Romance in Durango; a brilliant end to a singular period in Dylan’s work

By Tony Attwood

And so what I guess is Dylan’s longest and most fruitful period of collaboration with another writer (or have I been focussed on this period for so long I’ve forgotten something – tell me if so) comes to an end with Romance in Durango.  Along with Black Diamond Bay, which it is linked to on the album, it represents the high point of the work with Jacques Levy – and there is no doubt that we are all the richer for it.

Indeed, once again, when we focus on Dylan’s songs in the order that they were written in, rather than the order in which they appear on an album, they do make a lot more sense, in terms of understanding Dylan’s progression in working with Levy.

The notion of writing fictional stories and setting them as songs was developing through the year but was interrupted by the idea of songs about real people.  So after the totally imaginary Isis, we have the real life Joey, Rita May and Hurricane.  Then it is as if the pair of writers closed the door on that and perhaps thought – we can have a lot more fun and a lot less trouble with fiction.  Although of course Dylan’s commitment to Joey and Hurricane cannot be doubted.

It seems to me, by the time the pair got to the end of their work together they had really got the hang of the relationship and were able to launch into much more exciting and interesting fictional works.  If only they had time to develop this side of their work further we could have had a second album of collaborative fiction, rather than having to wait a couple of years for Street Legal (although in the end it turned out to be worth the wait).

But back to this concluding song.   There is nothing really in Hurricane that prepares us for Black Diamond Bay. Then the story and notion of exotic locations continues with Mozambique and then we get Romance in Durango.  Here’s the chronology…

with Romance being, as I’ve said, the final collaboration between Dylan and Levy.

Dylan had been in Mexico in 1972/3 but there seems to be little influence on his music from this period – until now.

Levy stated in an interview that the two writers wrote the opening of the song, and then Levy finished it off, perhaps (according to Heylin) to Dylan’s slight annoyance.

This is one of those songs where we have two excellently arranged different versions – the slow version on the album, and the upbeat Biograph live version.  Heylin makes it very clear that it prefers the Biograph version, but I fear he misses something profound in the original album version, namely the extraordinary way in which Dylan plays with the timing.

Indeed I can’t imagine how the song was possibly recorded with the whole band playing together (in Dylan’s preferred style), as there are so many twists and turns to the lyrics are handled.  Sometimes an extra beat appears at the end of a line, sometimes the line takes an extra beat or two at the end.  The time signature changes wildly as we go; I can imagine Frank Zappa rehearsing this to perfection, but not Dylan!

The only thing I can think is that they multi-tracked the whole thing, and then kept the Dylan lyrics and gradually replaced all the instrumentals around that.  Certainly there is a hell of lot happening in there, and the normal odd slips by the instrumentalists that we get on Dylan albums are missing.

But whatever the explanation, what we have here is the summation of the work of these two fine artists, now utterly used to working together.  And I think, despite the way the songs slip into each other on Desire, with Black Diamond Bay seeping out of Durango, it is worth just occasionally playing the sequence in the order the songs were written.  It does give a different understanding to this period of work.

Is there a more evocative opening of any Dylan song than this?

Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.

Sold my guitar to the baker’s son
For a few crumbs and a place to hide
But I can get another one
And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride.

What works so brilliantly here is that within eight lines we have the whole picture, just through the simple selected images.  Our minds create the actual images, but the essence of the situation is there, clearly painted in eight lines.   Songwriting at its best

Then the Spanish phrases set the scene… Here are my simplistic translations of the Spanish in case you need them (but really my Spanish is poor to non-existent so please do give me a better version if you can)

No llores mi querida  (Do not cry my darling)
Dios nos vigila (God is watching over us)

Agarrame mi vida (hold me, my love, my life)

And we have the history and culture mingled with the hopes of the poor.

Past the Aztec ruins and the ghosts of our people
Hoofbeats like castanets on stone
At night I dream of bells in the village steeple
Then I see the bloody face of Ramona.

And just as I am sure you can improve on my language skills, so I am sure there must be a reader more versed in Mexican history than me, but I am taking it that Ramona is the leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.  As I understand it she was one of a number of female commanders in charge of directing the army; a symbol of equality and dignity for impoverished women.

At the corrida we’ll sit in the shade
And watch the young torero stand alone
We’ll drink tequila where our grandfathers stayed
When they rode with Villa into Torreon.

Pancho Villa is a revolutionary folk hero, who fought against the regimes of both Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta.  A torero is a bull fighter (I knew that time studying Latin would come in useful one day!) and Torreon is a city – I had to look that one up, tell me about it if you know why it is important in the context of the song – unless of course it is just a play on sounds having a “young torero” and riding into Torreon.

In this part of the song what we are getting here is not a logical set of historical developments over time, but a jumping around through names of famous outlaws in Mexican history – outlaws who we might or might not sympathise with.  (Why couldn’t Dylan write about historic characters from London – it would be a lot easier for me to review!)

So having run away the couple prepare for marriage.

Then the padre will recite the prayers of old
In the little church this side of town
I will wear new boots and an earring of gold
You’ll shine with diamonds in your wedding gown.

