PODCAST: BOB DYLAN: A HEADFUL OF IDEAS Season Three 9) Isis: You Mystical Child

PODCAST: BOB DYLAN: A HEADFUL OF IDEAS Season Three 9) Isis: You Mystical Child

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Perhaps the most dramatic moment of all in this extreme expression of poetic angst occurs near the end of the performance as Dylan acts out a conversation between his narrator and the object of his love – the ‘mystical child’ Isis herself. In each line he answers her enquires about what he has been doing, until finally she asks him if he is going to stay with her. Summoning up all his manic energies, channelling what sounds like a lifetime of frustration and desire and blessed relief, he almost screams …If you want me to… YES!!!…

It is a   moment of affirmation that can only be compared to his monumental instruction to …Play Fucking Loud!… after being famously accused of being a ‘Judas’ at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. As Dylan hits the harmonica, the band goes absolutely ape. Lead guitarist Mick Ronson is almost doubled over as Bob and Scarlet stalk the stage. Then bassist Rob Stoner leans in to duet with Bob on the final verse … What drives me to you… Bob sings, wild eyed …Is what drives me insane…

Dylan introduces the song in concert as …a song about marriage… and he opens and closes the narrative with a reference to his wife Isis. But we learn almost nothing about Isis herself. The lyrics focus almost entirely on the narrator as he relates his convoluted ‘shaggy dog story’. Isis is one of the chief goddesses of Ancient Egypt. She is the lover of her male counterpart Osiris and the mother of Horus. Her cult later spread to Rome and was one of the major religions in the Roman Empire up to the coming of Christianity. Some commentators have interpreted the entire song in the light of this. But it is unlikely that Dylan and Levy were attempting to write a song based on classical or ancient mythology. The song describes the narrator’s journey through what appears to be Northern Mexico and the Southern United States in some unspecified but relatively modern time period.

Dylan’s ‘Isis’ appears to symbolise women – or perhaps the female archetypal principle – in general. The album sleeve features a photo of the tarot card The Empress, which represents the figure of the Moon Goddess and which is commonly associated with Isis. The Empress represents femininity, sensuality, abundance and – most importantly here – creativity. In his liner notes for Desire, Allen Ginsberg makes this clear by including a dedication to …Isis Moon Lady Language Creator Birth Goddess. Mother of Ra. Saraswati & Kali-Matoo. Hecate. Ea. Astarte. Sophia & Aphrodite. Divine. Mother…

The song contains thirteen verses, with a regular AB rhyme scheme and no choruses. It begins by declaring that …I married Isis on the fifth day of May. The date has little numerological significance, although the 5th of May is the occasion of Cinco de Mayo, a national festival in Mexico celebrating a nineteenth century victory over the French army. It appears that the bulk of the story occurs in the Sierra Mountains in northern Mexico.

All we are told about the progress of the marriage is the laconic …I could not hold onto her very long… The narrator then cuts off his hair, presumably in some kind of purification ceremony and lights out for the …wild unknown country… He arrives in what we can take to be a ‘western’ town as he tells us he ‘hitches his pony to a post on the right’. The town is described as …a high place of darkness and light… through which a ‘dividing line’ runs. This rather vague description does perhaps suggest that we are in an elevated place, in a symbolic landscape on the US-Mexican border, recalling the incendiary line on Idiot Wind: ..I kiss goodbye to the howling beast on the borderline that separated you from me… It is already clear that his relationship with Isis is on such a borderline.


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