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    January 14, 2024

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit a wild slice of ’70s Dylan, an album whose air of magic and misdirection remains utterly unique in his catalog.

[Scene 1: West Village, New York City, 1975. A legendary songwriter, mid-30s, is surveying the neighborhood where he cut his teeth a decade before. A violinist, younger and without his star status, but striking, with long dark hair and mysterious poise, enters stage right.]

The passerby was Scarlet Rivera, a previously unknown musician whose hypnotic violin became the signature sound of Bob Dylan’s newly minted touring group, the Rolling Thunder Revue, and his gestational new album, Desire. Naturally, Dylan—world historic genius, generational icon, and general weirdo—pulled over his car, resolved to ask her just exactly what her deal was. For an artist so concerned with myth, this chance encounter must have been irresistible. Was she phantom, muse, or curse? Was she really named Scarlet Rivera? “I meet witchy women. I wish they’d leave me alone,” he told Jonathan Cott, in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview, not stopping to consider the possibility that the feeling was mutual. Not long after the album came out, she vanished from his life and the public eye.

As with so much Dylan lore—from the fabled teenage eye contact with Buddy Holly to the arrest in Springsteen’s childhood neighborhood—it seems too unlikely to be true, and too preposterously random to invent. It’s of a piece with the world of Desire, where what’s real and what’s weird are largely indistinguishable.

Dylan’s previous record, the precision-controlled display of omniscient superego that was 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, had set an impossibly high standard for its follow-up. In response, Desire was a fantasia of grave injustices and grave robberies, exotic and dangerous locales, broiling days and fleeting gestures in the face of grim destiny. Its nine songs spread out over 56 minutes, co-mingling protest folk, travelogue tunes, throwback country, and sideways klezmer, all comprising one peculiar episode in the baffling sweep of his career. Blood on the Tracks was a document of personal and romantic trauma that traced an outline around a generation who prized individual freedoms to the point of self-annihilating alienation. Desire is about getting stoned and strange and trying to forget about all of that.

Desire is not a subtle album, and it does not commence on a subtle note. “Hurricane”—an audacious eight-and-a-half minute recounting of the 1966 arrest and conviction of the middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter on charges of triple homicide—begins with the interweaving and insinuating strains of Dylan’s acoustic guitar and Rivera’s violin. One of seven songs on Desire co-authored with the playwright Jacques Levy, it employs stage directions to set its scenery: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.” Intentional or not, the effect of the dramaturgy is to suggest a not-strictly-speaking-literal recounting of events, introducing the queasy sensation that we are being carried along by storytellers whose commitment to the facts is secondary to their impulse to thrill and desperation to deliver a higher truth.

Indeed, Dylan and Levy take considerable liberties with Carter’s biography and the case against him. He was never the “number one contender for the middleweight crown”; by the time of his arrest, he was circling boxing’s drain toward journeyman status. Neither did his long history of violence outside the ring comport with the beatific “Buddha” portrayed in the lyrics. Still, the song is one of Dylan’s greatest. The story’s grim particulars take root in your imagination: the ultra-violent crime, the summer heat and police lights, the racist cops and all-white jury sealing his fate. The band rolls along, a runaway sea of conga fills and furious energy. By the end no reasonable person could doubt Carter’s innocence, questionable though it may be.

Desire follows one epic with another: “Isis,” a bluesy slow-burn odyssey that considers the relative plusses and minuses of stealing from the dead for a living, like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” by way of Leonard Cohen’s early frozen-song landscapes. Its account of a two-man grift gone wrong and the women caught in between post-dates Humphrey Bogart and pre-dates Better Call Saul, making for a perfect mid-point in that continuum of heroic losers.

Then the weirdness starts in earnest. “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Oh, Sister” are solemn and prayerful, filled with Old Testament dread and the echoes of an antiquity reaching further back still. “One More Cup of Coffee” seems to describe the morning after a confused night of romance, the narrator asking his erstwhile paramour for a shot of caffeine before he disappears into “the valley below.” “Oh, Sister” is one of several tracks on Desire sung in haunting harmony with Emmylou Harris. With its passionate interpolation of sibling and spiritual mandates, it’s one part Freudian fever dream and one part plea for familial oneness—Neutral Milk Hotel invented in four gorgeously unsettling minutes. “Oh sister, when I come to lie in your arms,” goes the first verse, “You should not treat me like a stranger.” I’m no psychologist, but it’s clear Dylan is dissociating here. The music’s leisurely grandeur only heightens the creeping horror.

[Scene 2: Marin County, CA, 1987. The legendary songwriter, now at a commercial and creative low point, rehearses with an iconic group from his 1960s heyday for a joint tour.]

The union of Dylan and the Grateful Dead was auspicious, but the context was strange. Riding an improbable wave of commercial excitement following their MTV hit “Touch of Grey,” the Dead were playing to the largest crowds of their career. Following a run of desultory ’80s-era albums, Dylan was decidedly not. Without the Dead as his backing band, there was no chance he would be playing stadiums at this dysfunctional juncture. During practices, the Dead requested old Dylan songs they might want to try their hands at playing. Dylan, for once in his life, wasn’t in much of a position to refuse. Preposterously, perfectly, and for all to hear on 1989’s live LP Dylan & The Dead, Jerry Garcia requests “Joey.”

