Bob Dylan's 'Desire': An 'Exotic' Masterpiece Turns 40

Collaborators recall 1976 album featuring a gangster, a boxer and one of Dylan's most personal songs

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Bob Dylan; Desire
"That album was like throwing paint on a canvas," says Emmylou Harris of 'Desire,' released 40 years ago. David Redfern/Getty

Country singer Emmylou Harris had no idea what she was in for the day she arrived at Columbia Studios to sing backup on her first Bob Dylan session. Harris had just received the lyrics to "Romance in Durango" and was practicing when she realized the tape had already started rolling. "I thought, 'Oh, I can fix anything that sounds funky or out of tune with the engineer later,'" she says. But there would be no second takes. "That album was like throwing paint on a canvas. And whatever happened was what it was supposed to be. I guess that's another part of the genius of Dylan: He knew exactly what he was doing."

Dylan thrived on chaos and chance while making Desire, a process that was a far cry from the heavily labored recording of his prior LP, 1975's Blood on the Tracks. One night, Dylan was walking around Greenwich Village and was approached by Jacques Levy, a playwright and director who had previously written songs with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Dylan invited Levy to hang out that night at the Other End, a long-standing folkie haunt; later on, at Levy's apartment, they wrote "Isis." "He said these magic words, 'I'd like you to write some stuff for me,'" Levy recalled before his death in 2004. They continued work at Dylan's summer home in the Hamptons, writing songs with a much different flavor than the reflective tone of his last album. "I guess I never intended to keep that going," Dylan said. "Sometimes you'll get what you can out of these things, but you can't stay there."

Instead, these were sprawling narratives of outlaws and wanderers, with clearer storylines than anything Dylan had written in more than a decade. They included the cowboy-on-the-run tale "Isis" and "Joey," the 11-minute saga of fallen gangster Joey Gallo. "I thought 'Joey' was a good song," Dylan said in 1981. "I know no one said much about it." Perhaps it was overshadowed by "Hurricane," the story of former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been convicted of triple murder in 1966. "I read his book and it really touched me," said Dylan. "I felt that the man was innocent." Though Dylan and Levy's lyrics were riddled with factual errors (as was "Joey"), the song helped turn public attention to Carter's case; his conviction was overturned in 1985.

The album's atmosphere was also affected by a trip Dylan had taken to the South of France, where he had gone to a "gypsy festival" on his birthday. The gypsy imagery marked songs like "One More Cup of Coffee" and "Durango." "I think 'exotic' is a good word to put on it," said Levy. The only personal song on Desire is perhaps his most personal ever: "Sara," a plea to his then-estranged wife, Sara Lownds, to return to him. According to Levy, Lownds showed up at the studio the night they recorded the song. "You could have heard a pin drop," said Levy. "She was absolutely stunned by it."

During recording, Dylan kept several studios going at once, filled with musicians (including Dave Mason and Eric Clapton) and non-musicians. Says bassist Rob Stoner, "They had opened up all the adjacent studios to accommodate all these hangers-on and buffet tables. It was just like a huge party. And it wasn't conducive to getting any work done."

Eventually, the rooms were cleared and a core group cut the entire album over two long nights. "There was just a level of excitement," says Stoner. "Sessions were called for 7 p.m., and we only stopped at seven in the morning because that's when they tow your car on that street. We didn't want to lose the vibe. No drinking, no drugs, no nothing. It was pure adrenaline."

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