“Desire” Holy Crap! 40 years???


In the 1970’s as a 1960’s informed and inspired teenager, I latched onto the music and message of Bob Dylan. I  had worn the grooves out on “Before the Flood” and “Blood on the Tracks” when, on this date in 1976, Bob Dylan’s  album, “Desire”, was released. I had heard all about the recording in advance via Rolling Stone and my local progressive FM radio station, Starview 92, and knew the story of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter and was excited to hear that song and the full album.

Within days I purchased my own copy at Mailman’s Department Store and listened to it over and over, absorbing all the brilliant word play and being mystified by some of the references.  Initially the opening track “Hurricane” was my favorite song. But it is the second song “Isis” that grew to be not just my favorite on the album, but one of my favorite songs by anyone, ever.

Isis is truly epic, a long song of love won, lost and regained, of adventure promised and dreams dashed, of howling winds and outrageous snows. As much as I love this song, the live version from the Rolling Thunder Revue Bootleg series album is so much better. Recorded in the Fall of 1975, over a year earlier, this version crackles with an intensity far beyond the studio recording. The beat drives harder, the violin soars higher and the vocal performance is one of the best he ever recorded.

Meanwhile, back on Desire… “Mozambique” follows and it is kind of palate cleanser, a light hearted song about being on a sunny beach with lovely people, and seeing how many things rhyme with “ique”.

“One More Cup of Coffee” returns to the emotional intensity. A man has to do what a man has to do, but one more cup of coffee before I go… into the valley below.

“Oh Sister” closes side one and I never really liked it that much. I listened again today and still… not so much.

Side Two opens with “Joey” a 9:14 long story of the notorious New York gangster “Crazy Joey” Gallo. At the time, this song perplexed me. “Why would he devote 9 minutes to a long slow song about a murdering mafia guy?” I didn’t get it then, but I get it now.   I do recall being in Little Italy one day back in the 1980’s and walking past Umberto’s Clam Bar, the spot where Joey was killed, and thanking Bob for the education.

“Romance in Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay” both have their charms, but the album closer, “Sara” a love of a lifetime song to his then wife is the revelation for me. The marriage was a rocky one, and this song, like no other Dylan song before or since is direct and personal and without persona or artifice.  He was trying hard to hang on and this song put it all on the line, but a year or so later the marriage finally fell apart for good.  At age 17, this song was a bit of a bore to me, 40 years later, it just blows me away.

Great art stands the test of time. Often that means that new listeners can appreciate something created long before they lived, like the music of Mozart or Miles Davis or the Beatles. But on a personal level, music that stands the test of time doesn’t mean that it takes you back to where you were and who you were when you first encountered it. It means that the art meets you where you are now. The lyrics resonate in new and often more powerful ways, the familiarity of an old favorite is imbued with new meaning, the song is ALIVE.

So, yeah. “Desire” stands the test of time.

Today Rolling Stone is also writing about this classic. Read the cool stories about the making of the record.