072 – “Isis”

Episode 72
“Isis.”
Desire.
Blockhouse.
Recorded October 28, 2018.

Context (3:25)

Recorded in Columbia Studios over the evening of July 30/31, 1975. Labeled “Ices” on the recording sheet. It was written by Bob Dylan with Jacques Levy. Levy, in Isis magazine, 

The only reason that ‘Isis’ was chosen as the song to work together on was that we were at my loft apartment and Bob didn’t have a guitar with him … but I had a piano, and ‘Isis’ was the one song that he had started to write on the piano. … We are sitting at a piano together and we are writing these verses in an old Western ballad kinda style. Y’know, the kind of thing that he spent a couple of years doing with The Band in the [Big Pink] basement… Well, this is a similar kind of thing, and just as The Band wrote ‘pulled into Nazareth,’ you know, well, ‘Isis’ has as much to do with Egypt as Fanny has to do with Nazareth.”

Frankly, Rob Stoner deserves a lot of credit because Dylan was just gonna play this on piano and he convinced him flesh out the sound and brought in members of his own band, including drummer Howie Wyeth, to play. That led to Desire and that unique sound of Stoner, Wyeth and Scarlet Rivera (and Sheena Seidenberg on tambourine and congas on “Isis”). 

This became a centerpiece for the Rolling Thunder Revue and it’s quite clear why. It’s #34 on Rolling Stone‘s list of best Dylan songs. 

Song Itself (17:30)

Daniel and Kelly listened to the Desire version along with the November 21, 1975 Rolling Thunder cut from Boston on The Bootleg Series, Volume 5 and the December 4, 1975 cut from Montreal on Biograph/Side Tracks.

It’s hard not love the Desire version above all else. Dylan’s voice sounds so good and all the instrumentation is crisp and full. The narrative arc of the song is easy to follow and has enough surprises to keep one entertained. But the live cuts are something else completely. They’d listened to the Volume 5 version before but it became obvious how much quicker they upped the tempo and added all kinds of effects from reverb on the vocals to crashing symbols representing the howling wind to guitars mimicking chopping through the night. Scarlet told the Duluth Reader in 2012

You took your cues from Bob. For example, ‘Isis’ changed enormously from the album cut to live. You had to go with it. The live performances became really exciting and fiery and fast. I would follow whichever direction it went.

The Montreal take, only two weeks after the Boston show, took all all the fire and fury and turned it up a notch. The bass is all over the place, the guitars are doing this hardcore chugga-chugga riff that predates so much of that music, the solos of all instruments are fast and dexterous, and the end takes on this new resonance when Dylan screams YES when Isis asks if he wants to stay.

Kelly and Daniel walk through the song – Isis, the fifth of May, The Odyssey, the Seven Curses Expanded Universe, Sara, Suze, Joan, our side-quest friend, loneliness, and the “meadow where the creek used to rise” – and question its relevance for 2018. It’s a song of leaving, but this time we get to see what leaving means. It’s a song of forgiveness (though, importantly, not really from Isis). It’s a song about the lengths we go to perform the roles we feel we must. As Patrick Webster notes in his dissertation, “On the Fifth Day in the Drizzling Rain: Travel and Gender Performativity in Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’”

The narrator then returns to Isis, to tell her he loves her, which is not quite the same, one notes, as actually loving her.

Playlist

Welcome back to the playlist: L.A. Salami, Dr. Dog

Welcome to the playlist (so many!): the great ISIS, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alaska y Dinarama, Xandria, Linda Vogel, Alex North, Lukid, Jarlan Akill, Lalic, K Pasa USA, The Natives, Maleik Dion, Shannon Whitworth, Denedito Lacerda

Recommendations (40:00)

Kelly loved curating our Isis playlist above and watched The Haunting of Hill House. While she can’t, in the end, recommend it, she thought episodes 8 and 9 (of 10) were absolutely brilliant. So just watch up to episode 9 and you’ll be fine.

Daniel played a ton of Red Dead Redemption II over the week and coupled it with Colter Wall’s Songs of the Plains and boygenius (which is Julien Baker, who’s 2017 Turn Out the Lights was on my Top 20 last year; Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Ducas).

Endings (46:05)

There are 438 songs left. Kelly guessed #379. It’s “Changing of the Guards” off 1978’s Street Legal but mainly known as our theme song for Sign on the Window Presents, Mixed Up Confusion Presents: Game of Thrones, Season 7, which is fitting given HBO announced Season 8 will begin in April. Strap in for more misguided podcasts coming from this Bob Dylan podcast soon! Also, nope. It’s #144. We’re sticking with Street Legal but listening to “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).”

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