By Tony Attwood
Isis. A song so revered that the longest running Dylan magazine is named after the song.
But why – what is it in Isis that is so powerful, so overwhelmingly important in terms of the Dylan genre?
Certainly it is a hard song to pin down. Those funny people at Wikipedia have it as being in B flat in ¾ time – actually you only have to sit at a piano to find it is in B, and you only have to be a musician to know it is in 6/8. Try conducting it in ¾ – with half a minute your hand is ready to drop off. But the real clue is hitting you in the ears in every verse. Put it in 6/8 and the piano is hitting 3 equal notes for each half a bar – exactly as 6/8 requires.
So, a strophic song in 6/8 – unusual for Dylan. And the melody wanders – there is a basis but the song doesn’t quite stay where the melody is laid down.
Is it a song about his wife Sara? Well, maybe, perhaps, but it is a strain to make the story work. Again I would refer you to the Wiki article which simply takes a stream of events, without asking the rather relevant question – what the hell is going on in this SEQUENCE.
For sequence is the key issue here. Isis was the Egyptian god of nature. She befriended all those at the edge of society – slaves, workers, the poor. She gave them hope – but not of working harder for salvation. Simply hope.
The Egyptian link is clear because there is the line about coming to the pyramids (albeit covered in ice, with snow and the like circling about – somewhat unusual just down the road from Cairo.) But we get the full Egyptian bit with the breaking into the tomb, the casket being empty and all that.
And where are we now – nowhere but in a B movie about raiding the pyramids and stealing the treasure. All the usual stuff about getting stuck in the sandstorm – except it is an icestorm.
In the end it seems more like the science fiction stores of the 1950s in which Mars with its deserts is recast as the Wild West – the new frontier with bars and bandits and searches for treasures. And in the end I am more comfortable with that – another world. The Empress from the tarot features heavily on the sleeve – maybe that’s it – Isis, the Empress.
Isis is a mystery, and the story makes no real sense – it is just a set of irrational images struggling from one episode to another without that sequence that we so crave. And that’s why it works. It tempts you to think there is a meaningful sequence here, but as you try to grab it, it walks away.
That’s the beauty of the song – each time you grab its simple structure is just gets up and walks away – but at the same time it holds together through the music which is based relentlessly over the same three chords, over and over again. Indeed without that ceaselessly repeating musical base we would have nothing to hold on to at all.
For such an important song in the Dylan canon it is interesting that Dylan only performed it on stage only 46 times between 1975 and 1976, again suggesting an association with Sara. They were divorced in June 1977.
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