Cinco de Mayo is coming up, which, for those with a yen for knotty, allusion-rich Bob Dylan lyrics, means they’ll probably be thinking about “Isis,” his wild and woolly tale of romance and tomb-raiding from 1975’s Desire. (First line of the song: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.”) Are we as listeners meant to get so wrapped up in the specific dates and names sprinkled throughout this tale?
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Maybe a clue can be gleaned from the song’s co-writer Jacques Levy, who was asked by Dylan fanzine Isis about the title name and its significance in Egyptian mythology. Levy replied that the song was an attempt at an old Western ballad like the kind Bob once wrote with The Band in Big Pink: “Well, this is a similar kind of thing, and just as The Band wrote ‘pulled into Nazareth,’ you know, well, ‘Isis’ has as much to do with Egypt as Fanny has to do with Nazareth.”
As much fun as it might to be to delve into the narrator’s exploits with a shady, doomed character digging for dead bodies in the snow and ice, that part of the song is probably a diversion representative of any foolish endeavor that takes us away from what’s truly important. In this case, it’s his relationship with the title character, which is clearly filled with frustration (“I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead”) and combustion (“I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.”)
Yet there is a bond between the two that neither the man’s crazed thirst for danger nor the woman’s inherent elusiveness can quite break. Even as he risks his life in his quest, he thinks back to her words: “How she told me one time that we’d meet up again/And things would be different the next time we wed/If I only could hang on and just be her friend.”
Over his own insistent piano and stinging harmonica and minimal yet potent instrumental help from bassist Rob Stoner, violinist Scarlet Rivera and drummer Howie Wyeth, Dylan sings with such raw emotion that it seems like every nerve ending is exposed. Even when the pair is making small talk following their long-awaited reunion, the vocals put such an electric charge behind the lyrics that even a seemingly innocuous exchange like “She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘That’s only natural.’/She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said if you want me to, yes” seems fraught with deeper meaning.
“What drives me to you is what drives me insane,” is probably the one line that sums up how this coupling is both difficult to resist and impossible to sustain. Bob Dylan introduced “Isis” in concert as being “a song about marriage.” All the icy adventures, goddess names, and symbolic dates are just ephemera. Dylan and Levy seem to be suggesting that trying to sustain true love amidst the fickleness of human nature is where the real intrigue and danger lie.