Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

18. Desire (1976)

Desire, Dylan's 17th studio album and the 18th in the BobBox,  was recorded in the second half of 1975 and put out in early '76 between the two legs of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.  Like the tour itself, Desire is a hugely collaborative affair; as well as bringing in novelist/director Jacques Levy to co-write seven of the nine songs, Emmylou Harris was asked to provide significant vocal support, and several new instruments were introduced to his work, most notably Scarlet Rivera's gypsy violin.

Having lifted the veil on his private life in Blood On The Tracks, here Bob returns the listener to a safe distance; Desire looks out upon the world rather than peering inward. A broad theme of escape pervades, and the rich, exotic sounds make this his most colourful album yet, its musical and lyrical imagery as vivid as the cover photo of Bob in his furs and groovy hat.

Things get off to a powerful start with the first of two topical story songs.  Hurricane is probably the best known song on Desire, and takes up the case of former middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, jailed for triple murder in '66 on rather shaky grounds, and in Dylan's opinion framed by a corrupt and racist judiciary.  The straightforward lyrics pull no punches, and impassioned vocals from Bob and backing singer Ronee Blakley (a film actress and singer songwriter) combine with furious strumming and frantic congas to sustain a sense of urgency throughout the 8½ minute running time.  The highlight, though (for me at least) is Rivera's dynamic violin, which speaks a language of its own, filling all available spaces and at times seemingly duetting with Dylan's lines. It's obvious that his melody-writing mojo which resurfaced on BOTT was still going strong, and this is demonstrated again on the next track.  Travel features prominently on Desire, and the captivating Isis is the first song to take us to far-flung places.  A voyage on several levels, Bob takes to the piano to tell of a doomed adventure where the hero tries to escape responsibility and find something "easy to catch" by joining a mysterious man on a grave-robbing expedition.   The separation and eventual reunion of the main character and his love Isis somewhat mirrors the situation at the time between Dylan and his wife.   The clunky rhyming of "outrageous" and "contagious" is quite cringe-making, but the lack of a chorus, some thumping percussion from drummer Howard Wyeth and a relentless tambourine drive the song along, with Rivera's winding violin working its magic once more.

Emmylou makes her debut on Mozambique, which allegedly began as a game between Dylan and Levy to see how many rhymes for "-ique" they could come up with.  This is believable as it's the weakest song here and reads like a holiday brochure.  It's also an unusual choice for a song about an earthly paradise (perhaps with ironic intent), as Mozambique had become newly independent from Portugal in June 1975 after a ten-year insurgency war.  Sadly it was to be torn apart again in 1977 when civil war broke out, lasting until '92.

One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below) was written by Bob alone, and tells of a gypsy family whose daughter with "..eyes... like two jewels in the sky" fails to return the love of a man who must now leave.  It has a distinct Middle Eastern feel, and after a slow build-up of instruments beginning with acoustic guitar, then Rob Stoner's bass, Scarlet's violin and finally drums, Dylan cantillates impressively on the first verse before Emmylou's pure voice duets with his on the chorus.   She unfortunately fluffs her first line, firstly missing her cue then mistakenly singing "..'fore I go" instead of "..for the road".  This is an example of Dylan's one-take, no-rehearsal method, which Emmylou reportedly hated, wanting to do re-takes when she wasn't happy with her performance.  Luckily for her, on the next song, Oh, Sister, her gorgeous country harmony vocals were recorded separately, one of just a few cases of overdubbing on Desire.  Another song of unreturned affection, here violin and harmonica twist around one another compellingly between verses in place of a chorus.

Next we come to the blot on the shimmering desert landscape that is Desire.  On the 11-minute ballad Joey, Dylan attempts to paint vicious mobster Joey Gallo as a Billy The Kid-style folk hero, and is unconvincing.  Despite the questionable subject matter, it's musically uplifting for the first few minutes (although the cueing in of the accordion with the word, erm, "accordion" is a mite cheesy), but its painfully slow pace renders it turgid before it's even halfway done.  This is where having a vinyl copy of the album came in handy - by switching to 45rpm not only did it sound peppier, but it was also over much quicker.  I've had a listen to some of the songs from the Desire sessions that didn't make it onto the album, such as Golden Loom and Catfish, and agree with those who've suggested that one of these could have taken the place of Joey, improving it no end.  Dylan much later laid the blame for the questionable and also rather cumbersome lyrics entirely at the feet of Levy, and even if this was a fib, I don't really blame him for trying.

And so to Mexico, where we join an outlaw and his love Magdalena on the run after he shot Ramon (presumably Magdalena's husband) in a cantina.  Romance In Durango is a great Western movie in song, with bouzouki, mandolin, accordion and brass adding spice to the cinematic spectacle.  No fewer than five guitarists are credited too, including one Mr. Eric Clapton.  Bob even sings in Spanish on the chorus, translated as "Do not cry my dear, God is watching us.... catch me, my life".  Harris' backing vocals add a huge dollop of desperation to this tragic tale, although the live version on the Bootleg Series Vol. 5: The Rolling Thunder Revue (yes, I have now succumbed to this non-BobBox series), which doesn't feature her, is even better in my opinion for its castanets and terrific stop-start arrangement.

Romance In Durango segues straight into Black Diamond Bay, where we pack our bags for the last time and head out to a tiny, glamorous island. Here, after a gloriously long intro featuring harmonica, violin and frisky percussion, we find various characters who have come to escape reality, but end up escaping life entirely as the island is engulfed by a volcano.  The players include an unnamed woman, a soldier, "the Greek", a tiny man, a dealer and a stranger, and several things are apparently references to Joseph Conrad's novel 'Victory'.  In a disturbing payoff, during the final verse a detached observer watches the disaster unfolding on the TV news before losing interest and switching off to go and fetch another beer.

Desire's final track is the other song written by just Dylan.  With a harmonica intro, over thick bass and gentle violin, and recorded with his wife watching from the other side of the glass, Sara is a series of snapshots of their life together, including their children playing on a beach, their wedding day and "Drinkin' white rum in a Portugal bar".  He pays unashamed tribute, describing her as "Sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life" and as someone who saved him from himself. He is simultaneously begging her to stay and saying goodbye, but to me his heart doesn't seem to be in it.  It's a most unconvincing love song, sounding laboured at times, and the line "Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp", presumably chosen just to rhyme with 'help', is dreadful. Still, it's a pleasant-sounding song, but a sad epitaph to their marriage which would officially end in 1977.

I bought my vinyl copy of Desire at a car boot sale a couple of years ago; it was my first ever Dylan record and for a long time my only one.  Someone asked me what I thought of "all the bloody violins", and for a moment I didn't know what to say - as far as I knew, this was what all Bob's albums sounded like!  I suppose at the time of release, this new vibrant, gypsy-band sound was a surprise to his fans, and I can understand how some might have found the ever-present violin quite wearing.  For me, it combines perfectly with the other newly introduced instruments. With Emmylou's haunting harmony vocals, Dylan and Levy's more direct, less ambiguous lyrics, its strong melodies, rich musicality and the exotic locations scattered throughout, Desire has a well-defined personality distinct from anything else in the BobBox so far. Dylan's singing voice seems to be at its peak in the studio, and this is borne out by the live recordings from the first half of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Next I'll be listening to Hard Rain, recorded during the second leg of the tour.  This will again be on vinyl as well as CD, as I picked up a copy for £1 a few weeks ago and have been saving it up. I hope you can join me again for it.

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