Song: ‘Isis’ by Bob Dylan
The first time I heard this song I’d been unceremoniously dropped by a very willful girl I dated during university. I heard “I married Isis on the 5th day of May, but I could not hold on to her very long” and I was on board. Dylan was so matter-of-fact about the circumstances. He married her but couldn’t keep her interested and that’s the way it was, so he had to cut off all his hair and physically leave. Most of the songwriters I love (I won’t list them) seem entirely, troublingly obsessed with their desired lovers. That’s how I was; obsessed with this girl. Totally out of my head, over and over. This song was reassuring to me.
The story that follows is about Dylan leaving town, meeting a “not ordinary” guy and throwing in with him to rob a grave. To me, it’s a description of a sea change. I like stories where people’s lives and primary focuses are changed immediately and massively. Where characters are swept away into new and wholly different circumstances rendering what quickly becomes their old life unrecognizable. There are a lot of books about this. It’s one of the only stories there is. The Lord of the Rings is like that, I think. I’ve never read it because I played lacrosse in high school. My examples are The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles or The Ghost Writer by Phillip Roth, but there are many. Anything about war is, of course, quite like that. It doesn’t need to be a dangerous new reality to keep my interest, though. It’s better sometimes if it’s not. In my own life, my earliest memory of that type of experience is summer camp. One day you’re at home with your friends. The next day you’re in the woods with strangers. You’re in love with some girl from two towns over and you don’t know what day it is. You’re old life is gone, but you don’t even think about it. Your new life is disorienting and better. These circumstances often lead you to a new appreciation for your old distant life. That’s what happens in this song. Sometimes people get so addicted to this feeling of tumultuous newness they never come home. You know people like this. They taught English in Korea.
Dylan says in the first verse, “…I rode straight away to the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.” Doesn’t really sound like a place where one can’t go wrong, being wild and unknown. But I get it, Bob, I get it. The only place you can really go wrong is at home, by losing this woman for good. There are so many things one can do wrong in a marriage. The only thing you can do wrong when absolutely no one else is around is die and what the fuck, you know? Who cares? I love that. Dylan agrees to accompany a fellow on a quest for a “body [he’s] trying to find.” If he finds it and carries it out of the unknown, they’ll get a lot of money. The guy cajoles Dylan into this morally questionable adventure by asking him if he’s “looking for something easy to catch.” The first time I heard that line I flipped out. Imagine you’d just been left by someone who wouldn’t settle for you, no matter what you did, and then you met a guy who asked you that. You’d go. Whatever the fuck he’s doing, you’re going too. This is song about marriage. Dylan used to introduce it live just like that. He’d mumble, “This is called Isis. It’s a song about marriage.” And really, the quest herein is about either forgetting his wife or reinforcing his desire for her. His head’s still full of heartache, “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.” It’s a familiar train of thought to anyone who’s been spurned.
The guy who sets out with him on the expedition dies, Dylan rhymes outrageous with contagious which is awesome, he goes on alone and looks in the tomb, dreaming about diamonds and jewels. There’s nothing there. His partner was “just bein’ friendly”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The guy was full of shit. Dylan ain’t even all that mad, though. He buries the guy, says a quick prayer and rides back to find Isis and commit to her. He sets out to rob graves, nearly freezes to death, buries a dead guy and all the while is in the throes of realization that life ain’t worth nothin’ without someone. He wants to go home and do well by his wife. It reminds me of something Don Draper said on Mad Men a couple weeks ago. Something like, “I like being very bad and then going home and being very good.” That’s just what happens.
The last two verses bring it all home. He rides back to find his wife. She’s there in the meadow. He spots her, and he curses her one time before he rides towards her. I get that, Bob. I get it. I’ll write the next part out in full because it’s staggering:
She said, “Where you been?”
I said, “No place special.”
She said, “You look different.”
I said, “Well, I guess.”
She said, “You been gone.”
I said, “That’s only natural.”
She said, “You gonna stay?”
I said, “If you want me to, yes.”
I know, right? I mean, come on.
Being married now, my appreciation for the song has only grown. As you get older, life gets fairly predictable. Not entirely, of course – the unknown is always creeping about – but most days are laid out quite evenly. You’ve got to be ready for it, the routine. It seems like this couple wasn’t, then they figured it out.
Beyond the narrative, the actual song is a marvel. There are only three chords in it. It is 7 minutes long. There is no chorus. It’s in ¾ time which often makes it feel like it’s dragging itself along injured. I guess that’s maybe the point. But it never gets boring. I still hang on every word. I play and sing it alone. I’ll never perform it. I couldn’t possibly sustain it. It would be so boring. Allen Ginsberg said that Dylan had essentially become a shaman. That he was so clear and pure in his communication he was channeling something far beyond himself. That’s observable here. I don’t know what it is, but it’s obvious that he is beyond singing a folk song. His lyrics are all the more universal for their specificity. His melody is all the more complex for its simplicity. You get the sense that he could’ve written 100 verses, that it could go on for an hour and half and still be interesting. I’ll never understand how he did it, because there’s no method. He’s just an unreachable genius. That’s it. It makes me crazy to hear, but I listen to it over and over. “What drives me to you is what drives me insane.” I get, Bob. I get it.
– Donovan Woods
Donovan Woods is a superb singer/songwriter based out of Toronto. Woods is currently prepping for the September release of Don’t Get Too Grand, the follow-up to the supremely good The Widowmaker. As you can see in the piece above, he’s an extremely engaging, personable writer, a quality that makes the stories he weaves in the songs he pens stand out in an awfully crowded genre. You’d do very well to make the songs of Donovan Woods a part your life (if you haven’t already).
‘Artists as Fans’ is an ongoing series that features artists writing about songs that they personally love and connect with. You can find previous entries in the series here.