“The avant-garde devices that once fascinated a small bohemian group because they seemed a direct pipeline to the occult and ‘the marvelous’ now reach the new mass bohemianism of youth. But the marvelous has become a bag of old Surrealist tricks: the acid-Western style is synthesized from devices of the once avant-garde.”(source)
The plot synopsis of El Topo from Wikipedia begins this way: “El Topo is traveling through a desert on horseback with his naked young son, Hijo.” The movie utilizes “maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy” in the main character’s quest for enlightenment.
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum picked up on the somewhat sarcastic use of Kael’s term and expanded the meaning of it, reconsidering El Topo, especially in light of the release of the Jim Jarmusch 1995 film Dead Man. The film stars Johnny Depp playing an accountant named William Blake, not the poet but is often mistaken for him in just one of his many unfortunate misunderstandings and misadventures in the American west.
According to Rosenbaum, Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of Westerns to “conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.” The Acid Western subverts the traditional Western, transforming the Western as a journey towards death. He goes on to say that Dead Man depicts
“a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda — a view at once clear-eyed and visionary, exalted and laconic, moral and unsentimental, witty and beautiful, frightening and placid.”
I submit the attributes Rosenbaum delineates within the Acid Western as a film genre can be used to create Acid Western as a musical genre too, encompassing songs which utilize the same characteristics and themes. Bob Dylan’s song “Isis” off of 1976’s Desire is one example:
Driven by Dylan’s piano, Rob Stoner’s bass, the dry-sounding tom-tom’s of Howie Wyeth’s drumming, the featured lead instruments are Dylan’s harmonica dueling with the mystical violin of Scarlet Rivera. The sound of “Isis” creates the mood of an Acid Western – similar in feel to Neil Young’s uncanny soundtrack work for Dead Man – in addition to the story of the song.
As with most of the songs on Desire, “Isis” was co-written by Dylan with theater director and clinical psychologist Jacques Levy. The story of “Isis” is about the narrator who is abandoned by his wife named Isis, so he rides to “the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.” William Blake in Dead Man also abandons his own life in Cleveland to accept the position of accountant in the Western town of Machine, moving out West to better himself like thousands before him. William Blake – like the narrator in “Isis” – does not think he could go wrong with this move. Unlike the familiar “hero’s journey” pattern in myth, the main character in an Acid Western embarks on more of a fool’s journey, resulting in either death – the movie is called Dead Man after all so the movie’s plot is spoiled in the title – or a transformation that’s more cynical than inspirational as in the traditional hero’s journey.
The narrator in “Isis” arrives in “a high place of darkness and light,” thus beginning his own fool’s journey. He signs up with a stranger on a get-rich-quick scheme which brings them both to “pyramids embedded in ice.” The narrator mind wanders dreaming about the potential treasure haul:
I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless
Connecting “necklace” and “reckless” is one of the great rhyme’s in Dylan’s songbook. We get another Hall of Fame rhyme in the verse in which the stranger dies:
The wind it was howlin’ and the snow was outrageous
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn
When he died I was hopin’ that it wasn’t contagious
But I made up my mind that I had to go on.
The “outrageous” and “contagious” rhyme is bold and fun, even in the face of the horror that the narrator is enduring. That is the moment when he discovers that he’s been on a fool’s journey all along:
I broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty
There was no jewels, no nothin’, I felt I’d been had
When I saw that my partner was just bein’ friendly
When I took up his offer I must-a been mad.
The story of “Isis” through this point of the song mirrors the plot and feel of the song “Buffalo Skinners” by Woody Guthrie, as pointed out by friend of the blog Robin Dreyer:
“Buffalo Skinners” or “On the Trail of the Buffalo” is an old folk song about a group of ne’er-do-wells who sign up for a buffalo hunt in Texas. They endure all kinds of hardships before leaving the body of the man who originally recruited them behind. The inference is that the buffalo hunters killed him as retribution for the horror of their experience. The narrative of this folk ballad certainly depicts a fool’s journey rather than a hero’s journey.
Dylan – being a Woody Guthrie acolyte early in his professional career – certainly knew this folk standard. He played “The Hills of Mexico,” a variation of the song with The Band during The Basement Tapes period in 1967. Dylan took up the song as “Trail of the Buffalo” for a while during the Never Ending Tour in the early 90s:
What makes “Isis” different from the old folk ballad is the intent of the song. When introducing “Isis” to audiences during the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan said, “This is a song about marriage.” The song indeed starts with the lines: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May / But I could not hold on to her very long.” Later in the song after the narrator throws the stranger’s body into the hole that they dug, the foolhardy treasure hunt is complete and the narrator rides back “to find Isis just to tell her I love her.” The narrator finds Isis, saying:
She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise
Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed
I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes
I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead.
The cinematic aspect of the storytelling is visible throughout “Isis,” but especially in this verse. The composition of the scene is well choreographed for the audience, as if they are stage directions to follow. The next verse, though, is all dialogue:
She said, “Where ya 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.”
There’s nothing particularly special about the words being exchanged by the characters in the scene, it’s even commonplace. But the way Dylan sings these lines, he sells the emotions of the narrator. He is delighted by Isis and can’t get enough of her. Those feelings are clinched with the last verse when Dylan sings, “Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child / What drives me to you is what drives me insane.” How insane? The insanity that would cause one to sign on to the treasure hunt depicted in the song as a way to both forget someone like Isis while at the same time trying to prove oneself to her. And what causes that drive?
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin’ rain.
The narrator and Isis share their wedding day with the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the “anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.” The day is often mistaken as a recognition of Mexico’s independence day. Regardless, the fifth day of May is an anniversary for the couple at the center of “Isis” and a day of celebration. As much as “Isis” begs to be produced as a movie – perhaps directed by one of the great directors of 1970s Hollywood such as Sam Peckinpah or Arthur Penn – the prequel to “Isis” presenting the meeting and union of the couple on the fifth day of May is waiting a Hollywood adaptation as well.
Before Desire was released, Dylan launched the Rolling Thunder Revue, and “Isis” was at the center of every Dylan performance during the tour. The rendition of “Isis” from December 4, 1975 in Montreal was featured inRenaldo and Clara, the movie that Dylan co-wrote and directed during the Revue tour:
It’s thrilling to see this song performed in addition to hearing the audio. It’s evident why this “song about marriage” was selected for inclusion in Renaldo and Clara because the energy produced fueled many New England towns that hosted the Revue for days afterwards. The song evolved since the original recording in the studio to a much faster tempo. The Revue band is smoking, fueled by Mick Ronson’s lightning guitar – it’s so dynamic that I don’t mean it as a metaphor, the guitar actually creates the sound of lightning. Scarlet Rivera produces hypnotic and at-times psychotic sounds on her violin.
Dylan chooses not to play guitar for the performance. We get to see Dylan as a lead singer without a guitar as a shield for Dylan or as a barrier for the audience. He makes mysterious hand gestures throughout as if he is trying to summon the god Isis for whom the song’s titular character is named. At times it seems as if Dylan’s hands are on fire and at other moments, he is wrenching the words and music with his fists. The performance is capped with bassist Rob Stoner joining Dylan at the microphone for the final verse. They bark the lines together for the big conclusion of the song. Dylan would go on to perform “Isis” throughout the rest of the spring leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue and never return to it onstage again.
Photo by Scott Bunn