A straggling Gemini-twin to “Hurricane,” Desire’s most indulgent composition whinges on interminably and borderline incomprehensibly about the gangland slaying of an objectively psychotic mafia figure named Joey Gallo. Dylan famously coined the aspirational phrase “to live outside the law you must be honest,” a formulation that “Joey” undermines in every way possible. If you wanted to make the case for “Joey” as his worst song, you might begin with the demented portrayal of Gallo as some manner of saint, whose ahistorical indulgences might be more persuasive had Dylan bothered to string them together with a shred of narrative logic. You might move on to the torpid melody, one of the least memorable he’s ever written. But hey, at least it’s 11 minutes long. The twist is, in the nimble, gleefully amoral hands of the Grateful Dead, this dismal composition became supple and agreeable. Somehow the Dead brought “Joey” back to life. There’s your graverobbers right there.

Desire’s final third leans further into Dylan’s obsessions with love, death, ecstasy, and the liminal spaces between. “Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun!” he exclaims on the opening line of “Romance in Durango,” a legitimately goose-skin inducing Tex-Mex boogie replete with the thrill of adventure and the promise of violence, an invigorating update to his 1973 soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Its lyrics cross the distance between total fantasy and something like a true accounting of events. By the time of the lead cowboy’s inevitable sacrifice-by-desperado, he is so discombobulated that he begins interrogating the libretto itself: "Was it my hand that held the gun?” and “Can it be that I am slain?”

“Black Diamond Bay,” another long story song on an album full of them, is remarkably tuneful, ruefully ominous, and utterly batshit. I have been listening to it for two decades, and I still have no clue what is happening. There is a Greek man, a woman in a Panama hat, a soldier, a tiny man, a volcano. Portends of suicide and disaster percolate: scheming gamblers and sunken islands, betrayals and broken bonds, the kind of Book of Revelation stuff Dylan would get into full-time soon enough. Through some mysterious alchemy, its incoherence yields real beauty, abetted by an incredibly committed performance from his ace backing band—led by bassist Rob Stoner, another musician who figured prominently in Dylan’s career and then seemed to disappear. Try to grasp the details of “Black Diamond Bay,” or just let the imagery carry you away. Like everything on Desire, it’s all misdirection and magic anyway.

[Scene 3: Columbia Records recording studio, midtown Manhattan, 1975. An estranged wife watches her husband sing the song that he thinks will make all the difference. Will it matter?]

Album closer “Sara” is by orders of magnitude the most explicitly biographical song the notoriously private Dylan has ever released. He recounts in forensic detail the fraying of his union to Sara Lownds, his longtime wife and the mother of his children. Even by the contemporary standards of full-frontal psychic nudity, its oversharing is extremely uncomfortable. He conjures their babies playing on the beach. He marinates in his own mythology: “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writin’ ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you,” name-checking the sprawling closer of 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. He howls her name again and again: “Sara, Sara/Whatever made you want to change your mind?” Talk about blood on the tracks.

Still, as the song winds its pleading way to its conclusion, something feels off. After Dylan has spent the past fifty minutes recasting “Hurricane” Carter as a man of peace and Joey Gallo as a populist immigrant hero, it’s hard not to wonder what duplicity lies in this depiction of the Dylan-Lownds partnership. The story goes that Dylan held off recording Desire’s final track until his estranged wife could be present at the session, a last gambit for reconciliation. Apparently, she gave no reaction at all as it was recorded. Their divorce became official shortly after.

Desire was a hit, even briefly reaching No. 1 on the US Billboard album charts, and serving as the soundtrack of the wooly second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, as it evolved from an ersatz-folk revival medicine show into a mesmerizing quasi-gothic hellscape. From there, the head trips for Dylan’s audience would proceed in whiplash succession: the tarot-glitz of Street Legal and subsequent Vegas-style live shows, the should-have-seen-it-coming shock of his evangelical years, the drift from his vision in the 1980s, the improbable return as the mustache-twirling Nobel laureate of the new millennium. Were they arbitrary scenes or some part of a connected whole?

He would never make another record like it—its circumstances being unrepeatable seemingly by design—but in some ways Desire is the most explicit manifestation of the central literary irony of Dylan’s career: that the consummate barometer of social and cultural authenticity can’t be trusted with the facts about anything, least of all himself. Perhaps his true desire is to reduce real life to a kind of theater: a zero-sum contest between his sublime powers of expression and the vexing limitations and grinding tedium that more often than not constitute existence. Asked about the song “Sara” in the same 1978 interview in which he complained about witchy women, Dylan struggled to parse what he’d written three years before about his own wife: “Was it the real Sara, or the Sara in the dream? I still don’t know.” For a second there, it sounds like he’s telling the truth.

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Bob Dylan: Desire