ISIS and the 1974 Tour

John Howells
December 4, 2002

A Song About Marriage

"This is a true story!" - Bob Dylan shouts at the beginning of at least one live rendition of "Isis" during the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The question is, which true story is he talking about? Another introduction has him saying "this is a song about marriage", which naturally leads everyone to conclude that the song is about his real life marriage to then wife Sara Dylan. My opinion, and has been ever since the first time I heard the song, was that it's really about his 1974 US tour. Hearing him state that the song is a true story only confirmed it for me.

When I first heard the album Desire, the 1974 tour with the Band was still fresh on my mind. I remember how disappointed I was that the reunion did not last and that another album and tour did not immediately follow. The conclusion I reached was that the tour was something of a bust for all concerned and didn't really turn out the way they had expected. Also, I had the distinct impression that the tour had put a strain on Dylan's relationship with his wife and family. After eight years of relative serenity and downhome family life in Woodstock, away from the hassle of big city life and the hardships of dealing with the music industry, getting back on the road for even a single tour seemed to tempt the demons all over again. How easy would it be to avoid the drugs and the depravity of life on the road during a high profile big time rock stadium tour? Was he doing this over the objections of his wife?

A High Place of Darkness and Light

The 1974 tour was initiated in large part to promote his new album, Planet Waves. After several years of low profile and inactivity, and after eight full years of not touring and appearing live on very rare occasions, Dylan suddenly found himself ready and able to take to the road again, and he also found himself ready to commit to a real major recording, for the first time since the release of Blonde on Blonde in 1966. To do this he decided to reunite with the Band, his greatest accompanying group, and news of this was greeted among fans as a dream come true. For years the few available recordings of Dylan with the Hawks, as they were known prior to the release of Music from Big Pink, were highly esteemed by collectors and any bootleg studio or live recordings were eagerly sought out. It was assumed that the few recordings that were officially available would be all anyone would likely ever get from this historical combination of musicians. So, needless to say the news that Dylan and the Band were going to get back together again for an album and a tour was greeted with high expectations. The most startling news, however, was that Dylan had left his longtime record label after twelve years to sign with David Geffen's Asylum label. This was quite a coup for Geffen, since Dylan was the undisputed king of Rock in the 1970s, in spite of the fact that he never sold all that many records in comparison to his peers. Nevertheless, Dylan had the respect of music critics and a very large fan base, and his influence was felt practically everywhere. There was every indication that the resulting album would be a huge bestseller and that the tour would be a sellout throughout the nation. Indeed, tickets were available only by mail order and not everyone who wrote for tickets got them. Most venues were sold out right away. This was a big event - Bob Dylan was back! The cover of Newsweek, a new record contract with a new label, a new collaboration with one of the most respected bands, the promise of all the old songs coming to life again along with new material - the expectations were very high.

The Cold in the North

Bill Graham was the person most responsible for the 1974 tour, seeing as he was the one who approached Dylan with the proposal in the first place. Dylan agreed and determined that it was a good time to return to the public eye. In fact, the album was called Planet Waves because he felt he was in a good place with the planets favorably lining up and so forth (apparently Bob was influenced by Astrology at the time). The tour started out well enough in Chicago in January 1974. The first several shows were rough but wonderful. He played songs he had rarely attempted before: "Hero Blues", "As I Went Out One Morning"; new songs like "Tough Mama" and "Nobody 'Cept You"; and old Dylan/Hawks favorites such as "One Too Many Mornings", "I Don't Believe You", "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat", and of course "Like a Rolling Stone". Dylan was in good voice and the Band played with passion and purpose, if sounding a little under-rehearsed at times. Over time, as the Band became tighter and certain songs that didn't appear to go over as well as others were dropped, a certain formula began to emerge. Also, tempos became brighter and Dylan's vocals changed to a more shouting style that seemed inappropriate at times. Some of the more interesting songs disappeared and the more obvious ones remained. Dylan's acoustic sets began to take on an air of "let's get this over with as soon as possible", and by the end of the tour it was just business as usual for everyone involved. They probably couldn't wait to finish the whole affair. On top of that, the album sold less than expected, and even though it was number one (Dylan's first of three consecutive albums to hit the top spot), it was remaindered in large quantities. Cut-outs could be found in most bargain bins within months of its release - the first and perhaps only Dylan album to hit the bargain bins in such a manner. Asylum had obviously pressed far too many copies and the number one status was most likely due to units shipped rather than actual copies sold. After the promised live album, Before the Flood (which was also overstocked), Dylan's contract with Asylum was ended. It turns out that the deal with Asylum was only for two albums and I'm not sure who's idea it was to pass on a renegotiated deal, but ultimately Dylan wound up signing with Columbia again and has remained there ever since.

