#174: Bob Dylan, "Desire" (1976)

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Back in the kitchen of a dimly lit trattoria on Mulberry St. in Manhattan,  past metal shelves of tomato sauce, cans of olive oil, lemons, and vinegar, beneath the dishwasher’s cigarette smoke, past the crackle and croon of Wolf Man Jack on a transistor radio, and beyond the smell of disinfectant in the mop closet, a gentle rap on a maple door, a password whispered, a palmed-fiver-handshake. The Greek forgery artist, a conjuror and his wood-witch sister, and the ghost of a prize fighter sit down for a card game at a circular table whose smooth green felt is criss-crossed with incantations. One player indicates that they’ve not brought any money, but the dealer kindly holds up one hand and says, “It ain’t necessary,” as their chips—each etched with some faded rune—spill before them as though dispensed from the folds of an invisible purse. Their host turns his head to consult a distorted Mercator map of the Earth hung on the wall, and, thus assured of his task, deals each player one card face down, and names the game. 


In the spring of 1975, Dylan invited experimental theatre director, lyricist, and clinical psychologist Jacques Levy to join him for a month-long collaborative writing session in Connecticut, where Levy penned the lyrics to several songs that would become the most recognizable on the album Desire, and some of the most narratively cogent in Dylan’s songbook. The satellite orbit, post-beat associative verse that had piloted much of Dylan’s songwriting is in pretty stark contrast to Levy’s comparatively straight-shot narratives on Desire, very especially the record’s bookends: “Hurricane” and “Joey”.

When one thinks of Dylan as a titanic individual talent, the depth of this collaboration, in which Levy is attributed authorship of entire songs on the record, might seem anomalous, but it wasn’t unheard of. It’s interesting to think of it as having come on the heels of Dylan’s ‘74 tour with the Band, with whom he’d beaten a well-trod path of give and take, composition and revision and collaboration over the years. But the Great Flood Tour had not been the cohesive or compelling interchange they’d enjoyed previously. In his pretty damned excellent autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm describes the tour as having been extremely profitable (it has been alleged that roughly 4% of adult Americans attempted to purchase tickets) but that it was a little short on passion, and that nobody had a real good time. The tour marked the beginning of the end of Dylan’s routine collaboration with the Band that had bookended his pre- and post-motorcycle accident career.

By the time he sat down with Levy, Dylan had begun to conceive of a new musical family for himself, a caravan of troubadours that would extend its collaborative processes onto the stage and into an iconic position within his episodic, career-long rediscoveries and self-inventions. Dylan had started writing “Sarah” and “One More Cup of Coffee” on a trip to Spain where he’d spent time playing with some gypsy musicians, grabbed handfuls of the literal and subconscious messages their music conveyed to him, and proceeded to sprinkle it into his work without compunction. This method of ravenous consumption, theft, distillation, and re-presentation scans as a sort of table of contents to Dylan’s playbook as a whole, and I’m among those who find his brand of synthesis to be entirely natural and endlessly fascinating to unpack.

One wonders how deeply Dylan had formulated the sound he would summon so successfully with the group on Desire, or the depth to which they could invoke duende—the creative spirit of a performance—that “works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand…changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine-shops, with adolescent blushes: gives a woman’s hair the odour of a midnight sea-port: and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages,” as Lorca would have it.

In June of ‘75, as he was driving through the Village, Dylan spotted a woman with crow-black hair down to her waist walking across the street with a fiddle case in her hands. He rolled down the window and called to her, asked if she could play good. She started, as anyone minding their business would have done—she was on her way to a rehearsal with her latin band—then she recognized him. Scarlet Rivera has described herself as having been a sometimes painfully shy person. At the time she was discouraged by her slow, halting progress in establishing the violin as a relevant, innovative presence in contemporary music. She was concerned that no one understood the instrument’s potential. She was good though, and she knew it. She accepted the opportunity to rehearse with him.

