Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, No. 1, March 1, 1976
Amidst the New England snowstorms, the Detroit fall, the handbills flutter around. Advertising the Rolling Thunder revue. Not a big commercial tour like the Dylan/Band or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tours of early 1974. Handbills issued only four-five days before the show - low key, relaxed, and is immensely popular. With Neil Young, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, who'd expect otherwise?
Singing through the old songs, the old paranoic Dylan fast disappearing. With the low-key approach and the singing around the halls, it's more a folk scene than a rock concert. Not that you can catagorise Dylan (or the others) anyway, but it seems like back to the early village days. The news that the latest single Hurricane is a "social commentary" or some other cliquish critic phrase) one's expecting the new album "Desire" to be more folk, more along the line of his early stuff.
Fools! You should know by now not to expect anything of Dylan. It's like predicting the results of New Zealand elections. Sure, some of the lyrics are stronger and more public than "Planet Waves" of much of "Blood on the Tracks". But, as with those two albums, the music has changed yet again. There's an entirely new backing group that lacks the enthusiam of the Band or the competence of the "Blood on the Tracks" people. The violin of Scarlet Rivera is allowed to dominate too much especially on Isis and Joey. Many of the songs were co-penned with dramatist Jacques Levy. The effort wasn't worth it - Dylan should have stuck to his own ability. The lyrics have changed - nothing in Hurricane could dovetail with the impassioned 1964 plea of Hattie Caroll.
"Bury the rag deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears."
So it's nowhere a return to the old Dylan. Yet "Desire" is possibly the better for that. It's an impressive account of the versatility of the greatest poet-musician around. The tracks vary from 'protest' (Hurricane, Joey) to personal (One more Cup of C Coffee, Sara), to the enigmatic Dylan so clear in Jack of Hearts (Isis. Black Diamond Bay). The way the album is put together makes the contrasts the more obvious and leaves you wondering what's going to happen next. While there are these many contrasts in topic and style, there are two or three overall themes: a sense of justice; the personal suffering and joy of love; and the conflict between these two.
The sense of justice is clearest in the two longest songs, Hurricane and Joey. Both are about losers in rigged trials. Hurricane concerns Rubin Carter, a heavyweight convicted of a triple murder when there was precious little evidence, most of it pointing to his innocence. Joey Gallo, a small-time gangster 'hounded by the police' is the subject of the latter. The treatment is somewhat alarming - almost documentary.
That the subjects are dealt with at all is courageous, but anger is curiously missing. Even [unclear: llines] like, "Rubin Carter was falsely tried" and "makes me feel ashamed to live in a land where Justice is a game" are sung in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. This tone he later parodies very well in Black Diamond Bay. An involved description of character (in many ways like Jack of Hearts) ends in a Volcanic explosion fading into Walter Cronkite and the seven o'clock news and Dylan at home pouring himself another beer.
"Seems like every time you turn around
There's another hard luck story that you gonna hear
And there's really nothing anyone can say."
"I know that the men that shot him down
Will get what they deserve."
"Sara oh Sara
Sweet virgin angel, love of my life
Sara oh Sara
Radiant jewel and mystical wife"
and "Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
"And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow his direction?"
"You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why you're so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free".
Mozambique and Oh Sister are also similar in the impressive backing vocals of Emmy Lou Harris. These reappear in Isis and Romance in Durango, the two songs contrasting the above themes. They are also in the long stream of Dylan's enigmatic poem-songs Both deal with travelling imagery, the first on a trip away from and back to the earth mother, the second of a gunfighter "I think this time we should escape". With strong Mexican echoes of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid", justice of a kind is meeted "was that the thunder that I heard? Oh can it be that I am slain?"
"One more cup of coffee 'fore I go
To the valley below
one can see the determination to try, to work for the justice he is pleading for. The "valley below" is certainly tougher, but the struggle is a necessary one.
It would be facile in the extreme to treat any Dylan album as composed of just two themes and their conflict. There is much more, but these two do overshadow much of his recent work. As earlier, there are no easy solutions to the questions Dylan poses - the search is going on. Possible that searching is the reason for the changing patterns of his music?
Further, "Desire" is stronger in that while seeing good reasons for placing it behind "Blood on the Tracks" and "Planet Waves" - the standard of the backing music, Dylan's attitude to what he's saying - I find it more compelling than these two. For all its failing, if "Desire" is not among the best albums this year, it'll be a vintage year for rock. Bob Dylan's still up there at the top. Try it for yourself.