So, here’s the thing – I’ve never really listened to much Bob Dylan. I am familiar with him largely through soundtracks, covers and Saturday Night Live impressions. It’s not that I didn’t think I would like his music so much as I thought that, given the hype, he wouldn’t live up to unreasonable expectations.
That was until I started watching ‘Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan story by Martin Scorsese’ on Netflix. I had to give up after about 45 minutes because it had taken me around 2 hours, continually pausing to listen to the music.
Isis so far is my favourite of the discoveries and there is part of me that is glad that I waited to mature and develop before experiencing it. I know that there will be many hard-core Dylan fans rolling their eyes at my naivety, eager to point out the hundreds of B-sides and demo recordings that surpass it’s glory. And that’s OK. The magic of music is in those moments when you hear something unexpected and glorious, a harmonious catharsis. And this one will have me ingesting the rest of Dylan’s repertoire soon enough.
Isis was written in collaboration with Jacques Levy and appeared on ‘Desire’ one of seven songs written by the pair for that album. The song is a straight-up story, all verses and no chorus, an allegory for Dylan’s own marital struggles and future separation and planted firmly in an Egyptian, mythological narrative. The lyrics speak of a man who married a ‘mystical child’ Isis on the fifth day of May but, given that he could not ‘hold on to her long’, he sets about on his own adventure. He resolves to head for the ‘wild unknown country where [he] could not go wrong’.
Just from the opening stanza, for a poem to music is what this is, Dylan has you in the palm of his hand. Why could he not hold on to her long? He has given no details other than a name in the second line and already the marriage is over. And who of us after the end of a significant relationship have not sought total renewal, even if not to the extent of cutting off our hair and heading out into the wild?
Each verse is connected by a mournful yet hopeful violin riff, gliding over the ostinato of the piano, drudging on below it. Between later verses this is punctuated equally with a harmonica, instantly invoking the sandy wanderings of Western heroes. The setting may well be Egypt, but the music and the noble steed soon-to-be-mentioned make the song unmistakably American.
I digress; the narrator comes to a ‘high place of darkness and light’ and hitches up his steed (told you he was coming up). He completes his escape at a laundry, washing his clothes to complete his almost biblical renewal with snipped locks and newly baptised threads. It is here now that he meets a ‘man in the corner’ who needs a match. The two get to a-talkin’ and the narrator agrees to accompany the stranger as he heads northwards.
The most impressive aspect of Dylan’s storytelling is the sheer volume he achieves with so little material. Just consider the fourth verse:
‘We set out that night for the cold in the north,
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word
I said ‘where are we goin’ he said we’d be back by the fourth
I said, ‘that’s the best news that I’ve ever heard’
The verse beautifully captures the early stages of grieving a relationship lost. The narrator doesn’t know who he is, defined as he was by his love for Isis, and is more than willing to escape to wherever the stranger is taking him. He hands over his warmth (on his way to the cold north) and his trust in exchange for the word of a man that he barely knows. Is this because he doesn’t truly care what happens to him now? Or that he is so desperate to experience something new that he is willing to risk it all? All of this is brought together beautifully, they’ll be back by the fourth (presumably a day before his anniversary) and of this, he is glad.
Neither narrator nor listener have any real idea yet of what the purpose of this quest is, and this does not bother our mutual friend on the back of his pony as he is instead thinking of the most elaborate and beautiful jewellery. He thinks of his Isis through the bitter cold that he is experiencing (but doesn’t think to ask for his blanket back, which one would have thought the most obvious solution). But he does give us a hint to the answer of our earlier questions, he is thinking of how Isis ‘thought I was so reckless’. So it could be that our heart-broken wanderer is simply waving two fingers at his bride and proving to her just how reckless he can be?
There is also an element of self-flagellation going on here, he tells us of how Isis promised him that things would be different the next time that they married, when they met again. Perhaps he feels unworthy of such a woman until he has thrown all of the recklessness out of his system, and that he is on a journey to better himself for the next time that they see each other. Whilst most people never quite go to the extreme of following complete strangers into the desert, almost everyone will have done some serious soul-searching after a break up to find what parts of themselves they could have fixed to have made the other person happy. Our friend here is torn between a quest to find his new identity in a post-Isis World and yet also clinging on to the hope that if he could just change a little, it will all work out alright.
It is at this moment of reflection that, quite suddenly as far as we can see, his companion dies of something that he hopes isn’t contagious (which seems a reasonable and rational concern). Whilst he recounts to us this death coldly and matter-of-fact…ly, dedicating just a few words to the telling of the whole tale, he does decide to carry on in the name of his guide. The death and the end of the adventure collide into a dizzying and sobering perspective for our narrator. Being faced with mortality, with the lack of treasure or satisfaction from the journey (the tomb at the end of the adventure is completely empty) he realises that there is just one thing that brings him the feeling that he is looking for. This is where the real heart of the song lies, the songwriter who presumably is living his fair share of adventures admitting that it is all a little empty without that person to share it with. Whilst he may well have been able to reconcile his creations, he was unable to fix his own marriage in the same way.
And so it is that the narrator rides on back to find his Isis, which he does. Isis comments that he ‘look[s] different’ to which he replies ‘well yes’. The two have found each other again and this time ‘fixed’, ready for each other in a way that they were not on that 5th May when they were married and their passion thinly veiled the cracks that would soon appear. She asks the narrator whether he will stay, to which he replies ‘if you want me to, yeah’.
The conclusion is nothing short of heart-breaking in the context of the writer’s relationship ending. Whilst that fact is not directly spoken of in the final verse, the line ‘what drives me to you is what drives me insane’ speaks to a pain still hidden within the love, a recognition that sometimes wanting to be with someone is not enough, the slow, tortuous agony that is the most common experience of love. With Isis, the lows are worth the highs, but in reality not all love-interests are mystical children named after Egyptian deities.
The lyrics are stunning. The folk melody with the bluesy tones in the violin; the accompaniment is pure perfection. Live performances, should you choose to seek them out, lose something in the intensity of feeling but gain much in the pure power of performance. This may well be the very first Dylan song that I have been touched by, but I am confident that it will not be the last. Many more happy adventures lay ahead for me.