By dawn the next morning she’d traveled with Dylan to his studio; extemporized fiddle lines over early versions of “Isis”, “One More Cup of Coffee”, “Joey”, and “Romance in Durango”; gone with to a Muddy Waters performance where Dylan sat in for a few tunes and took the opportunity to announce that he’d found a new fiddle player. Scarlet took the stage when invited, soloed without hesitation, blew the doors off the joint, and accompanied the entourage till dawn. Within the month she was recording as a founding and critically significant member of Dylan’s new musical family and the gypsy caravan he’d been working toward, the Rolling Thunder Review.

In hindsight, Rivera has described the decisions she made in that moment as a crossroads with mythological import. The effect of Desire makes this assessment sort of hard to disagree with; Desire, as a composition, positively rings with archetypal overtones. It’s Dylan’s most mystically charged record, and it crackles with feminine mystique carried off by Rivera’s fiddle lines which alternately scratch beneath and then swaddle Dylan’s melodies, his sawn harmonica leads, and Emmylou Harris’s and Ronnie Blakley’s harmonies, which buttress and amplify a raw feminine power that is, in my mind, the signature effect of the record’s production. Sonically and psychically, Desire is owned by the women who populate it, none more than Rivera.

Attesting to why Desire is so successful and such a personally significant record to so many listeners, one that routinely appears near the top of attentive Dylan fans’ lists, is as difficult as it is unavoidable. It is an entirely alluring effort. Desire sounds like a mystery. It invites speculation and repeated listening and fairly bleeds with the sounds of pathos, love, remorse, lust. One hears a torchlit ceremony, the chemical wedding of the old philosopher king to his bride. Also: It. Grooves. So. Fucking. Hard. Maybe this can’t be overstated, maybe this needs some explaining, maybe it is as self-evident as the tides.

Rob Stoner and Howard Wyeth form what is among the most comprehensively groovy rhythm sections I’ve ever heard in my damn life. Stoner’s root-deep bass tones sound as though they’ve been thrummed on the umbilicus between the world and the moon, and the recurrent slap-back reverb on Wyeth’s drum kit echoes his deft, propulsive stumbling through some cavern toward the light. These tracks, stitched through with Scarlet Rivera’s silver thread, are, in my ears and chest, sometimes nearly overwhelming to consider. These are the sounds of musicians who—having just been introduced to one another and the songs—barely know the material they’re recording, and must rely on their gut to get them from one side of a tune to the other. Their mantra-like groove, a kind of madness born of the survival instinct, pervades Desire binding together the record’s constellation of narratives —historical biography, fantasy, western, revisionist journalism, late-capitalist lament, memoir. It’s as if we’ve tuned in a radio signal by happenstance, as if we might have jiggered the antenna, smacked the top of the radio, and grabbed a different story because we’re awash in them.

I think this record asks us to pay close attention to one another, though, to consider how the granularity of individual lives fits within an interrelated aggregation of those experiences. Clocking in at eight and eleven minutes respectively, “Hurricane” and “Joey” essentially demand a recognition that a discussion of any one life requires room and time to unfold. Alternately, the dizzying, through-the-looking-glass circumlocutions of “Isis” and “Black Diamond Bay” are as a cloud of volcanic dust, a storm of humanity that can be overwhelming to the point of inciting complacency and malaise. (Seems like every time you turn around / there’s another hard luck story that you’re gonna hear / and there’s really nothin’ anyone can say / and I never did plan to go anyway / to Black Diamond Bay.) Desire demonstrates that this blasphemous and sometimes forgivable impulse to look away must be counterbalanced with utmost care and attention to those around us, and how we walk with one another. “Oh Sister”’s solemn, reverential address of separation—which is always so imminent and always so fearfully charged—is unflinching in its clarity: we may never pass this way again. Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore, is a pressing message to consider and leads without pause to its own natural conclusion which we all must confront: You may not see me, tomorrow.

—Joe Manning