There Was No Jewels, No Nothin'

What is "Isis" really about? It is about many things. It is about marriage, but what sort of marriage? Taken on one level, it could be about the marriage between a man and a woman. On another level it could be about the marriage between art and commerce. Given the latter idea, the song seems to be about how the singer lost his muse and eventually found it again after a long and arduous journey that seemed to take him nowhere, but in the long run brought him back to where he started. The song is cleverly modeled after "The Trail of the Buffalo". The parallels are obvious: in "Trail of the Buffalo" the narrator is approached by a trail boss and offered a job skinning buffalo. The offer sounds tempting but the trip soon turns into a nightmare and the narrator regrets his decision to join up but is powerless to leave and must see it through to the end. The idea of Dylan and the Band as modern day Buffalo skinners and either Bill Graham or David Geffen as the trail boss is amusing.

With the idea in mind that the song is primarily about the 1974 tour, let's take a look at the lyrics and examine the clues:

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
For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.

Isis could represent his muse, which he couldn't hold on to, i.e. he lost his inspiration. After the frantic pace of the 1966 tour and all it entailed, Dylan went into seclusion following the motorcycle accident that caused him to take some time off for recovery. I'm reminded of his retreat to Woodstock after his crash and how he did indeed literally "cut off his hair".

I came to a high place of darkness and light.
The dividing line ran through the center of town.
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right,
Went in to a laundry to wash my clothes down.

He "hitched up his pony to a post on the right" where "the dividing line ran through the center of town". Is it stretching it too much to believe he's telling us he embraced the conservative philosophy of the Right and rejected the politics of the Left during his Country phase? Perhaps in embracing traditional family values he had hoped to find peace of mind. The John Wesley Harding album seemed to reflect a newfound religious awareness, and Nashville Skyline celebrated the joys of love and marriage.

A man in the corner approached me for a match.
I knew right away he was not ordinary.
He said, "Are you lookin' for somethin' easy to catch?"
I said, "I got no money." He said, "That ain't necessary."

The proposition is put forth, and the journey is about to unfold. Is the stranger Bill Graham? David Geffen? Dylan himself? What could be more lucrative than a comeback tour? All he had to do was go out on stage and sing his old songs. Everything would be provided for.

We set out that night for the cold in the North.
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word.
I said, "Where are we goin'?" He said we'd be back by the fourth.
I said, "That's the best news that I've ever heard."

Chicago and Canada in winter must have been pretty cold. He expected to "be back by the fourth". Since he married Isis on the fifth of May, the journey is expected to bring him full circle back to his muse. The promise in store for him is that he will reconnect with everything he had lost when he lost 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.

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.

All of the treasures and rewards that would await him when the tour commenced, but most of all he was thinking about getting back to that place where he was "so reckless". Going back on the road was all about taking chances once again.

We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice.
He said, "There's a body I'm tryin' to find.
If I carry it out it'll bring a good price."
'Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind.

The Egyptian theme of Isis and Osiris seems a little strange in a locale where the weather is cold and icy. Egypt is not noted for its ice storms. Instead, this strange landscape seems to be very American. I'm reminded of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Also, remember the "Trail of the Buffalo" source material. "He said there's a body I'm trying to find, if I carry it out it will bring a good price" - the body of the "old" Dylan who was ripe for a comeback. Also, his body of work which would be "exhumed" during the tour. He revisited his protest songs for the first time in a long while. Remember what a surprise it was when he played "Blowin' in the Wind" at the Concert for Bangladesh? He had practically disowned that song after 1964.

The wind it was howlin' and the snow was outrageous.
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn.
When he died I was hopin' that it wasn't contagious,
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.

Things were starting to get difficult and the road was getting rougher. It had become a matter of having to "chop through the dawn". He had to complete the tour, even though it didn't turn out the way he had hoped. Perhaps he wasn't really ready to go back on the road, or perhaps he just needed to do it on his own terms. Maybe he didn't really need his partner after all.

I broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty.
There was no jewels, no nothin', I felt I'd been had.
When I saw that my partner was just bein' friendly,
When I took up his offer I must-a been mad.

But when he got the casket (containing the corpse of what he used to be?) it was empty. Whatever he had hoped to find was not there, and so the major disappointment of the entire affair.

I picked up his body and I dragged him inside,
Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover.
I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied.
Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her.

The tour ended and the "old" Dylan is now buried. This is a strong indication that the partner was Dylan himself - the other side of him that thought it would be a good idea to exploit his own past for profit. Time to get on with the new. Time to reconnect with his muse, now that the past is gone.

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, not quite."
She said, "You been gone." I said, "That's only natural."
She said, "You gonna stay?" I said, "Yeah, I jes might."

Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child.
What drives me to you is what drives me insane.
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin' rain.

The reconnection with the muse complete, Dylan is now ready to record Blood on the Tracks and embark on the more relaxed and more artistically rewarding Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975. This time he would know what he was doing and would be completely in charge.

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