How Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’ Became His Last Great LP Before the Fall
Like many albums in Bob Dylan's extensive discography, Desire didn't start the way it ended up.
Coming off the comeback success of the recently released Blood on the Tracks, the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation ushered a huge band into the studio to record its follow-up in July 1975. More than two dozen musicians were initially gathered – a violin player, an accordion and mandolin player, even Eric Clapton at one point – to work on Desire, but by the time it was released on Jan. 16, 1976, its scale had lessened by quite a bit.
But it's still one of Dylan's most ambitious records, built around two sprawling narratives (co-written with Jacques Levy, a New York-born psychologist who also was a theater director in addition to being a lyricist). If that wasn't enough, Dylan framed three of the record's other songs around a screenplay based on a forgotten Joseph Conrad novella. After the highly personal Blood on the Tracks, Desire was a return – concerted or not – to the type of songs he was writing back when he was building his legend more than a decade earlier.
The album's centerpieces were rooted in real-life drama. The album's opening track and highlight, "Hurricane," was based on the plight of boxer Rubin Carter, who was charged with three murders in 1966. A decade later, his case was protested by activists, who claimed that racism drove both his arrest and trial. Dylan picked up on Carter's story and wrote an eight-and-a-half-minute song about him, which was both controversial and eye-opening. (In 1985, Carter was released after a judge found that he didn't receive a fair trial 20 years earlier.) It also – surprisingly, given its subject matter and length – became a Top 40 hit, Dylan's second-to-last ("Gotta Serve Somebody" went Top 25 in 1979).
Listen to Bob Dylan's 'Mozambique'
The other track, "Joey," which opened side two, told the story of mobster Joey Gallo, who was murdered in 1972. And like he did on "Hurricane," Dylan paints a compassionate portrait of his subject. But this one was a bit more troubling, given Gallo's violent past. Still, Dylan lays out a defense over 11 winding minutes, and like some of his songs from an earlier era – most notably "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" – he lets his vivid storytelling set the scene.
It helped that the band – stripped of its huge origin to a quintet that included Dylan, singer Emmylou Harris and violin player Scarlet Rivera, who gives the album its distinctive sound – locked into the grooves. The nine-song set – which also features the great "Mozambique" and the album-closing "Sara," a love letter of sorts to his crumbling marriage – ended up being his last great album before a period of mediocre shrugs, slight rebounds and embarrassing disappointments left him dangling until a career resurrection at the end of the '90s.
Like the two albums before it, Blood on the Tracks and Planet Waves, Desire hit No. 1. It would be his last chart-topping record until Modern Times reached the spot in 2006. Shortly after recording the album, Dylan took most of the group, along with many of his friends and other guest musicians, on the road for the Rolling Thunder Revue, a caravan of sounds that picked up Desire's gypsy troubadour aesthetic. It would be a while, a long while, before his music would contain this much spirit again.