Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash in 1966 ended one of the great streaks of rock ’n’ roll history, one that found the singer churning out masterwork after masterwork. In the decade that followed, there had been plenty of good records—Nashville Skyline and New Morning among them—interwoven with plenty of head-scratchers, like the infamous Self Portrait or the 1973 sink strainer Dylan. Was Dylan a country guy now? A soundtrack guy? Or was he simply confused about what was next? But in the mid-1970s, Dylan went on yet another stellar run, with his epic love quandary Blood on the Tracks followed in short order by the brilliant post-crash collaboration The Basement Tapes. And then, in the middle of June 1975, in his old New York City haunt The Other End, he marveled at a young poet and performer named Patti Smith, and had a thought: Why not form his own band? The result was what is perhaps Dylan’s quintessential rock record: 1976’s Desire. Dylan’s quest to put together a band in the summer of 1975 had been messy and chaotic, with sessions that sometimes included two-dozen ringers, and invitations extended to folks like Scarlet Rivera, a violinist Dylan had happened to see walking down the street. But as the singer’s marriage to Sara Dylan famously wobbled, and his own career and life entered a state of confusion, Dylan bore down on a set of cinematic tunes he’d crafted alongside the theater director and writer Jacques Levy. Some of these songs’ protagonists were real, like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer imprisoned for murder, and “Crazy Joe” Joey Gallo, a New York mobster. Others were imagined, like the wandering romantic always at the edge of disaster in “Isis,” or the couple fleeing across the desert toward Mexican salvation during “Romance in Durango.” The nine tracks that emerged were heavy and daunting, fueled by speed and the need to make these songs feel like testimonials. “Hurricane” is as direct a political diatribe as Dylan had ever written, while “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” is as brooding and stormy as anything he’d ever committed to tape. Where Emmylou Harris’ voice had been a natural fit with that of Gram Parsons, it creates impossible friction with Dylan, with dangerous sparks flying as the two explore tales of mercenary love. These songs, and the band that muscled through them, would become the basis of Dylan’s landmark Rolling Thunder Revue—his face painted white, his eyes electric, his mind a-tangle. Desire brilliantly captured the complications of his life and imagination at that moment, lit up by the early promise of punk rock.

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