Behind the Album: ‘Desire’ by Bob Dylan

You never want to be the album that follows the masterpiece. Yet Desire wore that cloak pretty well in the Bob Dylan catalog on the heels of Blood on the Tracks. A slightly altered approach, coupled with Dylan’s incredible burst of creativity in that period, led to one of his most beloved albums.

Videos by American Songwriter

Desire also stands out as the rare Dylan album that relied heavily on a co-writer. And it helped spurn one of the most unforgettable tours of his career. Let’s find out the circumstances that birthed this one-of-a-kind album.

The Songwriter and the Broadway Director

Perhaps because he had backed out of the limelight for a while in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bob Dylan was still brimming with energy circa the summer of 1975, despite a hectic few years of activity having just passed. He was less than a year removed from both his smashing success with Blood on the Tracks and a massive tour with The Band. Sadly, he was also single, as his wife Sara had gone off to Mexico to vacation without him.

That left Dylan hanging out most nights at a Bleecker Street restaurant/nightclub in New York City, where he started to interact with local musicians. He also ran into Jacques Levy on the street one day. Levy was mostly known at the time for his work behind the scenes of the Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta! He also once collaborated with old Dylan buddy, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, on the song “Chestnut Mare.”

Dylan went to Levy’s apartment and played him a few songs he had already written, including “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Sara,” the latter a desperate tribute to his estranged wife. The pair soon began writing songs together, focusing mostly on epic story songs.

While some of these stories, including the gunfighter ballad “Romance in Durango” and the disaster tale-with-a-twist “Black Diamond Bay,” were imagination-based, Dylan and Levi also did some songwriting reportage on real-life figures, such as the doomed gangster Joe Gallo (“Joey”) and a gypsy leader he met in France (“One More Cup of Coffee”).


“Hurricane” was the showcase song. Dylan had read Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s book detailing the former boxer’s incarceration for murders he claimed not to have committed. The song Dylan wrote based on it managed to rifle through all the events of the case, even as Dylan left himself room for biting commentary: Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties / Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.

Dylan was so pleased with the material he hustled into the studio and recorded the album over just a few days of sessions. He pulled together a catch-as-catch-can band that included folks he’d met that summer in the club, such as bassist Rob Stoner and drummer Howie Wyeth. Emmylou Harris came aboard and leavened Dylan’s wild wails with her pretty harmonies.

Then there was the case of Scarlet Rivera, whom Dylan had never met but nonetheless hailed down off the street when he saw her carrying a violin case. Her playing gave Desire an exotic feel unlike any of his other albums. He recaptured that feel when he took many of those same players out on the road for his wild and woolly Rolling Thunder Revue tour later in 1975.

The Legacy of Desire

Desire captured Dylan at a complicated time in his life, but a remarkable time in his career. The dissolution of his marriage left him bereft. Yet his freedom from familial demands allowed him to dive back into his career with a vigor he hadn’t shown since his mid-’60s electric period.

This album sounds at times like the artist is on a perilous tightrope, trying to use his torrents of words to protect him from sudden gale-force winds and get him across safely to the other side, all while the wild carnival music urges him on. There are probably better Dylan albums—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more thrilling one than Desire.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns

Leave a Reply

Loretta Lynn’s Son Ernest Seeking New Kidney After Undergoing Critical Surgery

Fans Rally Around Loretta Lynn’s Son Ernest, Who Is Seeking New Kidney Following Critical Surgery