Picture an artist who has had it all: fame, success, money, and glory. Acclaimed by the critics, worshipped by the fans, chased by the record labels. A musical God. An unreachable genius.
Underneath that shiny coat of glamour and glory, however, there is another companion lurking: boredom.
After all, when a genius has already spent more than an entire decade publishing masterpiece after masterpiece, it can be hard to keep up with the expectations, both internal and external ones.
Needless to say, this was none of Dylan's problems when in 1976, right in the middle of his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour, he released his seventeenth studio album, Desire. One of the greatest albums ever released.
Flash forward to 2005: as a fourteen-year-old millennial girl who had never listened to Bob Dylan before, I buy a CD copy of Desire along with a magazine I'm not interested in. I buy that album out of curiosity, mostly because I know that one of the most popular songwriters in my Country, Fabrizio De Andrè, was often inspired by this Dylan guy. I know nothing about Rubin Carter, Joey Gallo, nor the French gypsies. I know nothing about the Rolling Thunder Revue. I know a little about Joan Baez and Patti Smith, but who the heck is Emmylou Harris?
I go home, throw the magazine in the trash, and run to my room. I put the record on and start banging my head to the rhythm of Hurricane.
When Isis starts I instantly get an idea for a novel. The plot, obviously, has nothing to do with the song because (remember) I'm a fourteen-year-old Italian girl who doesn't get a word Dylan is singing.
As the record gets on playing, with Mozambique (which I don't really like at first), and One More Cup of Coffee (which, instead, is love at first sight), I sit at my lousy computer and start writing the stories that cross my mind.
I gotta confess I have always been fairly confused by what my real calling was. I have always wanted to be a musician, encouraged by what people around me would recognize as a "beautiful singing voice", but I've always felt the urge for writing something of my own. Whether it would be a song, a novel, a screenplay.
At some point, I understood that my calling was storytelling, which can come in many different forms.
Desire, for example, is an essential storytelling textbook. It is a collection of short stories in music. It is a bunch of scripts in development. It is a group of paintings, too, with well-defined details over fascinating landscapes.
I bet you are not surprised by the fact that Desire had a huge impact on my decision to be a storyteller. An artist. A songwriter.
Let me tell you why by mapping out its history, the facts behind its development and recording, the stories behind each one of its songs.
Bob Dylan conceived his Rolling Thunder Revue tour after watching a young Patti Smith perform at The Bitter End.
For those of you who have never been to New York City, The Bitter End is a legendary music venue in the heart of the Greenwich Village. Most of my musical heroes performed on that stage, including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
I performed on that stage too during one of my wanderings, but that's another story.
Let's stick to 1975, when an already famous and glorified Bob Dylan decides it would be cool to organize a tour in smaller venues, accompanied by a band of musician friends, equally or less established than him, getting on the road, and having some fun.
Turns out, Dylan really enjoyed working with that talented bunch of fellow artists. So he would also keep the decision of sharing his artistic process to write most of the songs for Desire. That's how he co-wrote seven of the nine songs in the album with Jacques Levy.
This is the first aspect we need to keep in mind when approaching the album: it is not the fruit of Dylan's solo laboring, but the result of the many influences other artists had on him during the Rolling Thunder time.
We could say the real protagonists of the album are not only Dylan and Levy's stories, but also Emmylou Harris' vocals, and Scarlet Rivera's violin. Not to mention the contribution of all the other incredible session musicians who took part in the record.
Dylan had already proven himself as one of the best songwriters out there, being able to merge his own storytelling with a great folk tradition. In Desire, with the help of stage director, songwriter, and psychologist Jacques Levy, he gets deeper into his literary ability, delivering songs that could actually be novels or movies.
What are these stories all about? I'm about to tell ya.
Hurricane: the legend of Rubin Carter
Well, it is not actually a legend, but a sad, unjust real-life story.
Rubin Carter was a middleweight boxer. A contender for the title. But his quest for glory abruptly stopped when he was accused of a triple murder in 1966.
As the case became more and more controversial, part of the public opinion and the media was convinced that racism was the reason behind the unfair allegations and sentence Carter had to face.
After twenty years of investigations, in 1985, judge Sarokin confirmed this thesis, ordering the release of Carter and putting an end to this dreadful story.
In 1975, about ten years after the false allegations that put Hurricane (as he was called in the ring) in jail, Bob Dylan first heard about this story and decided to help.
Hurricane, the opening track of the album, would become a hit, making the story of Rubin Carter known worldwide.
Just as he had previously done with poor Hattie Carroll, Dylan had given voice to a black person whose rights had been ripped up.
Of course, Bob didn't get away with it as easily. There were lawsuits, bad reviews, concerns from the record label executives (that would end up in a re-recording of the track), and people accusing Dylan of being partial, too superficial on the details of the story, and too forgiving of the Hurricane's turbulent past.
Nothing a songwriter who deals with such hazardous material couldn't predict.
Story and controversies aside, as a songwriter, I can't help finding the structure and the tone of the song extremely fascinating.
It starts as a sort of Western movie in music. The narration is so clear, one could even paint this song.
Last but not least, Scarlet Rivera's violin is a real stroke of genius. Nothing could make this song more memorable and more visual than those vigorous and frenzied violin solos.
Isis: Ancient Egypt on the doorstep
The second track of the album is a very enigmatic tale. So enigmatic I got it all wrong as the fourteen-year-old kid who listened to Bob Dylan for the first time.
