Bob Dylan's 'Desire' still resonates with college students
March 10, 2016
In 1976, the U.S. and the world were at a crossroads. It had been a year since the final bullet of the Vietnam War had been fired and the so-called “hippie” movement was coming to a close. For the members of this movement, it was the start of a new reality: adulthood. Many of the baby boomers of the 1940’s and 1950’s now had children of their own and real life responsibilities. Instead of tearing down the establishment, they had shifted their focus to building a future and a family. For musical giant Bob Dylan, the rock and roll voice of the 1960’s, 1976 was more about soldiering on than accepting reality. On Dylan’s, Desire, which celebrates it’s 40th anniversary this year, he put the feelings and issues of his new surroundings to song, while creating one of his most sonically interesting records ever.
The record starts with “Hurricane,” a protest song about the alleged framing of Middleweight boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The track opens with a menacing tone from Dylan’s acoustic, while his newly formed band creeps in. Lyrically the song, co-written by Jacques Levy, is piercing and digs right into the events that led up to Carter’s arrest and imprisonment. The song was released as the lead single from the album and has become one of my most successful.
The album continues with “Isis,” which showcases Dylan’s classic skill of storytelling. The track takes the listener along on the story of a newly married man who is dissatisfied with his new surroundings so he decides to join a group of grave robbers. The song perfectly reflects the life of many baby boomers who were now dissatisfied with their new structured life. The lyrics capture wish for adventure and freedom that now had all but vanished.
To record the album, Dylan assembled a group of musical friends to fill out his arrangements. One of the most surprising additions to the band was a young violinist named Scarlet Rivera. The story goes that Dylan was riding in the back seat of a car when he saw Rivera walking along the street with a violin case. Dylan stopped her and asked if she could actually play the thing. When she confirmed, he invited her to sit in on the sessions. This chance meeting proved to be an essential piece of the sound of the album. On “One More Cup of Coffee,” her contribution to the unique sound is ever present. The Gypsy and Egyptian influenced song displays Dylan’s worries of abandonment, after going through a divorce with his first wife Sara. Rivera’s violin sounds almost like Dylan giving up but the fight of the drums shows that Dylan maybe struggling but will always continue on.
The final number on the record, “Sara,” is one of Dylan’s most autobiographical songs to date. The song tells the story of the good memories Dylan has of his first marriage but also asks the question, “Why did it all end?” The sparse arrangement is haunting and brings feelings of regret and sorrow. Dylan has famously denied any possible meanings for any of his songs but with “Sara,” Dylan can not possibliy deny its meaning. In this song, Dylan wants his wife back and has reached the point where he is willing to put his guard down and wear it on his sleeve.
On Bob Dylan’s Desire, Dylan found peace in his work. From the drop of the needle, the album is one of Dylan’s most sparse sounding collections of songs yet leaves the listener satisfied albeit, a little depressed. This however, is what you come for when you listen to 1970’s Dylan. On this day 40 years ago, Desire was number one on the Billboard 200. Although it may not be the best entry level Dylan record, it is certainly one of his best and should be celebrated even in 2016.