I came into a place mute of all light,
Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest,
If by opposing winds‘t is combated.
The infernal hurricane that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;
Canto V, lines 28-32
I’ll admit it: there are potent arguments for and against fear as a motivator. Items in the ‘against’ column should seem familiar to us here in the twenty-first century: fear abruptly leads to paranoia and the subsequent erosion of freedoms at home, and a draconian foreign policy abroad. From where we sit, we’re confident that a sufficiently educated society should, in theory, need not be goaded in the appropriate direction by way of fear. However, this hypothetical civilization should be one of law and respect, enlightened enough to make sound choices and employ not sophistry, but sophistication to steer the course away from certain jeopardy.
Was a time, however, prior to the age of reason, that fear kept at bay many a danger: unplanned pregnancies, attacks by bandits, disease, foodborne or otherwise, and numerous other perils befalling the pre-modern life. Case in point, Dante’s conception of Hell is, if nothing else, a series of cautionary tales for the living, epic in length and exhaustive in their specificity. Upon reading its stanzas, we find ourselves presented with the eventual consequences of everyday sin.
Upon reaching the second circle of Hell, for example, Dante is thereupon confronted with a so-called ‘hurricane of souls’: those who have committed the somewhat minor – and almost forgivable – sin of lust. I say almost, because these unfortunate souls are stuck right near the very beginning of Hell, just following Limbo, and their torment is meant to be the least arduous of all. Achilles, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Francesca da Rimini (a contemporary of Dante, killed by her husband for sleeping with the husband’s brother), et al. – all notable for giving into their desires, passions, lust; all billowing around in a giant maelstrom of bodies, unable to find any relief:
I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite.
Canto V, lines 37-39
These peeps are blown hither and thither by unaccountable winds, buffeted against will and reason. The lesson here is that will alone cannot protect against the whims of sexual desire (eros): for that, one requires the fearof God and his almighty power. That is to say it is difficult to simply reason away desire. We are in so many ways driven by our passions, sexual lust and love among them, made withered and rigid in equal fashion by them, too often consumed by them. How best to sum up this wretched condition in one beautifully refined record?
Bob Dylan – Desire (1976)
Smack dead in the center of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tours, Desire brings us songs of lust, loss, and redemption, harkening the emergence of a new Dylan: one as compelled to work with new musicians as he was to reinvent his growing catalog, write new and engaging music, and actually have a band he could get to know and trust (read: control?). Maybe it’s ironic that the year prior saw the (official) release of Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, a collaboration between him and the members of his first backing band, once known as The Hawks, and then later as The Band. And though The Basement Tapes, perhaps the world’s most famous bootlegs, were recorded in the mid-Sixties, it was this intimacy he had found while working in – as opposed to with – an actual rock band that Dylan found himself craving a decade later. While all of this speaks to the purpose of Desire and The Rolling Thunder Revue, I still can’t help but wonder what the true nature of this strange and wonderful album is.
The bleeding edge of this record is the nonfictional and somewhat biographical ‘Hurricane’, a startling ballad about wrongfully accused former heavyweight champion Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, and I think the less I say about this song the better. In my experience ‘Hurricane’ is all anyone seems to talk about when Desire comes up in conversation, and this is decidedly short cited. I’m not saying that ‘Hurricane’ isn’t great, because it is. In fact, it’s an undisputed classic; one of Dylan’s last great protest songs, forged in the maelstrom of Seventies-era penal code criticism: the original ‘Free Mumia.’
But I didn’t chose Desire for the second circle of Hell because of Rubin Carter’s harrowing tale of wrongful imprisonment. I’m more inspired by the hidden gems that follow Hurricane: sad tales of the morally bankrupt or woefully oversexed, condemned to destruction, self-imposed or otherwise. As with many characters found in Dylan’s personal mythology, Desire is littered with victims of their own selfish desires, blown in disparate directions by forces just beyond their control.