Isis is about a young man who leaves his bride to go on a quest for something, not precisely defined in the lyrics.
At some point, he finds himself "working" with a suspicious man. They decide to rob a tomb, just to find it empty.
After this unproductive journey, the young man gets home to his beloved wife Isis, who welcomes him back without too much fuss.
I had wrongfully interpreted the story. I thought it was about a man going off to Vietnam and getting back to his wife after the war, completely changed and transformed. That's how my idea for a novel wasn't really in tune with the meaning of the song.
The right interpretation has nothing to do with Vietnam.
Some critics saw this tale as an allegory of marriage, especially because of Dylan's personal story at the time of writing, as he had just separated from his wife (there is more about this in the last track of the album, the very sweet love ballad Sara).
Whatever the interpretation, the track clearly uses some symbology from Ancient Egypt, but from the Southern American culture too.
Isis was in fact the main Egyptian goddess, known for having resurrecting her husband Osiris. Isis and the guy in the song, however, marry on the fifth day of May or Cinco de Mayo, a very special day in South America.
Mozambique and One More Cup of Coffee: a taste for the exotic
The third and fourth tracks of the album are significantly shorter.
Mozambique, in particular, is a cheerful tune about the African Country, which had recently gained its independence from Portugal at the time of writing.
The song, however, is not a political statement. It is actually a sort of game (apparently, Dylan and Levy started a challenge to see how many words rhyming with Mozambique they could find).
One More Cup of Coffee, on the other hand, is a bit darker.
With this gypsy tale, we are back to storytelling at its finest.
The lyrics slightly remind me of previous works by Dylan, such as Love Minus Zero/No Limits.
The arrangement mainly consists of a beautiful encounter between the voices of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. An encounter witnessed by Rivera's violin, once again mesmerizing and beautiful.
One More Cup of Coffee was probably inspired by the time Dylan spent in Southern France and it simply tells the story of a beautiful gypsy girl the narrator is in love with.
One More Cup of Coffee was written by Dylan alone, just as the closing track Sara, dedicated to his wife.
Joey: the mob and New York City
Dylan had to go through a lot of controversies not only because of the opening track Hurricane but for the sixth song in the album too: Joey.
An account of the life and death of "Crazy Joe" Gallo, a New York City gangster, this sweet ballad doesn't really tune in with the nature of the character it portrays.
Of course, this is not the first and it won't be the last song to romanticize a criminal. After all, isn't it what happens in Crime movies all the time? However, a lot of critics pointed out how the lyrics are far too distant from the truth about Gallo (and rightly so...).
As a fourteen-year-old girl who had no idea who Gallo was, however, I just found this song amazing.
Romance in Durango: outlaws in the desert
The fascination with outlaws, however, is a constant in both the folk tradition and the more modern rock'n'roll.
Whenever you write a song about an outsider, a controversial figure, an underdog, you are walking on a fine line. Especially if the character you are portraying has had troubles with the law.
As previously highlighted, this album is full of characters of this kind, from Hurricane to Joey.
For its seventh track, however, Dylan chose to portray a fictional character.
Here's the story, in a nutshell.
After committing a murder, a guy runs away through the desert with his beloved Magdalena, hoping to escape to Durango, where they can get married and settle down. Of course, the dream doesn't become true and the two are killed during their traveling.
When I first listened to Romance in Durango I already knew the song. Fabrizio De Andrè, the Italian songwriter I mentioned in the opening of this post, recorded an Italian version of it for his album Rimini (which was already one of my favorites at that time).
This song is yet another Western movie in music, rich in narrative details. While listening to that, you should almost perceive the dusty Mexican desert.
Black Diamond Bay: the meanness in this world
Partly fun, partly tragic, Black Diamond Bay is an adventurous tale about a bunch of people staying at a hotel on an exotic island.
Unaware of how the island is about to collapse after a volcano eruption and a subsequent earthquake, the protagonists of the song go on with their grotesque lives until their final moment catches them.
There is a woman who has a strange relationship with a Greek guy she mistakes for the Soviet Ambassador. A soldier and a tiny man who both turn out to be gay and in love with each other. A gambler and the dealer. The desk clerk, who witnesses the weirdness and the beauty of the humans passing by his hotel.
The core of the song is probably a very simple concept: humans make plans and life gets in the middle.
That's what happens to every character in the song, from the Greek guy who wants to hang himself seconds before the volcano erupts (failing to have control even on his own death), to the losing gambler who finally wins right before dying in that natural disaster.
The irony of the whole situation is strongly underlined at the end of the track when the narrator finally reveals himself as a guy watching the news on TV, tired of yet another "hard-luck story that you gotta hear".
It may be the subtle irony throughout the song, the deep meaning hidden behind the non-sense tale, or its rhythmical energy, but I think Black Diamond Bay is my favorite song in the album.
On top of Sara, the album contains another little gem: Oh, Sister. In this song, where Emmylou Harris is once again the protagonist, Dylan gets mystical while talking about love.
In the album, it is probably the song the reminds me of the "old Dylan" the most, maybe because of the harmonica, perfectly blending with Scarlet Rivera's peaceful violin lines.
If you got here, thanks for reading!
Desire is the album I performed last Thursday on my Twitch channel as part of The Unplugged Album Show project. Here's a recap of what happened during the live stream:
Come back next month for another episode of the show!