The way is long but the end is near
Already the fiesta has begun
The face of God will appear
With His serpent eyes of obsidian.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass-like rock – I’m not sure I get the image of God with serpent eyes of obsidian, but maybe that’s the point, we’re not supposed to get it.  God’s serpent eyes is one hell of an image however.  And maybe that’s the point for it sets us up for the moment it all goes wrong

Was that the thunder that I heard?
My head is vibrating, I feel a sharp pain
Come sit by me don’t say a word
Oh can it be that I am slain ?

Quick, Magdalena, take my gun
Look up in the hills that flash of light
Aim well my little one
We may not make it through the night.

The outlaw is killed, his lover is left, and I suppose that bleakness is what makes me feel in part that the slower album version works better than the Biograph version.  That and the fact that the Biograph version, having been played live, has got rid of all the edgy changes of rhythm, time, bar length and everything else that makes the original version so extraordinary.

Musically I also think that the original album version maintains the Mexican feel through the use of the instrumentation (for example the trumpet calls) and the rhythms associated with central American music.   The chord system beneath it however is simple

D                                                               A
Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
G                                            D
Dust on my face and my cape,
D                                               A
Me and Magdalena on the run
G                                             D

The same chords are used through the chorus.

The song was played 38 times by Dylan between October 30 1975 and October 17 2015.  It is, for me a most fitting and insightful end to an era in Dylan’s writing.  With the death of the outlaw at the end of the song, the curtain comes down on a singular period in Dylan’s career.  When he took up songwriting again, we found we were in a new land.

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  1. May be worth noting that it’s not Ramona, but Ramon. Like Roman is the guy he killed and the reason they are on the run.

  2. I enjoyed your post, which I found in a fit of enjoying Romance in Durango. I love Dylan’s ability to convey a story in a few words.

    The god with obsidian eyes will be the plumed serpent. There’s an image here from Teotihuacan:

    The eyes are gone, but they would have been obsidian, which would glow when the light was right. I’ve stood next to them, and they’re huge and imposing (the photo doesn’t quite do them justice). It would have been an awe-inspiring sight. The Aztecs discovered Teotihuacan when it was already abandoned and overgrown – a lost civilisation. They were so astonished and overawed by the size of the two main pyramids, they decided it was where the gods had created the sun and the moon, and the pyramids are now named accordingly. The Aztecs also adopted the plumed serpent god, and called it Quetzalcóatl.

  3. I’ve always assumed this song was set in Mexico as well.

    This weekend, though, I was in Durango, Colorado. And visited the nearby town of Aztec, New Mexico.

    The town of Aztec contains a large set of Anasazi ruins…
    Makes me wonder about the setting of this song now ‘..past the Aztec Ruins and the ghosts of our people…soon the horse will take us to Durango…’

  4. Another musical feast from the mind of Bob Dylan. The lyrics, the guitar work, the timing, the beat and no beat and the feedback from the audience all make this a memorable recording.

  5. I don’t think Ramón (not Ramona) is a member of Zapata revolutionaries. It’s more probable the protagonist and Magdalena are: they are linked by Dylan to Pancho Villa, their ancestors fought with him.

  6. About why Torreon is mentioned, that’s because the song is set during the Mexican Revolution. Villa had a key battle in Torreón, taking the city back in 1914 (between March 19th and April 2nd of that year).

  7. Dylan is exercising poetic license here with respect to the Aztec ruins. Northern Mexico, where the story takes place, was never part of the Aztec empire and no Aztec ruins are found there. Ruins from other pre-Columbian peoples are found in the area, though, for example at Casas Grandes.

    Tom is correct that the “serpent’s eyes of obsidian” refers to the Feathered Serpent.

  8. After listening to this wonderful piece countless times, I think it’s worth noting that Roger McGuinn played both electric guitar parts on the instrumental tracks. He performing opposite himself using a Telecaster on one side and the Rick 12 (faux mandolin & Spanish riffs) on the other. Although uncredited and contrary to other opinions, it is obviously Roger and he adds a very nice touch to the arrangement indeed.

  9. Tony, I don’t think the protagonists are current revolutionaries at all, though the singer is certainly proud of his revolutionary heritage. We don’t have an account of the shooting, only the aftermath, but it’s always seemed to me that the “backstory” would be something like Marty Robbins’s El Paso – ie the Ramon whom he shot may have been a contender for the hand of the beautiful Magdalena. The shooting happened in a cantina, after all. Haunting song anyway – it’s been stuck in my brain for a few days.

  10. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs. Thank you so much for the information that makes this song even richer for me.

  11. Likewise, this discussion has further increased my appreciation of this brilliant song. The opening lines set out such a visual storyline….I’ve only spent a few days in Mexico but Dylan takes them up to another level in my head. I got into Aztec/Mayan culture in my teens, so really related to obsidian eyes. Who else could weave those words into a song FFS!!!

  12. Appreciate all the interpretation here, but for me its the romance in the title that I find in the verses that is enthralling. Being fugitives together has its own (twisted) romance. So many lines that evoke romantic ideas, all told from the protagonists words and point of view. Breath taking song writing.

  13. Durango , Mexico is where Dylan went when Peckinpah filmed Pat Garrett, though the historical location is actually Lincoln County, NM (which is nanechecked in Senyor.)

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