Articles Tagged: Bob Dylan

Certain Songs #98: Bob Dylan – “Isis”

Album: Desire.

Year: 1976.

Written and recorded in the middle of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Desire has always struck me as one of Bob Dylan’s most singular albums. Mostly co-written with Jacques Levy, it’s filled mostly with protest songs, travelogues and love songs, and musically, it’s dominated by Scarlet Riveria’s violin. I’m indifferent to about half of it, but “Isis” – half travelogue and half love song – is fucking awesome.

Played in sped-up ¾ time, and sparse musically: mostly just Dylan on a repetitive piano, bass, drums, and that violin.  Which is perfect, because “Isis” is all about the witty parable he’s spinning:

I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.

While he’s off seeking his fortune with a dude he runs into in a laundromat, Isis is always on his mind, and in the middle of it is one of my all-time favorite Dylan one-liners:

When he died I was hoping that it wasn’t contagious

Unlike so many of the stories he was telling on Blood on the Tracks, “Isis” is fundamentally an optimistic song about love, marriage and reconciliation. 

Official video for “Isis”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #97: Bob Dylan – “Up To Me”


Album: Biograph
Year: 1974

In the tumultuous summer of 1986, two different homemade cassettes kept me afloat. The first one was a tape I made of Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey to which I had appended the epic b-side “All Work And No Play.”  And the second was a tape I made of Blood on the Tracks, which I ended with “Up to Me,” which had shown up on Biograph the year before and almost instantly became a Top 5 Dylan song for me.

Let’s put it this way: if “Up to Me” actually ended Blood on the Tracks, then it would be my favorite Bob Dylan album, hands down.  Instead of just probably my favorite Bob Dylan album, since, as far as I’m concerned, “Up to Me” does end Blood on the Tracks.

In every possible way it is the perfect album-ender, even more so than the utterly awesome “Buckets of Rain.” Because it – both musically and lyrically – pretty much sums up the entire record, and in a weird way, adds a note of hope and optimism to it.

One one hand, it’s a bit of a shaggy dog story, like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts:”

Oh, the only decent thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk
Was to haul your picture down off the wall near the cage where I used to work
Was I a fool or not to try to protect your identity?
You looked a little burned out, my friend, I thought it might be up to me

But then, in the very next verse, it’s as simple and direct as “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “If You See Her, Say Hello:”

Well, I met somebody face to face and I had to remove my hat
She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that
It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be
But she ain’t a-gonna make me move, I guess it must be up to me

Oh, and like nearly all of Blood on the Tracks, the melody is sadly beautiful, winding its way through each verse with such ragged precision you don’t even realize that you’ve internalized it until you realize you know exactly when he’s going to sing “up to me.”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #93: Bob Dylan – “Drifter’s Escape”


Album: John Wesley Harding.

Year: 1968.

It’s always been hard for me to exactly explain why I love “Drifter’s Escape” so much. Maybe because it describes an incident with amazing specificity: the Drifter has been found guilty, much to disgust of the Judge, and as the crowd cries for justice God intervenes by destroying the courthouse, and the Drifter escapes.

“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”

Maybe it’s because of the simple music: Dylan strumming his acoustic and blowing his harmonica between the verses; Kenny Buttrey being amazing as always on the drums, and Charlie McCoy providing sly bass hooks. And it’s all over in 2:46. Of course, that was most of John Wesley Harding.

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”
Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more

Maybe because despite the specificity of the incident and simplicity of the music, “Drifter’s Escape” is completely mysterious. Of course, the long-held suspicion is that it’s a parable about Bob Dylan and his relationship to the white-hot stardom he was desperately dialing down with John Wesley Harding, so maybe that’s why I love it so much.

“Oh, stop that cursed jury”
Cried the attendant and the nurse
“The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse”
Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

Or maybe it’s just that last verse with the deus ex machina helps the drifter triumph over mob rule, because the mob worships the deus in the first place. The combination of that kind of dramatic irony with the  weird rhyme scheme of “out of shape” and “did escape” has fascinated me since I first heard it.  

Official Video for “Drifter’s Escape”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #92: Bob Dylan & The Band – “Goin’ To Acapulco”


Album: The Basement Tapes.

Year: 1967.

One of the standard tropes in popular music is to take upbeat music and wed it to depressing words. Bands like The Smiths pretty much made a living exploring the contradiction of Morrissey’s depressing words with the bouncy guitar hooks that Johnny Marr specialized in. But hell, even Hank Williams did it.

But “Goin’ to Acapulco” does the exact opposite. It takes words about  having a good time and sets them to a mournful, organ-filled deathmarch.

Goin’ to Acapulco–goin’ on the run
Goin’ down to see fat gut–goin’ to have some fun
Yeah–goin’ to have some fun

It’s so doomy and resigned-sounding that by the time the song is ending you want to yell at Dylan “FOR GOD’S SAKE, MAN, DON’T GO THERE! GO ANYWHERE BUT THERE” even as you realize that it’s too late, that he’s doomed to have some some fun whether he likes it or not.

Official video for “Goin’ To Acapulco”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #91: Bob Dylan & The Band – “I’m Not There”


Album: The Basement Tapes

Year: 1967.

“I’m Not There” was one of those songs that I only read about for years. It was often cited as the prime example of how the compilers of the original Basement Tapes got the whole enterprise wrong. And when it showed up on one of the gigantic Basement bootleg sets I found in the early 2000s, the fidelity wasn’t quite good enough for me to understand what Greil Marcus and Clinton Heylin were on about.

It felt, well, formless. Just Dylan strumming on his guitar with maybe an organ and almost chanting incomprehensible lyrics that probably didn’t make any sense, to boot. It wasn’t until 2007, when it was released as part of the soundtrack of Todd Haynes excellent film of the same name, that we finally got a cleaned-up recording.

So what’s it all about? Well, the official lyric sheet on Bob Dylan’s web site isn’t any help at all.  Which is as it should be, I think.

Out of all of the Basement tape recordings, this just might be weirdest.  In a lot of ways, it’s still incomprehensible,  but it’s also mesmeric, where the individual pieces don’t really matter. Sure, you eventually hear an organ, a piano and a bass, and sure there’s probably more than one guitar. But none of that seems as much as how the whole song expands and expands, as if to fill the hole left by Dylan not being there, but rather being gone.

Official video for “I’m Not There”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever