Saturday, October 15, 2016

"I married Isis on the 5th day of May": The Last Word on Bob Dylan

One of my go-to Bob Dylan songs is "Isis," the second track on his 1975 Desire. It's not political. It's not a protest song. I guess it would be classified as a ballad.

I just played it again for the 97th time.

What is it about? It's a tall tale set in a sort of mythical West about a grave-robbing scheme gone bad. Or something like that. But the story is framed by a a woman. She is enigmatic and perhaps unattainable even though the song begins with the narrator's marriage to her:

I married Isis on the 5th day of May
But I couldn't hold onto to her very long
So I cut off my hair and rode straight away
For the wide unknown country where I could not go wrong

There follow his adventures, which are a mix of the magical and the mundane. He comes to a  town, divided down the middle between "darkness and light" and goes into a laundry to wash his clothes.

He's taken in by a con man - "I gave him my blanket; he gave me his word" - and they go into the desert in pursuit of treasure. The narrator dreams of "diamonds and the world's biggest necklace." But he also can't get the woman out of his head:

I was thinkin' about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless

How she told me that one day we would meet up again

And things would be different the next time we wed
If I only could hang on and just be her friend
I still can't remember all the best things she said

After arriving at "the pyramid all embedded in ice," the plan goes bad. It turns out to be about a grave, but the grave ends up being that of the con man. And there is no treasure. Instead of a tomb robbery, it's a burial:

I picked up his body and I dragged him inside
Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover
I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied
Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her

Of course he does.

She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise
Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed
I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes
I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead

When she questions him, the narrator insouciantly snarls out his answers. Then he melts.

She said, where ya been? I said, no place special
She said, you look different, I said, well, I guess
She said, you been gone, I said, that's only natural
She said, you gonna stay? I said, if you want me to, Yes

Unless you've heard the original album version of this song, all of this may seem a bit silly. The lyrics were apparently written in collaboration with Jacques Levy, who was, yes, an actual Literature Professor. But I'm not sure they look anything special on the page.

As I type I smile at the words because I remember Dylan's take on them. On Desire, it was perfect, especially when coupled with four instruments including a haunting acoustic piano and fiddle.

There are a few different versions on YouTube of Dylan performing the song live. They're not very good. The intonations are all wrong. It sounds hurried. This tells me that the brilliance of the song lies not in the lyrics nor even in the lyrics coupled with the melody. It wouldn't have become a classic without the particular way the song was put together on Desire by Dylan and his producer, Don DeVito. Maybe DeVito should have won a Nobel Prize.

I hope "Isis" is listened to in a hundred years. I think it will be. It certainly deserves to be. And it's an example of what makes Bob Dylan one of the greatest American musicians of the second half of the 20th century.

No, it's not literature (for the reasons given above). But that's okay. I haven't read Proust 97 times. I haven't even read any particular passages of Proust 97 times.

Okay, I haven't read Proust.

As of this writing, the reclusive Dylan still hasn't responded to the Nobel Prize committee. Actually, I think it would be fitting it he snubbed the whole thing. He doesn't need the Award. it doesn't add one atom to any of his accomplishments. The Award was a silly suck-up to counter-cultural hipsterism (or an imagined version of it) by a bunch of muddle-headed academics who couldn't carry a beat and think sharia law is the height of diversity.

It doesn't matter.

Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin' rain

Isis will endure forever. Or at least her smile will.


  1. I get it. It's impossible to explain what speaks to us for one reason or another. Sometimes it's just because we loved it when we were young, and that's enough. Sometimes it's the lyrics were so good, or just the musical talent knocks you out. Neil Simon was one of my favorites, and I had just YouTubed (now a verb) him performing "Old Man" and "The Needle and the Damage Done". Here was a man commanding a stage with that iconic voice, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica. Music is a sweet refuge to me, often.
    The Nobel in general has been cheapened in the last decade or two, that's my impression. Fairly meaningless. If it's not legit, I'm pretty sure Bob Dylan will see through it immediately and either not take it or use it to prop open his screen door.

    1. Neil Young. (Yeah, I knew who you were talking about :). I am way past 24 and still sing that song hoping for so much more.

  2. Oh, one thing I forgot. The best song I think he EVER did was the one about Reuben Hurricane Carter. That is still a rockin tune with a heartbreakingly true story in it.

    1. No, Dylan got Carter wrong. The entire song is shot thru with falsehoods.

  3. Wikipedia gives some insight. Dylan between separation and reunion of his marriage this time. 5th of May is Cinco de Mayo which Dylan used in some of his songs.

  4. Note article in today's New York Times:

    Listen to Bob Dylan’s Many Influences

    By GUILBERT GATES OCT. 15, 2016

  5. I don't think many people realize how Biblical are many of Dylan's songs. Give a listen to Angelina from his bootlegs, (Revelation). As much as I dislike Fr. Barron, he did a great job critiquing All Along the Watchtower, (Isiaih).