By Christopher Deutsch
On September 4, the Dylan podcast Is It Rolling, Bob featured British poet and playwright Caroline Bird.
She was fantastic; insightful, funny, and thought-provoking in her dissection of Dylan’s language. Like every guest on the show, she opened with the recitation of a song, and she gave a beautiful poet’s reading of Isis. This was followed by a long riff on the song’s meaning and Dylan’s approach to relationships in general.
The problem was, from the start, Bird and the show’s hosts locked into an interpretation of Isis that doesn’t square with the song’s lyrics. In their telling, Isis is another song about Dylan’s proclivity to run from relationships. That the protagonist abandons his bride to seek adventure only to return after the pursuit has failed.
Many interpretations of Isis follow this line, or more specifically link the song to Dylan’s unsteady marriage to Sara. It’s a forgivable offense; so many Dylan songs are centered around flight from romantic turbulence. But even as mysterious as Isis is, the lyrics reveal meaning that for some reason has been largely missed.
Dylan and song co-writer Jacques Levy have both downplayed any specific biographical meaning in Isis, characterizing it as just a story song, the kind of Western ballad Marty Robbins may have written if dosed with LSD. And while we must take anything Dylan says about his songs with a grain of salt, this feels true. As the story goes, Levy came up with the first line, Dylan loved it, and the two knocked the rest out fairly quickly.
I married Isis on the fifth day of May But I could not hold on to her very long So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away To the wild North country where I could not go wrong
It’s clear from these first few lines that this relationship is in trouble but there is no indication that our narrator is leaving out of the blue or even at fault. In fact, he’s the one who could not hold on to her. When you lose your grip on something you are holding onto it is that thing that pulls or falls away. The indication here is that he’s tried. Later in the song he’ll shed some light on all of this.
But at the moment of losing Isis he cuts off his hair and leaves. This reads less like a wife-abandoning adventurer and more like someone in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
So, with his marriage on the fritz he embarks on a quest. We don’t know what he’s looking for but anyone who’s experienced the traumatic dissolution of a relationship should identify with the impulse to get out of dodge and seek some understanding on the road.
Our narrator quickly finds adventure and is swept up in visions of riches. He’s also understandably thinking about Isis.
I was thinkin' about turquoise, I was thinkin' about gold I was thinkin' about diamonds and the world's biggest necklace As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold I was thinkin' about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless
Here Dylan drops another hint. Isis thought our narrator was ‘so reckless.’ Is he? Perhaps, after all he has gone off with a stranger in search of a mysterious bounty. But what’s revealed here is that Isis thinks he is reckless, which would presumably be enough for her to ask for space.
Why is he so obsessed with the world’s biggest necklace? Doubtful he wants it for himself. He wants it for Isis because he has something to prove to her. I may be reckless but look what I got you!
He’s not done reminiscing. He remembers:
How she told me that one day we would meet up again And things would be different the next time we wed If I only could hang on and just be her friend I still can't remember all the best things she said
This is the revealing passage. Isis does the talking. For whatever reason she’s pulling away with the promise that one day they may reconcile. Things will be different, perhaps she will be different, and the relationship will work. She wants space and gives him the well-worn ‘let’s be friends’ line. These are the words of someone doing the breaking up. The subtext here is that Isis has some shit to work out.
The quest doesn’t go so well. His partner dies. The tomb is empty. The search for something real, something for our narrator to grab onto in the face of a failing relationship, was a fool’s errand. There’s nothing left to do but head home to Isis and tell her he loves her.
She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead
She said, “Where ya been?” I said, “No place special” She said, “You look different.” I said, “Well, I guess” She said, “You been gone.” I said, “That’s only natural” She said, “You gonna stay?” I said, “If you want me to, yes”
As Scarlett Rivera’s violin and Bob’s harmonica weave together and build to a crescendo, our narrator arrives home for an awkward reunion with Isis. Here’s where a listening of the incredible Rolling Thunder version of Isis is helpful.
Bob is at his most theatrical and with the band playing loud behind him his delivery of the final word of this penultimate verse is practically screamed. “If you want me to, YES!!!!” It reminds me of the classic exchange at a press conference in 1965 when Dylan responds to a question about whether or not he believes what he’s singing,with, “How could I answer that if you got the nerve to ask me?”
With Isis he’s equally exasperated but gives an answer as if to say, What do you mean am I going to stay, you are the one who asked me to leave!
Truth be told, I trust Dylan and Levy on this one and think Isis really is a rather random and playful story without much autobiographical significance. There are many instances of Dylan revealing unease or even vitriol with his relationships, but Isis is a poor choice to use as an example.
But who knows, as Dylan sings about Isis, the same can be true of us who endlessly try to suss out his meaning: What drives me to you is what drives me insane.
You might also enjoy:
- A Dylan Cover a Day: In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
- Isis and the 5th day of May (we’ll be back by the 4th).
- Bob Dylan’s “Isis”: the meaning of the music and the song
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