In the jaded tones of a trail-weary raconteur, we hear of Isis, the wife of a man besieged not by lust, but by an ill-fated quest for treasure. It’s love in fact that saves this man from his accursed search for the likes of ‘the world’s biggest necklace’:
Isis oh Isis you’re a 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 drizzling rain.
‘Mozambique’ is perhaps one of Dylan’s happiest, most lighthearted tunes, and sets a scene of vainglory and aloofness that many possess in the early throes of lust: a myopic disavowal of an intimate relationship’s rougher edges. Case in point, at the time of this single’s release, Mozambique the country had just gained a hard-won independence from Portugal after some four hundred and seventy five years of brutal colonial (and later corporate) rule. Dylan’s lyrics (and Dylan the person) seemed entirely detached from this fact and it angered many on the left. But as we all know, this wasn’t the first time Dylan has upset his presupposed fan base.
At this point, the album’s thru-line begins its tragic slip into despair, as we go from cheerful bagatelle (‘Mozambique’) to anguished ballads of failed romances and difficult goodbyes (‘One More Cup of Coffee’, ‘Oh Sister’, ‘Joey’). Purportedly inspired by Romany gypsies in the south of France (that’s sooo Dylan…), ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ has been covered numerous times by musicians of lesser stature, but by far my most favorite cover is that of the White Stripes on their debut album:
Then, as if dropped from the high scaffolding of a John Huston film, or a Marty Robbins ballad – like Doctor Zhivago with spurs – comes ‘Romance in Durango’, possibly my favorite Dylan song of all time, delivering a kind of Mexicali troubadour take on your average doomed love affair, set aloft by its superb instrumentation: the violin, bouzouki, accordion, mandolin, and guitars, all flourishing solo in different passages, courting blissfully together in others, accentuating the old-timey Southwest feel of this glorious love song.
‘Romance in Durango’ crossfades elegantly into another undisputed classic, ‘Black Diamond Bay,’ which tells the tale of an hapless, volcano-bound hotel and casino, one that hawkishly devours lost souls trapped in a kind of living underworld: a purgatory of imperfect collective unconsciousness and, well… desire. This track above all encapsulates the spirit of the second circle of Hell.
And finally with ‘Sara’, perhaps Dylan’s most personal song ever recorded, his lacrimonious timbre revealing a cross-section of an actual relationship gone awry, the author laments his own selfish tendencies in regards to his wife, the subsequently estranged Sara Dylan. In the end, we wave a fond goodbye to all of Dylan’s sad characters, including the one he has penned for himself.
There I shall leave it: lust and love, despite their noted differences and motivations, are nonetheless both beyond the rational control of men or women. They are at once our most celebrated virtues and our most ignominious of curses. If reason or logic cannot save us from them, what then do we have left to rely on but fear: fear of being hurt, or rejected, or riddled with disease, longing, regret?
Pharoahe Monch – Desire (2007)
Btdubs: for another take on an age-old emotion, listen to Desire by Pharaohe Monche, a veteran rapper from Queens with unsteady ties to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Nate Dogg, and Immortal Technique (you should listen to all of those dudes…)
And though refreshingly absent any sucka emcee admonishments, this surprisingly soulful album is as pregnant with yes yaul’n and shot-callin as the next hip hop offering, complemented with gospel-themed backing vocals, intimate breakdowns, intelligent rhyme decisions, and impeccable engineering on part of Lee Stone, The Alchemist, Sean C, et al.
Pharoahe Monche’s Desire recalls the grand scope of Seventies deep dirty funk bands (The Crusaders, Sunbear, and anything Don Cornelius touched), while at the same time sporting the tight quarters of a Mos Def joint. It has all the ambition of R Kelly’s surreal Trapped in the Closet series, but the gravitas of an aged statesman’s funeral. So inspiring to listen to, Desire leads us down paths of Hurricane Katrina memory, the Bush Regime, and even shades of noble Sugar Hill Gang and James Brown. You should listen to both of the albums mentioned here, but file this one under “not your daddy’s Desire…”
So there you have it: two very different albums, one very windy place in Hell. Until next time, wherein we climb deeper into the abyss…