Dylan Noir

I’ll have this year’s Bobcat Birthday Challenge posted later today, but right now I want to talk about the Bob Dylan song I’ve been playing most obsessively these past two weeks.

With the war grinding on, you’d think it would be “Masters of War” or “With God On Our Side,” but no — it’s “Black Diamond Bay,” the penultimate cut on Desire and second only to “Brownsville Girl” on the roster of Dylan’s shaggy dog story-songs. (I know that most people would put “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” at the top of that roster, but personally, I’m tired of the thing.)

“Black Diamond Bay” is one of the Desire songs Dylan co-wrote with Jacques Levy, and like them it has a wide-screen cinematic quality. In this case, the movie is a 1930s noir from Warner Brothers, shot in black-and-white with the usual character actors.

There’s all kinds of huggermugger about a tropical island resort with a mysterious woman, a Greek man trying to kill himself, a soldier and a dwarf conducting business and a perennial loser in the resort’s casino. The song is really about the easy wit with which Dylan and Levy manipulate stock players and situations, then cross it with a different genre by having a volcano erupt and send the whole island to the bottom of the sea. And we end up with Dylan in Los Angeles, “watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news,” and catching the tail end of the disaster. Too bad, he shrugs, but he never wanted to go there anyhow.

There’s no standout line like “Nowadays even the swap meets around here are getting corrupt, but “Black Diamond Bay” always cracks me up when I play it.

One thought on “Dylan Noir

  1. Will says:

    Always cracks me up too, and I’d dispute the lack of standout lines, or at least stand-out cheeky rhymes: right from “veranda/and a” on through “open/rope and” to “one night/Cronkite”.

    About time someone made a seven-minute short film out of this little gem – it’s begging for it, and I’m sure the ghost of Joseph Conrad (the idea seems to be based very loosely around the events of Conrad’s 1915 novel “Victory”) wouldn’t mind. But I’d pitch it a bit later than the ’30s – more like “Key Largo” vintage.

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