Bob Dylan: Stories of the songs

Ed Caesar
Friday 23 September 2005 00:00 BST

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Sara Lownds, Dylan's first wife, is the eponymous heroine of this ballad, with her last name, inherited from her first husband Hans Lownds, expanded to "lowlands".

Dylan met Lownds through a mutual friend, Sally Grossman, in 1964, and they were married in November 1965. Originally called Shirley Noznisky, she had been a Playboy Bunny before she met Dylan. Loftier things awaited her, though, as her relationship with the musician flourished, and she became his muse. His infidelity, however, led to the break-up. It caused agonies for Dylan, as reflected on perhaps his most anguished album, Blood on the Tracks.

The lyricist Jacques Levy recalls a wonderful "Sad-Eyed Lady" moment during the recording of Desire, in Howard Sounes's biography, Down the Highway. Sara and Bob had been experiencing serious marital difficulties, and had been apart for the whole summer. Sara arrived in the studio on the second day of recording the album, entirely unannounced. " Bob went back into the studio with his band and picked up a guitar. He sang 'Sara' to his wife as she watched from the other side of the glass. The song began by recalling holidays on the beach when the children were small, and mentioned the long-ago holiday in Portugal when they were first together. He asked her forgiveness for his recent transgressions, and sang at the end: 'Don't ever leave me, don't ever go.' It was extraordinary. You could have heard a pin drop."

That first ever recording of "Sara" would become Desire's last track. And these lyrics would make "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" even more famous than the song itself.

I can still hear the sound of the Methodist bells,
I had taken the cure and had just gotten through,
Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you.

Dylan and Lownds separated shortly after the recording of Desire, and were divorced in 1977. The breaking point was when she came down to breakfast one day to find Dylan sitting with his kids and another woman. Lownds won $36m from the settlement, as well as half the royalties from songs Dylan had written during their marriage.

Despite an initially bitter relationship with Dylan post-divorce, over the who should have custody of their five children and a number of other issues, they were soon civil to one another. In 1983, with Dylan seeing much of his ex-wife and kids, there was even speculation in the American press that Sara and Bob might be getting back together, but it was not to be.

Hurricane -Desire (1976)

Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

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Well, "champion of the world" might have been putting it a little strongly. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a decent boxer, but by no means a world-beater. The story stars on 17 June, 1966. Two men and a woman were shot dead in a bar in Paterson, New York. Carter and another man, John Artis, were questioned by police officers, passed lie-detector tests, were not identified by the surviving victims, and were subsequently released. Eight days later, they testified voluntarily in court and were exonerated. It was only when Alfred P Bello, a small-time local crook and a suspect in the case, gave a statement to the police claiming he saw Carter and Artis at the murder scene, that things started getting ugly. The pair were arrested and indicted for murder that same day. Less than a year later, Carter and Artis were convicted of the murders. The prosecutor sought the death penalty, but the jury recommended mercy. The pair received three life terms each.

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