Bob Dylan in 1975: working with Jacques Levy

by Tony Attwood

The key debating point about Bob Dylan and his compositions in 1975 relates to the issue of where and when Jacques Levy entered the scene.   We know he worked on Isis and apparently he worked on Money Blues as well, but there is little evidence that in the latter case he had much input into a song that Dylan could easily have written with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back.

Oh Sister is also credited to both of the men, and that is a little unexpected given that this is such a personal song about a woman Dylan knew so well – and surprising also given that several authorities suggest the collaboration between the two writers started quite a bit later in the year.

And most certainly the amazing Abandoned Love was composed by Dylan alone and is a song that shows Dylan’s compositional powers were most certainly still there.

So my guess is that the arrangements with Levy were a bit haphazard at first, and it was only with the later compositions that the two men really worked together as a team.  And indeed the results at the end of the year were remarkable.

But whenever it was, turn to working with Levy Bob did, and some of the work the men produced together is of enormous merit.  Apart from the blockbuster of Isis, at the start there are a few low points (Rita May most particularly is an awful low point not just because of the music but because one would just wish Dylan had not had anything to do with this attack on a fellow artist whose work is of merit – nor indeed on any woman just because of her sexuality) and as a counter to this, there is certainly some fun in Mozambique

But at the very end of the collaboration come what for me are that absolute and obvious highpoints of the venture: Romance in Durango and  Black Diamond Bay.

These last two are particularly important I believe because they do extend the notion of painting and story telling in songs – they each do as much scene setting as they do in relating the tale and really stand alone as representatives of a completely different way of approaching popular music.

I am sure that as soon as I say “who else has written songs like these to words like this?” I will be told in no uncertain terms, but while I still very much enjoy listening to Isis, “Romance” and the “Bay” never stop surprising me with the images that they paint and the way the music and lyrics are entwined around each other.

Looking back at the year I am not at all sure that Dylan needed Levy to create “Isis” and he certainly didn’t have him around for “Abandoned Love” which seems to hark back to another place and another time.   But I am sure that the last two songs of the year could never have been composed by Dylan alone at this time – his mind was simply not working on songs like this.

Where Dylan has painted us pictures like this in songs written on his own – as with “Caribbean Wind” for example – there is more emphasis on the atmosphere than the events.  Here we get both.

As for “Joey” and “Hurricane” as I mentioned in one of my reviews, Dylan’s love for the outlaw motif can on occasion overwhelm him.  There is no law saying that the two writers had to tell the story as it was any more than Shakespeare had to tell the truth about Richard III (which he most certainly didn’t).   But for me, those two songs are ok songs, but not that special, and most certainly as nothing compared to the monuments of this year.

So once again I find myself looking at a year and thinking, for almost anyone else, writing Abandoned Love and co-writing  Romance in Durango and  Black Diamond Bay would have been the absolute summits of their work.  For Bob it was just another year.  Another three amazing, amazing songs.  Another pushing back of the boundaries, as if to say, “hey guys, and we can also do songs like this…”


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