great liberties with the truth.**** Yet, tellingly, Sara is one of the two songs that Bob wrote without Jacques’ input. Maybe it was, as another of Dylan’s songs puts it, “too personal a tale”.
The other track on Desire that Bob wrote alone was One More Cup Of Coffee. Back in the early 90s, when I found myself between bands, I played a handful of gigs in a duo with my friend Steve. I didn’t play much guitar in those days, so Steve took care of the instrumental side of things and I just sang. I’d never had that much room to sing on a stage before. The music my bands had played tended to be quite busy and my vocal melodies were often cramped and lacking in dynamics as a result. One More Cup Of Coffee was one of my favourite vehicles for exploring what I could do with my voice in all this unaccustomed space. I recall the song being Steve’s suggestion, because he’d already learned how to play it. I still look back on those gigs with great fondness.
These days I play and sing at the same time, and it’s harder to give your all to one discipline when you’re engaged with a second simultaneously. But there are ways around it. In recent times I’ve often performed another Desire song, Oh Sister. When it gets to the part in the bridge where the lyric goes “we died and were reborn and then mysteriously saved”, I stop playing when I get to “saved” and hold that vocal note as long as I possibly can, full force. It’s a bit of a cheap party trick really, but it goes down well. I was in a restaurant-bar in Morocco a couple of years ago and some young singers were playing. One of them passed me a guitar and asked if I wanted a go. I wondered what I could play that might suit the Moroccan ambience, and Oh Sister was the closest thing I had. They whooped up a storm when I got to the held note. It made me feel very good. But it’s a great song anyway and you’d have to go out of your way to mess it up. I’ve never braved singing Sara though. Partly because it’s too personal a Bob Dylan tale, but mostly because it cuts a little too close to the bone for me as well.
* It wasn’t the first Illustrated Record book we’d read – the one about The Beatles, written by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler had been read and re-read by both of us so many times that the binding had completely fallen apart.
** You can certainly hear more than a trace of this sound in the music The Waterboys made for their Fisherman’s Blues album.
*** In keeping with the times, this was to have been renamed Gene Tryp – a suitably hip anagram.
**** It’s somewhat amusing to note that Hurricane as heard on Desire is actually a remake with altered lyrics (featuring Ronee Blakley on harmony vocal because Emmylou wasn’t available), after concerns over some of the original words could result in a lawsuit. The original version bore even less relation to the known facts of the case and has, not surprisingly, remained unreleased, although it can be found in pretty decent quality on bootlegs. Dylan has never let the facts get in the way of a good song (see also The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll).
N.B. Desire is currently available on CD, in remastered form. A great out-take from the sessions, Abandoned Love, is available on the Biograph set. Three lesser out-takes have been released to date: Rita Mae as a b-side and later on the Masterpieces compilation; and Catfish and Golden Loom which were both released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) set.
Oh and just a quick word about the album cover: Dylan in that beautiful hat and coat – has anyone ever looked cooler? I don’t think so.
My other nominations for 1976 albums of merit:
Bunny Wailer / Blackheart Man
Thin Lizzy / Jailbreak
David Bowie / StationToStation
Stevie Wonder / Songs In The Key Of Life
Parliament / The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein