Black Diamond Bay – with added Jacques Levy recording of the song

By Tony Attwood

Updated 27 Sep 2020 with the Levy recording added at the end.

The last review I wrote in this series was “Angelina” in which I suggested that the reason Dylan didn’t include that song on the album for which it was recorded, was that the rhymes were so false.

So it seems logical to move to a song which also has extraordinary rhymes which absolutely do work.   Consider this

The Greek is quickly heading for the second floor
She passes him on the spiral staircase
Thinking he’s the Soviet Ambassador

The Soviet Ambassador has nothing to do with anything, and is there to rhyme with “floor” but within the context of the storyline about the volcanic eruption on the island – and the collection of characters reacting to the events, the presence of the Ambassador in and around the casino (which is the focus of part of the story) is perfectly reasonable.

But before getting further into this I’d like to write about Jacques Levy who co-wrote the song.  He is probably the only clinical psychologist to co-write with Dylan, and was a most extraordinary man.

He obtained a doctorate in psychology and trained as a psychoanalyst subsequently and then worked as a clinical psychologist.  But that’s only part of the story for Levy was also a director, most famously directing Oh! Calcutta!

His earliest musical compositions were collaborations with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and it was McGuinn who introduced Dylan and Levy to each other.   Levy being a director also took control of Rolling Thunder Review and he wrote lyrics for the songs of Joe Cocker and Carly Simon.   He also directed Doonesbury: A Musical Comedy, and wrote the lyrics for the musical Fame, the 1994 version of Marat/Sade, Bus Stop and Brecht on Brecht.  He sadly died of cancer in 2004.

Such was the power and drive of Levy in terms of lyrics, that Dylan and Levy wrote all the songs that appear on “Desire” within four weeks.

The lively music is unusual for Dylan in that it starts with a minor chord (Em) before resolving to C and G.Indeed Dylan seems liberated by the lyrics, writing a melody and chord sequence that takes him into swift chord changes (such as the CDC change) with additional complexity from the descending bass.

There is no Black Diamond Bay as such, but the notion of a volcano hitting a small but inhabited island resonates with thoughts of the Caribbean which has volcanoes across region including Montserrat, Dominica, Guadeloupe…

The album was released in January 1976 – so anything before that date could be the volcanic eruption that was being thought of in the writing of the song – starting with 1902, when Martinique’s Mt Pelée  erupted – the deadliest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. A pyroclastic flow from the eruption destroyed the town of St Pierre and its 28,000 inhabitants.  Records suggest that only one person, a prisoner, survived.

Also in 1902, the Soufriere volcano in St Vincent erupted starting 6th May and ending 30th March, 1903.  1,565 people were killed and extensive damage was done to agriculture in the areas around the volcano.  Around the time of the recording of Black Diamond Bay the Soufriere volcano was showing the earliest signs of becoming active once again and did indeed explode again in 1979.

So this might well be the context of the song, as we look at the people on the island, going about their work, while those called upon to comment on the volcano just describe it as foreign news, unaffected (as their job requires them to be) by the news itself.

It is said that Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory” is an influence here, but personally I don’t see this.  Victory is (it is true) set on an island and there’s a volcano and a casino, but that’s true of so many other novels.  True in Victory the perspective changes, and true in Black Diamond Bay we do see the story from different viewpoints at the very end, but “Victory” is a sort of melodrama, and has a strong feel of the early 20th century when it was written, which is utterly unreflected in “Black Diamond Bay”.  Maybe the composers saw one of the film adaptations which wandered from the original, but it is all rather tenuous.  An influence perhaps, a “major influence” no.

So in the story we get straight down to the scene setting, both the people and the location..

Up on the white veranda
She wears a necktie and a Panama hat
Her passport shows a face
From another time and place
She looks nothing like that

Then we’ve got the casino…

She walks across the marble floor
Where a voice from the gambling room is calling her to come on in
She smiles, walks the other way

Enigma abounds as characters fade in and out without introduction…

As the morning light breaks open, the Greek comes down
And he asks for a rope and a pen that will write

The implication is of suicide and the suicide note – but here the scene is set in other ways.

And as the yellow fog is lifting
The Greek is quickly heading for the second floor
She passes him on the spiral staircase
Thinking he’s the Soviet Ambassador
She starts to speak, but he walks away
As the storm clouds rise and the palm branches sway
On Black Diamond Bay

So now we have the opening hint of the natural disaster, but also a seemingly curious reference to TS Eliot.  It is so fleeting a reference that I hesitate over it, but Dylan quotes Eliot elsewhere, so it is worth considering…

“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains”

This is from The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.   Prufrock knows that his life has been wasted in indecisiveness, trivia, cheap restaurants, pointless chit-chat…

“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid.”

Prufrock is a failure in a world of failures, he could easily have washed up on Black Diamond Bay and would not be out of place beside the woman, the gambler, the Greek, the desk clerk…  These are the characters that populate Dylan songs (remember Louise and Johanna, with Little Boy Lost in “Visions of Johanna” – drifting and lost).  These are the people Dylan observes.

So life goes on its pointless, second rate way, “As the storm clouds rise and the palm branches sway”.   Everywhere there is the trivia of life…

A soldier sits beneath the fan
Doing business with a tiny man who sells him a ring

The lights go out but there is an attempt to go on…

While a loser in the gambling room lights up a candle
Says, “Open up another deck”
But the dealer says, “Attendez-vous, s’il vous plait”

Interestingly, amusingly, even the French is wrong at this point. It should “Attendez s’il vous plait”.  Maybe that’s just a slip, maybe it is another sign of just how second rate everything is.  The casino card dealer can’t even get the French right.

So the woman knows it’s time to go – there is after all a volcano exploding, and in a moment of trivia needs to get past the Greek to get to the emergency escape, and in a Titanic like moment, the band plays on.

Then she ran upstairs to pack her bags
While a horse-drawn taxi waited at the curb
She passed the door that the Greek had locked
Where a handwritten sign read, “Do Not Disturb”
She knocked upon it anyway
As the sun went down and the music did play
On Black Diamond Bay

And it’s all over, everyone is trapped.  The gambler finally breaks the bank, but since there is now no way out, he’ll never get the cash.   The trivial nonsense flows all around…  The island is sinking, the lady is told how much she is loved, she prays, and all hell breaks lose.

Then the change of perspective – the change that is supposed to link us to the Conrad novel (in which changing perspectives are central to the whole volume).

Walter Cronkite is doing the CBS news show, and even amidst the carnage and horror, because the story doesn’t happen in the US, but in some foreign place, they can’t even get the detail right…

It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothin’ but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes

The TV viewer picks up on the non-American context – if it isn’t in the US it doesn’t matter…

Didn’t seem like much was happening,
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re going to hear

And so we get the final twist – all these lives are there, all being destroyed, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s not a place we know or care about.

Now here’s the Levy recording.   He chats at the start, and then there is a full recording…

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  1. Thanks. I’ve always been a sucker for Bob’s big “narrative” numbers, and together with Lily, Rosemary this is one of my all-time favourites, not least for the quite outrageous and cheeky rhyming, which for me also nicely undercuts the palpably tragic stuff going down on the island.

    I must say, though, I DO get strong vibes of Conrad in this tune – not just Victory but a whole bunch of other things like Nostromo, Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon, Lord Jim, and so on.

    One pretty obvious nod to Victory that you ignore is that a place called Black Diamond Bay is a key location for the events of the novel… the protagonist actually LIVES there. Which means that to say as you do “there is no Black Diamond Bay as such” is a little inaccurate. It just happens to be fictional.

    Where I would agree is that it might all have been seen by Dylan and Levy through a hazy movie filter: the whole thing is extraordinarily “visual” and has (for me) strong echoes of ’40s film noir productions (think Key Largo, To Have and Have Not, and Touch of Evil for starters), in which the sweat pours, ceiling-fans barely provide any respite, people drink gin and dab their brows with handkerchiefs, decadence and corruption rule, and there are plum roles for a fat Sydney Greenstreet arch-villain and a mysterious doe-eyed femme fatale.

    Aside (possibly) from the “Soviet Ambassador” reference, there is actually nothing until the Cronkite switch at the end to suggest this is meant to be set “in the present”: the veranda is colonial, the spiral staircase likewise; the horse-drawn taxi belongs to a bygone era (puts me in mind of Rosemary taking “a carriage into town”); the desk-clerk’s fez places him squarely in the cast of Casablanca, the tiny man is played by a weasel-like Peter Lorre, and there is even something quaintly old-fashioned about the boiler in the basement sending scalding steam everywhere. I love it!

    It would make a wonderful short film in the right hands, but alas, it will never happen.

  2. Massively underrated song – surely one of his best. I love the final-reel twist. Well-observed comparison to ‘Prufrock’ – I’d never noticed that. It was probably unintentional on Dylan’s part, though! Such great music with the lyrics; I’m very fond of the segue with “Romance in Durango”. If only “Joey” had been replaced by “Abandoned Love” and “Golden Loom”, ‘Desire’ would probably be in the man’s Top 5.

  3. Interesting read, had no idea about the references. Goes to show, good artists borrowmand great artists steal…

  4. Hi, I’m Polish, 55, probably one of the most Dylan-obsessed people in my country. Been translating his songs into Polish so that they could be sung (i.e., with rhymes and rhythms) for 35 yrs now. Sometimes I sing them, too. And I’d like to thank you for your posts, they’ve helped me a lot whenever I stumbled into a dead end street (driving fast…). I started with short songs back in my university times, now I concentrate on the long ones. Just finished Tempest, Hard Rain, Stuck Inside of Mobile and Highlands. Now it’s time for Black Diamond Bay. Thanx once again, Mr. Atwood. Great job.

  5. yep, it’s a good song.
    Why doesn’t someone who can, make short movies out of Black Diamond Bay, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts or Tweeter and the Monkey Man?
    Hope someone picks up the idea to do it before long..

  6. Really liked Will’s comment above – I totally agree about the cinematic elements, Lorre & Greenstreet, maybe Marcel Dalio as the Dealer or the Desk Clerk. It always reminded me of To Have and Have Not.

  7. Glad to see others appreciate what is one my favorite Dylan songs. It is incredibly evocative and visual, like watching a movie. The flip at the end gives me chills. There are great tragedies all around us and we more or less blow them off. So many stories in this world, dramatic lives and tragedy and all that’s left are “a panama hat and a pair of old greek shoes’. Reminds me of the tag line for the old “Naked City” series: “There’s a million people living in this town, and everyone of them has a story. Here’s one.”

  8. I am reading “Victory” for the first time and (triggered by the Black Diamond Bay in the book) have had the song running through my head – looked up B.D.B. and found this site. I had no doubt that there was a connection between song and book. I haven’t finished the book yet but I bet the volcano (currently smoking gently away) will turn out to be important.

  9. Yea I thought Dylan was the T.V. viewer and after the Black Diamond Bay fiasco he was kickin it at home in L.A. watching old Cronkite then there was an earthquake and half of California sank into the ocean. What else can you do or say? Get up and grab another beer.

  10. So, the song has been intriguing me for a while now, it comes across as a scene out of Casablanca. The people, the setting and even the gambling room as set in the movie. I know there is no correlation but it creates. Picture that allows me to elaborate from there. Just a very good song with a wonderful rhythm that even makes it better

  11. Black Diamond Bay has long been my favorite Bob Dylan song. It is a song of the detachment that mankind feels for his fellow man and a warning for the consequences of that detachment and the consequences of simple sins of ommission and self-indulgence.

    The woman in the song represents the individual who will ascend to heaven. Thus she is on the white veranda while everyone else in the song is consumed by the boiler in the basement, i.e hell

    The lava from the mountain high above is symbolic of God’s hand in the end of the world.

    The woman avoids sin both by not going to the gambling room nor accepting the ring as a bribe (for sex). The stranger is I believe an angel or symbolic of God and his love for her who appears as her end, she is humbled and prays.

    In the end the person “I” is an attempt to make the listener of the song realize how easy it is to fall into the same traps as the soldier, gambler the Greek – symbolic of a non-believer who by doing so is in essence committing suicide for their will be no hope for non-believers.

    The end of the song is extremely interesting when describing the scene. All that will be left in the end is heaven and hell. the Woman will go to heaven as symbolized by her hat and the Greek goes to hell as symbolized by his shoes. Note the Greek had taken his shoes off symbolizing his lack of belief in either heaven or hell but hell it is for him non-the less.

    A truly great Bob Dylan song

  12. I’m working on it. Let me know if you have any tips. I’m in the Caribbean for 6 more night with my type writer a-typing

  13. Splendid review of this great song. Although the French sentence is okay when spoken. This song is a statement about how life is perceived. People are being caught in events they do not control and dreams that fail. And then suddenly they die. As in many of Dylan songs there is plenty of irony. The gambler finally breaks the bank but dies; the Greek’s suicide is futile cause he would have died anyway; the Lady has finally left her past behind (she looks nothing like that); the soldier finally asks her to marry him but she refuses. Every time a persona is on the verge of achieving something, it is lost again. Such is life and nobody cares. The onlooker just grabs another beer and says, oh I had no plans to go down there anyway.

  14. This song is absolutely my favorite song by Dylan. The sad and tragic story about different characters whom you see and know in your daily life and you yourself have been one or two of them during your life is real . I think of Hemingway’s novels by listening to it . And the melody is a masterpiece.
    Love the song.

  15. This sad and evocative song is one of my favourites of all time. The way the chord sequence complements the mood of the lyrics is beautiful, as is the melody. And Scarlett Rivera’s violin playing is amazing – perfectly embellishing Dylan’s singing. The rhythm section is fantastic, with Howie Wyeth’s drumming -so unique in style- moving the song forward with relentless ease. The lyrics of the last verse tell the truth about the mindset of so many humans alive now. One of the few songs that creates a strong visual image of it’s story in the mind, and just fantastic to listen to.

  16. I think the backup singer in this is EmmyLou Harris. When you mentioned everyone else, it made me think of how difficult it is to harmonize w/ Dylan. She is perfect throughout the song. I agree it’s one of his best on many levels.

  17. The ’30s-’40s movie comparison is exactly right. Nothing else fits.
    The woman – Marlene Dietrich / Greta Garbo
    The Greek – Sidney Greenstreet (Of course.)
    The tiny man – Peter Lorre (Who else?)
    The gambler – George Raft
    The soldier – Charles Laughton

    I’m still working on the dealer and the desk clerk.

  18. If this fabulous Dylan song has no reference to the collective works of Joseph Conrad, then why is a picture of Conrad part of the album cover art?

  19. ” … the dark, cool early-morning blue of Diamond Bay” (Part IV, chap 1 of ‘Victory’ by Joseph Conrad)

  20. “Dangerous Paradise” is based on Conrad’s story, but it’s given a happy ending rather than its original Hamlet-like one.
    ‘Victory’ is Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ reworked by Conrad; it’s not without a ‘films noir’ aspect.
    ‘Black Diamond Bay” by Dylan sinks a whole island rather than just a ship as in his Carter Family-influenced ‘Tempest’.
    Dylan mixes up the literary medicine as usual so don’t take him seriously when he humorously says the title of last mentioned song has no ‘The’ in front of it.

  21. Randomness, is the key, where you are and who you are with at any given point in time space is random, then shit happens and you wake up dead….

  22. hah! had forgotten about this song. listened a lot to Desire when it first made its way to Ireland and I was 12 or so. Back then it was a reel play for what might lie in store and now its whats ploughed under by the slo mo time machine of my life. I don’t know which is keener, wistfulness for the days gone by or the siren call of this story and music when I first heard it. It seems it means a lot to all of us here. Glad I took the time off from writing my end of year reports to wander onto this page. Happy Christmas to you all in whatever bay or state of disarray you find yourselves. Yvonne X

  23. You might like this little meditation on the same song, which I wrote just this morning:

    No one ever seems to talk about ‘Black Diamond Bay’, and I often wonder why – never more so than this morning, when I was listening to the song for the umpteenth time on my way to work, and came to a realisation about the lyric that has been staring me in the face for all the decades I have been listening to it. There is just one idea that holds the whole narrative of the song together: it is a series of negations and rejections.

    The characters in the song reject or negate each other in every single interaction it describes. They even negate themselves. A “voice from the gambling room” calls to the woman in the Panama hat, and “She smiles, walks the other way.” The Greek “asks for a rope and a pen that will write”, and the desk clerk, carefully removing his fez, questions whether he has heard the Greek correctly. The woman in the Panama hat “starts to speak” to the Greek on the staircase “but he walks away”. The soldier buys a ring from the “tiny man” who will later bite the soldier’s ear, and the ring, which “cost a grand” “ain’t enough” for the recipient of the marriage proposal. The “loser in the gambling room” wants to play another hand, but the dealer tells him to listen to the ominous sound of the rain. The island itself is deserted by the cranes and the moon. The woman ignores the “do not disturb” sign on the Greek’s door, knocks “on it anyway”, and shouts “I’ve got to talk to someone quick”, but the Greek just keeps on hanging himself from the chandelier. The desk clerk isn’t interested in the subject of forbidden love because “it happens every day”. The loser breaks the bank in the gambling room, but it’s “too late now” because the island is exploding. The stranger proposes to the woman, but she ignores him and begins to pray, because when a volcano is erupting, who wouldn’t?

    And then, there is the total genius of the beginning and the end of the song. The narrator hears of the fate of this new Krakatoa being Cronkited on the news, and concludes that it “Didn’t seem like much was happening”, that this was just “another hard-luck story/ And there’s really nothing anyone can say”, and he wasn’t planning to go to Black Diamond Bay anyway. All that is left is the hanged Greek’s shoes, and the Panama hat of a woman whose passport photograph bore no resemblance to her real self. Everybody is nobody, and everybody turns away from everybody else, only to find that they don’t recognise their own selves.

    It’s one of the best and funniest satires on modern disconnection, but nobody ever seems to talk about ‘Black Diamond Bay’. Funny, that.

  24. Wonderful summation,Giles, & I just played the version of the song done superbly- as they do the rest of Desire- by a group called, Backwoods Jupiter…from 2011 I believe…if you all want to hear Dylan represented perfectly, listen to this CD!!!

  25. HELL!!!…’s SO EASY TO SEE!!!… is about a bunch of sinners who are rounded up, brought to Black Daimond Bay, which is WAY STATION TO HELL
    … the early 70’s British horror film Tales From The Crypt….same EXACT PREMISE….

  26. He give me tan shoes with pink shoe laces
    And a big Panama with a purple hat band
    And a big Panama with a purple hat band
    (Dodie Stevens: Pink Shoe Laces ~ Grant)

  27. In Brueghel’s “Icarus”, for instance: how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster ….
    (WH Auden: Musee Des Beaux Arts)

  28. I agree with Charles Schimpf above.

    Addition: Dylan is not going there, but he may have been there, with the lady. She stayed, he left and there is nothing he can do about it.

  29. Black Diamond Bay appears in ‘Victory’ by Joseph Conrad, also the famous Mr. Jones.
    The ‘Panama hat’ appears in ‘The Planter of Malata’, also by Joseph Conrad.
    When we see that on the back of Desire is a photo of Joseph Conrad, then the picture is complete.
    Read Conrad and you read Dylan, especially these two fantastic books!

  30. And now we have St. Vincent again, with earthquakes, volcanoes, and legalized gambling on a French Caribbean Isle.

    Dylan knows a lot of things in advance it seems.

  31. The last stanza puts in perspective for me. I believe he’s referencing Cronkite’s devastating February 27, 1968, editorial calling out Vietnam for what it was, a tragedy a waste. A colossal waste of lives, treasure (the ‘loser broke the bank’ – self inflicted) and for nothing meaningful. Recall Cronkite was considered by many the most trusted man in America, when he spoke it meant something. Cronkite provides meaning but the war is ‘another hard luck story’. On a Friday night in LA: ‘Didn’t seem much was happening, so I turned it off and went to grab another beer’. Just brush the whole thing off. What a testament to 50,000 lives lost. And the summary, ‘And I never did plan to go anyway’. That’s the wrap for the war, sorry I didn’t really mean to go. What a powerful line (to me personally).

    It begins with a tropical image on the veranda and the Panama Hat. ‘Her passport shows a face from another time and place’, which in a Vietnam context could be a reference French history and French presence, when it all started in the 40s-50s. The several French quotes would support that. She quickly gets tempted to gamble like everyone else.

    The references to soldiers, suicide of nations supporting the effort (the Greek), the Soviets are mysteriously around, the ‘volcano erupted’ for the world to see, ‘the boiler in basement blew’ taking out the support and the sinking island could all be interpreted as references to the war. The Island’s collapse and the boiler going up can equate to the undermining of support for the war in the US.

    I could go on. Or maybe this makes no sense at all, :).

    Black Diamond Bay, yet another gem by the master.

    Thank You Very Much.

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