The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #19, “Isis”

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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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. “a sort of poetic redistribution of goods” man you are a great writer.

    This is a fantastic description of one of my favorite songs. The violin makes this song in my opinion and perhaps the entire Desire album. Also the Rolling Thunder Revue live versions are amazing and Dylan’s voice is best on Desire, Blood and the RTR.

    The only complaint is is should be higher but how can we all agree on the order. Again nice job.

  2. Hi

    I agree about “Isis” being such a powerful vocal performance. I think that 1974-1976 was his vocal peak, when being a smoker was almost a benefit – enabling him to move “up and down” his vocal range at will.

    … and about the “I still can’t remember all the best things she said”. He must have identified the best things, some at least (why “all” otherwise?) , she said to make that statement!

    Hey, let’s not analyse though.

    Regards

    Jo

  3. I think you might have missed something with the dates and therefore the times things happen in the song. He marries Isis on the 5th day of May but is later pleased to find they´ll be back by the 4th.

    Maybe he´s pleased to get back in time for their anniversary or perhaps what happens occurs before their wedding?

  4. I think DESIRE does see Dylan at a vocal peak. I would argue that THE BASEMENT TAPES also represents a vocal peak, and I think his singing is very strong on NEW MORNING – despite, or in part thanks to, his cold at the time. Really, I think his vocals are impressive – by any measure – from ’76 to the late 80s. Unfortunately, this is also the period of his weakest material (on the whole), so many of his great vocal performances go unnoticed. I would argue, though, that his vocals are not inconsistent, at best, on PLANET WAVES and solid – with brilliant flashes – on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (’74 & ’75).

    “Isis” is not one of the songs from DESIRE that I listed as better than “The Hurricane.” I think it’s better written, but for whatever reason, I never loved the tune. Also, it’s one of two songs from DESIRE where I actually prefer the ROLLING THUNDER version (the other being “Oh, Sister”).

    My main issue with this inclusion is that I can think of 30 better Dylan songs from ’65-’67. And, I’m certainly not the sort that thinks Dylan died with the 60s – or in that motorcycle accident.

  5. I always took the view that the song is sonehow about Dylan’s work. The body in the tomb is in some way symbolic of Dylan’s early work and the stranger who takes the narrator out to raid the tomb because the body will bring a good price is in someway symbolic of those moneygrubbers who tried to get Dylan to return to rehashing his early work to make money off of it. Isis is the muse that Dylan has decided to be true to.

    Keep in mind that this song is written not so long after the Planet Waves / Band tour when Bob came out and replayed those early songs for the first time in a while. And maybe with the divorce he needed money then, who knows.

    On the pyramid, there was a notion kicking around in the 70s that if you slept in a pyramid you wouldn’t get older. It was the kind of nutty idea that I could see Dylan working into a song just because it gave him a chuckle.

  6. Just as a follow up to my earlier comment, consider this exchange from the Flanagan interview:

    BF: A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30 years. Why haven’t you ever done that?

    BD: I couldn’t if I tried.

  7. It should be mentioned that the lyrics of “Isis” were cowritten by the late Jacques Levy, Dylan’s songwriting collaborator on the “Desire” album. I don’t believe that the exact nature of that collaboration is known, but Levy definitely deserves credit.

  8. yeah no its bob dylan song. your never really going to know what hes talking about. but thats the mystery about it all, thats what draws people into him. take the song how it is not how it should be.

  9. Great choice, and could be even higher up. Love your description of the vocals (yes on “YES!”) – anyone who says Bob Dylan couldn’t sing (and, amazingly, there are people who still say that) should study this number. And you’re right: the live version, though not as great, is great.

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