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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 236
Tues. Oct. 22, 2013

“Isis”
Bob Dylan

1975

“♫ But
I made
up my
mind
that I
had
to go
on
♫”
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Bob Dylan once famously told his journalist friend Ralph D. Gleason, in Clinton Heylin’s Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan: 1957-1973, “They should use the new ones, like ‘Desolation Row [if they want to study me].” In reality, I have to respectively disagree with Mr. Dylan, I truly believe if you want to get behind the mythical mask of Bob Dylan in the 1970’s you must try to decipher the epic meaning behind The American Bard’s matrimonial allegory that is Desire’s “Iris.”
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If you were looking for the true meaning of “Isis” from co-author Bob Dylan, you’d be digging in the wrong place, as The American Bard said in Ian Bell’s Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, “[…] it sort of ended up being what it was. I really don’t know too much depth what it would mean.” Jacques’ son Julien shared with Ian Bell in Time Out of Mind his own recollections on the birth of “Isis” when he said, “Dylan invited my dad over to work on some songs. Dylan said he had a little piano thing he had been working on and he started banging out those first piano chords to ‘Isis.” My dad [Jacques Levy] just spat out, ‘I married Isis on the fifth day of May…” and Dylan loved it, so they just kept on going with it like that, creating this story until it reached a conclusion. By the time it was done, Dylan loved it and was so excited he ran downstairs to the local bar and read the lyrics out to whoever was just sitting there. My dad always talked about there was no special symbolic meaning behind any of the images in ‘Isis’ that it was just a fun, adventurous kind of cowboy story.”
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In the 1970s, Dylan loved to play the lyrical anti-hero in songs like “Isis.” He explained his ‘heroic/ cowboy’ philosophy in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, when the American Bard, said, “I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing. I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom, someone who’s not afraid to jump in front of a freight train to save a loved one’s life. To draw a crowd with my guitar, that’s the most heroic thing I can do. You got to be strong and stay connected to what started it all, the inspiration behind the inspiration […] I’m amazed that I’ve been around this long, never thought I would be. I try to learn from both the wise and the unwise, not pay attention to anybody, do what I want to do. I can’t say I haven’t done my share of playing the fool. I was in the right place at the right time. People dissect my songs like rabbits but they all miss the point.
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But, why did Levy and Dylan choose the Egyptian goddess as the unattainable love interest in “Isis? In a Song Talk interview with Paul Zollo Bob addressed this when he explained, “With this “Isis” thing, it was “Isis”… you know, the name sort of rang a bell but not in any kind of vigorous way. So therefore, it was name-that-tune time. It was anything. The name was familiar. Most people would think they knew it from somewhere. But it seemed like just about any way it wanted to go would have been okay, just as long as it didn’t get too close.”
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I like to think that the journeyman protagonist searching for treasure is a little too close to Dylan’s very own creative identity than Bob would like to admit. In Heylin’s Songs from the Road, the author eloquently summed up Levy and Dylan’s “Isis” in one perfect sentence when Clinton wrote, “The song was a thinly veiled rewrite of the oldest story of them all—the quest for the hero to prove himself worthy of the women he worships—a tale found in classic mythologies of the classical world, Egypt included […]”

Dylan loved collaborating with artists who weren’t afraid to that the creatively metaphorical and often times maniacal leap with his ever evolving lyrical and rhythmic mind. That’s why lyricist Levy was the perfect match for Bob and it was Jacque’s enthusiasm that helped bring “Isis” to her dramatic conclusion. Bob Spitz, in his book Dylan: A Biography, described the collaboration between Levy and Dylan when he wrote, “Levy had the nerve to critique Bob’s song. and before anyone knew what was happening, the two men grabbed paper and pens and went to work rewriting stanzas polishing a new version of “Isis.”[…] Writing with a new partner was a completely new experience for Bob. No one had ever said to him, “That’s not good enough, “ or “Get rid of that adjective, “ or “Reverse those lines and it reads better.” But they were getting great results, and Bob was actually enjoying himself.”
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Bob Dylan lived the role as the lyrical Indiana Jones song persona he co-wrote with Jacques Levy in 1975 as David Bowie’s former glam guitarist noted in Jeremy Roberts’ book Bob Dylan: Voice of a Generation, “He’d wander off somewhere [musically on stage], expecting us to follow him.” Author Roberts explained further when he wrote, “Dylan often tried completely different versions of his songs at performances. For example, he had become interested in reggae. He added a reggae sound to “Isis,” then a few days later changed the arrangement so it sounded almost as if it were a heavy metal tine with wailing guitars.”
Check out this rare audio recording of “Isis” from a 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue show in Ft. Worth, Texas:

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Violinist extraordinaire Scarlet Rivera, herself had the distinction of not only playing on the original studio version of “Isis” on 1975’s Desire but she was a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue touring band. Rivera knew exactly what Ronson meant when she told Ed Newman in a 2012 article with Duluth Reader, “You took your cues from Bob. For example, “Isis” changed enormously from the album cut to live. You had to go with it. The live performances became really exciting and fiery and fast. I would follow whichever direction it went.”
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Rob Stoner, bassist who also played on Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Desire, shared the same kind enthusiastic appreciation that Rivera had for The American Bard’s creatively manically ways when he explained to author Bob Spitz in his book Dylan: A Biography, “I knew right away the guy was in an amazing mood. He was wailing away. I joined him on bass, and before I realized what was happening, he’d broken into a take of ‘Isis,’ which of course, no one knew since we’d never heard it before. But it was the same three chords over and over again, so I fell right in with him. Scarlet [Rivera] fell in with the fiddle. And Bob hit the lyric.” Stoner’s furious bass licks got the ultimate compliment in Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan: 1974-2006 when author Clinton Heylin wrote, “Stoner’s ballsy self-confidence saved the song.”
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Howard Sounes wrote about one of the best versions of “Isis,” in his book Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, when he described the on stage rendition of this Desire epic as he wrote, “On December 4 Bob told the audience in Montreal, Quebec, that ‘Isis’ was a song ‘about marriage.’ At the end of the penultimate verse there was an exchange between narrator and lover, who asked if he was going to stay with her. Bob delivered the answer with a gleeful ‘YES!’” But unfortunately, “Isis” doesn’t have a happy ending and Dylan lived the part of his song’s protagonist more enamored with his journey touring the world’s stage than in the love he shared with Sara back home. Alan Light got it right in his essay from The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan when he wrote, “Dylan was simply on fire for these [Rolling Thunder Revue] shows, fully inhabiting and reconfiguring songs from Desire. The allegorical saga “Isis” took on a roiling, preacherly fervor (the version from Montreal on the Biograph collection is definitive). He sang with a sense of purpose that was every bit the equal of the 1965/66 tours […]”
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[Follow the link before to a video of the definitive live Rolling Thunder Revue version of “Isis” from Montreal:]
http://www.timsah.com/Bob-Dylan-Isis-1975/q0QVrVl6x7x
joan baez y dylan rolling thunder
Alan Light’s passage reflects exactly why Dylan loved to bring the lyrical persona of this Indiana Jones like hero in “Isis” to life. In his book, On the Road with Bob Dylan, Larry Sloman described Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue stage persona when he wrote, “By now Dylan is as manically relaxed as Sinatra, he’s leaping into the air, stalking around like a grave robber, trotting back to the mike, and when he cups his hands around the lips to deliver the dramatic ending to “Iris,” it’s not Dylan up there, it’s a fucking rock ‘n roll Jolson.” This very telling passage reflects Bob in his favorite disguise of 1975’s Rolling Thunder tour, with face make up, Dylan loved bringing songs like his epic allegory “Isis” to the stage.

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So after studying Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” what exactly is the epic meaning to the American Bards’s matrimonial allegory that from Desire? The moral to the story of “Iris,” as Heylin wrote is not a new, but is one that Dylan’s reflective lyrical protagonist realized, yet also the same one, Bob the songsmith creator never learned— was summoned up perfectly by Patrick Webster and his University of Leeds dissertation, “On the Fifth Day in the Drizzling Rain: Travel and Gender Performativity in Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’, when he poignantly wrote, “The narrator then returns to Isis, to tell her he loves her, which is not quite the same, one notes, as actually loving her.” Basically the ironic lesson from “Isis” is something some souls driven towards material success, just like Dylan’s song persona, discovered too late; those fools who went looking for riches and realized when nothing was inside the tomb, and that the only true treasure was the lover he married and neglected by leaving her alone.
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“Isis” has the spirit of being Dylan’s “Desolation Row” of 1975 set to a mythological cowboy love story gone wrong. What makes “Isis” a classic cut of Desire are Scarlet Rivera’s violin, Howie Wyeth’s drums and Rob Stoner’s timeless bass licks whose epic soundtrack gives “Isis” giving Bob’s poetic passages much needed light. Scarlet Rivera is once again the star of the show by adding her uplifting romantic like strings to this heroic allegory. Rivera’s violin wails bring a sense of transcendence to Bob’s voice of longing. But even Scarlet’s angelic strings can’t keep our hero Bob Dylan from making the biggest mistake of his life, going for the gold in lieu of treasuring his true love of his life. I urge you to spin this Desire epic that is “Isis,” something that took me forty plus years to appreciate. And remember to learn the lessons from Bob Dylan’s matrimonial allegory to keep following your dreams but make sure you cherish the jewel in your life that keeps you rich in love with the comforts of home.

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