Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I don't know much about Cinco de Mayo - I'm never sure what it's all about

Actually, I do know what Cinco de Mayo is all about - a relatively minor battle against the French (?) and the fact that at this point in the calendar year, it's been a little while since there was a holiday for all the marketing folks to get all jazzed about. So eat Mexican food, drink Corona and "tequila" (the vast majority of what is consumed is not actually pure agave) and maybe catch a sale somewhere. In other words, celebrate this manufactured little holiday to your heart's content.

That sounds harsh, and in truth I've enjoyed some wonderful Cincos de Mayo in my years. But there's something in me that can't get over the fact that it brings so many assholes out of the woodwork. Here's a little theory: the spring has all these extra holidays to compensate for the lack of football - or more precisely the lack of tailgating and other football-related drinking festivities.

Think about it: aside from perhaps Halloween, there's nothing else in the fall that compares to the grand triumvirate of vaguely cultural springtime drinking fests - St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo.

Anyway, I'm doing my celebrating more in the Fifth of May realm than the Cinco de Mayo realm, by listening to Bob Dylan's "Isis" several times over. It was maybe the hardest Dylan song to crack for me, and it's been a fascinating relationship for years and years.

The opening line "I married Isis on the fifth day of May, but I could not hold onto her for very long" is a clever misdirection as the bulk of the song is some dreamlike journey into the "wild unknown country" and a "high place of darkness and light." There's a bit of treasure-seeking double cross and then it's back to Isis, and the awesome closing verse:
Isis, oh, Isis, your 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 drizzlin' rain.
The various live versions I have - including the official releases on Biograph and Bootleg Series vol. 5 - add an otherworldly menace to the song, with Dylan shouting the lyrics in a frenzied, chanting rush, as opposed to the casual violin-driven swing of the Desire version, which featured Dylan on piano and no guitar. I don't have any clue how much of the song was written by collaborator Jacques Levy, but it's fair to say that there's certainly nothing else in Dylan's catalog that is close to "Isis," not even anything else on Desire.

Various live recordings have Dylan shouting "This is a song about marriage" or "This is a true song" to introduce "Isis," and it's no secret his own marriage was rocky as hell around that time. But "Sara" it ain't. Another recorded version I have has Dylan dedicating the song to Keith Richard. I've read interpretations of "Isis" that tie the whole mystical treasure-seeking journey into Dylan's comeback tour of 1974. And returning to Isis equates to Dylan finding his muse again, after which he produced the stunning Blood on the Tracks and then Desire. Huh.

I'm in love with the mystery of this song and how much force Dylan brings to live versions. He's pushing, forcing, prodding, giving the lyrics an almost violent delivery. It's a song that crashes whether it's a subtle version or lit on fire. It's not an easy song, but it's absolutely one of the best ever written. Happy Fifth of May.

Bob Dylan - Isis (live)
White Stripes - Isis (live Bob Dylan cover)

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