Revisiting The White Stripes’ blistering 2001 cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’
We have had a rummage around the Far Out archives and stumbled upon an absolute gem, Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’ is a favourite among his fans despite him seldom performing the track live. However, in 2001, The White Stripes would surprisingly cover the number at London’s Kentish Town Forum and execute it delightfully.
‘Isis’ was written by Dylan in collaboration with Jacques Levy and would go on to feature on his seventeenth studio album Desire in 1976. The song captures his insane storytelling instincts in full flow with follows a man who has recently split from his wife, Isis. Dylan would write seven songs for Desire with Levy as they started their fruitful songwriting partnership.
The poignant number was written around the same time Dylan was separating from his first wife, Sara, therefore many people believe this song alludes to the couple’s relationship which was on the rocks during this period. Writing so biographically is rare for the songwriter, but on Desire, the record famously closes with the heartbreaking ‘Sara’.
The song’s co-writer Jacques Levy spoke to the Dylan fanzine Isis which is, of course, named after the song in question who asked the song titles significance in Egyptian mythology. To which Levy replied that it was an attempt at an old Western ballad like the kind The Band used to pen: “Well, this is a similar kind of thing,” he said, “and just as The Band wrote ‘pulled into Nazareth,’ you know, well, ‘Isis’ has as much to do with Egypt as Fanny has to do with Nazareth.”
Jack White and Dylan have built a relationship on mutual respect of each other’s work which took the former White Stripes man aback when he first discovered that his idol was a fan of his work. In a 2012 interview with Speakeasy, White would recall how their friendship came to be: “That was just by accident. I went and saw him play in Detroit and he said to me, “We’ve been playing one of your songs lately at sound checks.” I thought, Wow. I was afraid to ask which one. I didn’t even ask. It was just such an honour to hear that. Later on, I remember I went home and I called back. I said, “Can I talk to the bass player?” I called the theatre.
He then added: “I was like, ‘Did Bob mean that he wanted me to play tonight? ‘Cause he said some things that I thought maybe – maybe I misconstrued. Was he meaning that he wanted me to play with him tonight? I don’t want to be rude and pretend that I didn’t hear or something like that’. So turned out yeah, we played together that night. He said yeah, come on, let’s play something, and we played ‘Ball and Biscuit’, one of my songs. It’s not lost on me that he played one of my songs, not the other way around.”
The White Stripes certainly did ‘Isis’ justice in their cover and to turn Dylan into a fan of their work in the following years is testament to their version which was a regular number in their set for the whole 2001 tour. This was a bold move for them as is one of the singer’s more obscure tracks which their crowd were unlikely to know but it is the sort of thing Dylan himself would be proud of, as they followed his maxim of playing for yourself first and foremost.