Dylan, Desire and “Isis”

In 1976, my mother, recently divorced, broke up painfully and protractedly with her first real boyfriend since the collapse of her marriage to my father. I turned thirteen that May, and her birthday present to me was Desire. It was my first Dylan album. I had been talking for a while about this song I’d heard, only once, playing over the speakers in a Washington, D.C., bookstore sometime during the preceding winter. I stood there in the aisle, with a science fiction novel in my hand, trying to catch the lyrics, to guess the singer, to figure out what the hell was happening in the story. I remembered the song like a promising face, vividly and erroneously, for months afterward, without hearing it again, until I unwrapped the disc my mother handed me and put it on the turntable.

I lay down on the rug, between the speakers, with the mysterious record jacket in my hands. On the front there was a fey Jewish cowboy in furs and windblown scarves; on the back, Tarot cards and a hermetic set of liner notes shorn of punctuation, in an all but illegible type. As the record began, I was aglow with the dewy pessimism of adolescence, ready to extend the limits of my ignorance as far as I possibly could in the hope that I might receive, as if from the perceived contour of those limits — what? Some kind of negative confirmation of the path or pattern of my destiny? A valuable secret about the universe or girls? At thirteen, in 1976, you put on a record for the first time with not merely a dire hope but a good possibility that it is somehow going to alter the course of your life.

It turned out that I had heard the first cut, “Hurricane,” on the radio, several times, without ever associating it with that other elusive tune, the one about a “mystical child” smiling in the rain and driving a man insane. Then came the song itself: “Isis.” Isis was an Egyptian goddess, the mother of Horus and wife of Osiris — I knew that story. Isis was also the lead character in a CBS Saturday-morning television show, about a librarian or scientist or other type of bespectacled woman who spun around while saying “O Mighty Isis” and then was able to stop a Chevy van with her bare hands. I knew that story, too. But as the story of Isis — Bob Dylan’s Isis — began, I felt, I sensed, or maybe I finally just recognized, that another story was beginning, one that would take place in a “wild unknown country,” in “a high place of darkness and light.”

So much has been written about Dylan’s voice — a voice I knew well enough, or thought I did, from the Sixties standards, the classic rants and rambles. But this sounded, to me, like a different man entirely. In the situation he described — a man and a woman united by failure and the memory of happiness, by passion and the memory of bitterness; the pursuit of some unknown treasure through wonder and hardship, to end in futility and a laugh at one’s own expense — I thought I recognized, in the ache and the ardor of that windblown, Jewish-cowboy voice, the contours of a world I was just beginning to know.

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Berkeley, California

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Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

Berkeley, California

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