Sara, the closing song on the Desire album, is one of its most complex; it is also its most moving track, a painful, beautiful, sad and ultimately doomed love song for the wife who was slipping away, or being pushed away by a man who knew not what he wanted anymore. Anyone unaware of Bob and Sara's marriage and its rockiness at the time would think that the song is a straight forward love letter to a soul mate, a loved one without whom life would be not worth living. But as many know, the track is a complicated affair, written by a man who had spent a whole album a year earlier documenting their near fatal rift, telling her in Idiot Wind that she was so stupid he was surprised she could remember how to breathe. But here, on her namesake song, Dylan is in a totally different mood.
"Bob had been fooling around with Sara (the song) for a while," Jacques Levy recalled. "He'd got the choruses down but the verses were actually written at this place on Long Island where we stayed. Out there are all the dunes and beaches and all that stuff mentioned in the song. He would try things out on me, but it was a very personal song for him to write."
Though the song is blatantly about Sara, the woman as she was to him in his most romantic of hearts, he still insisted to interviewers that there was more to it than a simple song of love and adoration. "When people say Sara was written for 'his wife Sara' it doesn't necessarily have to be about her," Bob explained. "Just because my wife's name is Sara. Anyway, was it the real Sara or the Sara in the dream? I still don't know..."
The last line there, which Dylan uttered to Rolling Stone in 1978, is one of the most fascinating admittances in Dylan history. It reveals the layer of meaning so many Dylan fans see in his work but which we are dissed for seeing in the first place. This validates such dissection. Sara is, on face value, a song of purity; he is pouring out his heart, telling her how much she means to him, singing with joy of the good times they had with their children, as a family, such intimate memories that we feel intrusive just listening in. It appears that the sincerity here is pure, from the heart, a guttural reaction in song which he just had to get down on tape.
However, with Dylan pondering whether this Sara is the real one or the mysterious "dream Sara", a whole new theory is opened. How much of Dylan's work is fantastical, dream-like, conjured from the depths of an idealised reality? Levy did mention that many of the locations mentioned in the song reflected the atmosphere in which he wrote the verses, which is also rather telling in itself. One cannot help but picture Dylan sitting by the window with pen in hand, overlooking the sand; seeing visions, perhaps from the past, perhaps envisioned by his own mind, of him and the children fooling around in the water, filling buckets, making sand castles.
Sara is a cry of despair, and this is evident from the chorus where he calls out her name like a child wanting his mother. There isn't just neediness here, but a desperate plea for the woman who once provided so much calm for him, the one who cared and gave him a family. He still had the key to her door, but he insisted on trying it out on other doors, neglecting the loyal wife he once adored for tempting sirens. By the time he had realised what she truly meant to him, she was already slipping away. The song conjures up the image of his estranged wife floating off in the sea on some old wooden raft, with Dylan swimming after her, like a baby trying to return to his mother's womb. It's gut wrenchingly sad, and Dylan has never sounded so utterly weak, drained and delirious with confusion ever again.
Dylan opens himself up here, but a part of us has to be cynical just how true and personal he is being. For instance, when he confesses that he wrote the Blonde on Blonde closing epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for her, staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, the confession is too naked and literal for a Dylan who had spent most of his time clouded in secrecy within song. Here though, his admittance, coming as something of a revelation to Dylan die hards at the time, may seem a little forced.
What stops the song being a totally idealised vision of Sara is the fact that Dylan played it to her when she visited the studio during the Desire sessions. When he knew she was coming, he got the band together and recorded the song, in a single take mind you (how the hell did they achieve such power in one take?). Bob found that his song won her over. They briefly reconciled and reignited their love, but it did not last for long. Sara was there on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and was even roped in, alongside Joan Baez, to act in the plain weird Renaldo and Clara film, which was essentially like spending 4 hours inside the multi faceted head of Bob Dylan, both the man and the myth. But it was too late. Sara had already begun to slip away. And fittingly, Sara was soon replaced in the live set with Idiot Wind, a more venomous and vitriolic portrait of his wife.
Musically, it's one of the most straight forward but no less affecting songs on the album, pulling at the heart strings but remaining honest and true, never sentimental or manipulative. No, the album is too good for any of that. The violin softly floats across the mix, Stoner and Wyeth keep it simple on the drums and bass, while Dylan strums the acoustic and gives one of his most stunning vocal performances of all time. It's heart breaking, goes right for the gut and reaches the same kind of haunted level You're A Big Girl Now does, the lovelorn ballad from Blood on the Tracks, another song we can assume is about Sara... Or is it? And if it is, is that too a romanticised, dream version of Sara? Who knows?
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