‘Desire’: Bob Dylan’s Sloppiest Masterpiece Turns 40

Rife with unwieldy instrumentation and factual inaccuracies, Dylan’s seductively ramshackle 1976 gem celebrates its fortieth birthday.

01.31.16 5:15 AM ET

Forty years ago this month, Bob Dylan unleashed Desire, arguably the most complicated record of his career

Released during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the album largely mirrors the ramshackle, wandering gypsy nature of that beloved jaunt. While trying his hand at Middle Eastern dirges, tales of epic adventure, and coming-off-the-rails folk-rock, the legendary musician also waded into journalistic songwriting that failed on many accounts. 

It’s a sloppy, at times plodding affair, but it worked.

The album opens with one of Dylan’s most controversial songs: “Hurricane.” Widely considered to be his last great protest song, it’s a brilliant eight-minute statement against the wrongful conviction of middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter for a gruesome 1966 triple-homicide in Paterson, New Jersey.

Much like Netflix’s Making a Murderer it brought a deluge of national attention to the injustices of America’s legal system. In using one man’s small-town legal fight, forty years earlier Dylan made Carter’s imprisonment an inescapable topic of public conversation.

The music itself rages at an enthrallingly breakneck pace, growing more fiery with each verse—punctuated, at one point, by Dylan’s indignant use of the word “nigger” to scorn those who dismissed Carter’s innocence on racial grounds. But the lyrics, co-written with playwright Jacques Levy, teem with inaccuracy, despite the authors’ good intentions.

The pair took extraordinary poetic license with the details of the case: originally accusing two star witnesses of robbing the bodies left at the scene (a problem which resulted in Columbia Records forcing Dylan to re-record the song just before release); painting Carter as a gentle saint, neglecting to mention any of his famously violent temper and previous run-ins with the law; and suggesting eyewitness Patricia Valentine was part of a police conspiracy to frame Carter (she sued Dylan for slander and lost in court).

But Dylan relentlessly trotted out the song on tour and at benefit shows, and some credit that increased awareness for Carter’s 1976 retrial—one which the boxer lost, remaining in jail for nine more years until his conviction was finally overturned.

Dylan’s partnership with Levy resulted in another, far more questionable journalistic song: “Joey.” The eleven-minute ballad is an ode to New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo, who was famously gunned down at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.

Levy and Dylan paint the brutal mobster as a wrongfully persecuted man of principle. “What made them want to come and blow you away?” the song’s chorus asks.

Well, maybe it was the fact that Gallo initiated one of the bloodiest mob wars of the twentieth-century and was a pathological killer who bragged about murdering a man in a barber chair and allegedly ordered a brutal hit on a rival boss. 

One verse claims poor, helpless Gallo opted not to carry a gun in his later years, because he didn’t want his children to know violence. That would be morally heroic if not for the handgun Gallo pulled out while being massacred over his bowl of mussels.

The song was, indeed, “one of the most mindlessly amoral pieces of romanticist bullshit ever recorded,” as Lester Bangs wrote in 1976. But the martyring of such a ruthless figure was likely the result of Gallo’s mythological jail stay, in which the gangster read up on Nietzsche and befriended black inmates. Upon his release, he moved to Greenwich Village and befriended actors and literary figures—a hipster goon of sorts. 

But the melody is beautiful, especially aided by howling backup vocals from Emmylou Harris  and Ronee Blakley. And when taken with some measure of skepticism—as a rewriting of history or a paean to a fictional anti-hero—it’s actually a good song, flaws be damned.

Interestingly, in a 2009 interview, Dylan claimed his partner was responsible for all the lyrics in “Joey.” Perhaps he recognizes the egregiousness of the words, too.

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The duo also wrote the piano-driven “Isis,” one of Dylan’s most towering allegories, a hypnotic seven-minute Odyssey-like fable about a ramblin’ man seeking adventure, traveling to “pyramids all embedded in ice,” only to discover an empty tomb and return home to his wife, a “mystical child.” While shrouded in mythical imagery, the song was actually a rare glimpse into Dylan’s personal life: it almost nakedly mirrored his separation and reunion at the time with Sara Dylan.

“Mozambique” is a sing-songy tune that allegedly emerged from a competition between Dylan and Levy to see who could find the most words rhyming with the southeastern African country’s name. As breezily as the song came to exist, it’s perhaps as easy to overlook.

“One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” and “Oh, Sister,” however, are indelible classics that see Dylan experimenting with melismatic, almost-rabbinical vocal patterns. The former is largely seen as yet another metaphor for his marital estrangement, complete with themes of abandonment, heartbreak, and the unknown road ahead. The latter song, meanwhile, was a penetrating look at the humanity and fragility of love, with Scarlet Rivera’s violin playing an enormous role in selling the sincerity.

Dylan’s fantastical storytelling took on a new level of screenwriterly attention to detail with “Romance in Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay,” both featured in the latter third of the album.

“Romance” sounds, reads, and feels like a non-existent Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone film about a man and his lover, Magdalena, on the run in Mexico, dust on his face and cape, as they flee the law and ultimately perish together in a fatal shootout.

“Black Diamond Bay,” on the other hand, is a verbose short story about the inhabitants of an island hotel who each face down their mortality after a volcano erupts and engulfs the tiny landmass. The song’s exploration of futility is underscored by the final verse, in which the curtain is peeled back to reveal the narrator is just an indifferent viewer of “old Cronkite” on the nightly news, detailing some mass death or another.

“So I turned it off and went to grab another beer,” Dylan sings of his boredom. “Seems like every time you turn around / There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear / And there’s really nothin’ anyone can say.” 

And the kicker in our collective gut of apathy: “And I never did plan to go anyway to Black Diamond Bay.”

While each of the first eight songs of Desire could be the subject of lengthy discussion, the album’s closer, “Sara,” is perhaps its most fascinating for one reason: It’s the incredibly rare moment Dylan drops all pretense of persona and puts his personal life on public display.

If, as Bob’s son Jakob once said, 1974’s Blood on the Tracks was “[his] parents talking,” then “Sara” is the sound of his parents ending it for good. It’s a desperate, heartbreakingly intimate plea from Dylan for his estranged wife not to abandon him forever.

With Borges-like attention to biographical detail, Dylan reminisces about beach trips with the kids, watching them collect sea shells in their pails; vacations in Portugal and Jamaica; reading Snow White with the children. He confesses that he wrote his 1966 epic composition “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for Sara after staying up all night at the Chelsea Hotel.

It’s enough to make the listener cry—a rare feat for the typically biting Dylan—especially when he laments that all those beaches are now, metaphorically speaking, “deserted except for some kelp” and begs Sara to “forgive me my unworthiness.” The famously arrogant Dylan was practically lying naked on the floor, weeping for all to see.

To add to the heartache: Sara was present in the studio while Dylan and his caravan of collaborators laid down this track. 

She filed for divorce in March 1977.