From the opening “dun-nun” of the piano, to the climactic, dust cloud ending, Desire’s “Isis” deserves to be considered one of Bob Dylan’s all-time greatest. It has one of his most commanding vocals, a killer set of lyrics, hair-raising harp and gypsy violin, and it’s one of his best story songs that kinda-sorta-almost makes complete sense. Just enough details are left out to keep things enigmatic.
Why can’t he remember the best things she said? What’s the deal with the mysterious stranger? Is “Isis” an allegory or a love song? They break into the tomb, but the casket is empty. Go figure.
One of Dylan’s finest traits is his enunciation, the way he invests words with extra meaning by the way he let’s them roll of his tongue. His singing style, on a constant evolutionary march, reached a plateau on Desire, where he unleashes beautiful, Hebraic-sounding vocal runs on “One More Cup of Coffee,” gets plaintive as hell on “Oh, Sister,” and jams syllable after syllable into the frantic rush of “Hurricane” and “Black Diamond Bay.” On songs where he has a lot to say, he ends up inventing his own sort of musical rule book. The singing on “Isis” can not be notated — it can really only be imitated, like a comedian doing a Bill Cosby impression.
Listen to the rise and fall of his voice in a typical verse:
We set out that night for the cold in the North.
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word.
I said, “Where are we goin’?” He said we’d be back by the fourth.
I said, “That’s the best news that I’ve ever heard.”
The story takes place in a sort of quasi Spaghetti Western environment, except it involves a woman named Isis, kind of like how Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” involves Marlon Brando.
“Isis” represents the anti-hero’s journey. The character Dylan portrays in “Isis” is morally flawed, unshakebly restless, and susceptible to greed. It also captures some of the magnetic push and pull between the two sexes, as well as some archetypal qualities of each.
Bob Dylan leaves his woman, the honeymoon is over, they can’t get along right now. He needs a weekend with the guys or something. He comes to a high place of darkness and light. The dividing line runs through the center of town. He hitches up his pony to a post on the right, goes into a laundry to wash his clothes down. However, he forgets to bring any money.
A mysterious stranger approaches — maybe he’s Satan, maybe he’s just your average bandito. Like the ghost in the “House Carpenter,” follow him at your own peril. He needs a light and Dylan gives it to him. He offers Bob “something easy to catch.” Sounds sexual. Or maybe it’s jewels, money, pirate’s treasure. Whatever it is, it’s better than hanging around at home with Isis. Or is it?
As they ride off into the night, Dylan has no idea where they’re going, but he’s so ambivalent right now, the fact that they’ll be back by the fourth is “the best news he ever heard.” But he starts getting second thoughts, and his dreams of turquoise and gold keep getting interrupted by Isis. She had some good qualities, right? Sure she did.
They come to the pyramids all embedded in ice. Pyramids? What are frozen pyramids doing in this story? Adding color, adding mystery. And oh yeah, the stranger now reveals his shadiest intentions: there’s a body inside, worth a lot of money. Is it King Tut or Billy the Kid? We’ll never know, because the casket was empty. And the stranger up and died before they even made it inside, so Dylan has to improvise. He puts the strangers’ body where no body was before, a sort of poetic redistribution of goods, and, feeling reborn, rides back to find Isis, just to tell her he loves her. What drives him to her is what drives him insane, but it beats being some vagabond tomb raider.
Then there’s a very Dylan-esque conversation, probably similar to the ones he has with his real wives:
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.”
Except he doesn’t just say “yes.” He snarls it. He explodes into it. It’s a beautiful thing.
The White Stripes are the only band brave enough to have covered “Isis.” The great Dr. Dog reference the lyrics in their song “Die, Die, Die” (“I wasn’t thinking about turquoise, I wasn’t thinking about gold”). A live version appears on Biograph and Live 1975, but the studio version remains untouchable.