By all accounts, it is fair to label Dylan as flippant. In Suze Rotolo’s memoir, she labels him “funny and affectionate one minute,” but “Capable of total withdrawal the next”. The relationship with his first wife seemed no different. The posthumous biography of his old tour manager, Victor Maymudes, describes him as being shocked that Dylan was marrying Sara Lownds and not fellow troubadour Joan Baez, to which Dylan apparently replied: “Because Sara will be there when I want her to be home, she’ll be there when I want her to be there, she’ll do it when I want to do it. Joan won’t be there when I want her. She won’t do it when I want to do it.”
Yet by the same token, she completely transformed Dylan. As his old personal assistant once commented: “Until Sara, I thought it was just a question of time until he died. But later I had never met a more dedicated family man.” When Sara Lownds became Sara Dylan, she may well have offered up a domesticated shelter away from the gaudy storm of the limelight, but her impact was for more spiritual than merely that alone. Dylan frequently eulogises his first wife in his memoir, Chronicles One, and speaks of his eternal love for her in glowing terms.
It would seem that this same spectrum of emotion is on display in the songs that he wrote about her, during a period where he became more introspective – not just as a person but as a songwriter – following his motorbike accident and subsequent retreat from the scene. In many ways, this is best personified by his underrated masterpiece ‘Sign On the Window’, which features the final verse: “Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘pa’ / That must be what it’s all about.” Many of his songs in this period speak of the same dichotomy he was facing: a need for a home-life and a vying force to get back on the bike.
That introspection, however, is all but abandoned with Blood On The Tracks when rows over the prosaic matter of home improvements had somehow culminated in Dylan taking to drinking, cheating and ultimately their separation. However, this break-up was never finalised, and although by the time Desire came around, the pair were estranged, and there was still hope of rekindling.
As the story goes in Bob Spitz biography, in July of 1975, Dylan was putting the finishing touches to Desire in New York when Sara came to the Columbia studios. Therein, Dylan set about serenading her with the song that declared her “the love of his life” and listed off myriad works he had written for her and the depths of his undying devotion even through the turmoil of recent times titled simply ‘Sara’.
As Spitz recalls: “Bob obviously wanted to surprise her with it. He hadn’t told anyone he intended to record it, not even the band who were expected to follow him. Those of us sitting in the control room stopped talking and froze. Nobody moved, not a word was said.”
He continues: “Bob had the lights dimmed more than usual, but as the music started, he turned and sang the song [titled Sara] directly at Sara, who sat through it all with an impervious look on her face. It was as if she had put on an expressionless mask. The rest of us were blown away, embarrassed to be listening in front of them. He was really pouring out his heart to her. It seemed as if he was trying to reach her, but it was obvious she was unmoved.”
While Jacques Levy, who collaborated on some of the lyrics for Desire, claims that the unmoved face must have only been an armour to stop the tears because she did indeed welcome him back after hearing the song, but it was sadly only to be short-lived. Ultimately, things turned restless once more and ended with Dylan bringing a girlfriend back to his marital home for breakfast and the inevitable full stop to it all.
However, the tale of devotions last ditched attempt to throw a life-ring into the tempestuous rapids of marital waters imbues the ode ‘Sara’ with a bottomless depth. In the end, Dylan was left remarking: “Marriage was a failure. Husband and wife was a failure, but father and mother wasn’t a failure. I wasn’t a very good husband… I don’t know what a good husband is. I figured it would last forever.”
And while ‘Sara’ seems like the loving full stop, there are those who claim that ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ published almost exactly 20 years on from their separation, may not be about Christ after all, but the love from afar that Dylan still harbours for the women he crooned was the “sweet love of my life”.