Bob Dylan Countdown #139: “Romance In Durango”

As is so often the case with Dylan, there are a couple of versions of this song from which you can choose. On Desire, the languorous pace befits the song’s tale of a dying gunfighter’s final lament to his woman. On the Rolling Thunder album, things speed up, as if that same outlaw is going to go down with guns blazing.

In any case, the story of “Romance In Durango” has been told many, many times before, with:  The outlaw, whether he’s a bandit, gangster, bank robber, or whatever, promises to get out of the game after his next score so he can be with his true love, only to be gunned down by his past. But Dylan’s flair and affinity for the culture transcends any familiarity.

As with all the songs on Desire, co-writer Jacques Levy’s influence s felt in the way that Dylan’s lyrics are shaped into a more coherent tale than what is normal for him. (You can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing for Dylan’s music as a whole, but I think coherence was needed on this album for the stories that were being told.) With the frame in place, Bob can add the touches that turn the routine into the revelatory.

The protagonist here is one that certainly has regrets about his past, disbelief emanating from him about the course his life has taken:  “Was it my hand that held the gun?” The lovely picture he paints for his intended bride seems intended to deceive her and leave her with pleasant dreams; you always get the feeling that this guy knows his fate is nigh. When he sings, “The way is long but the end is near,” Dylan adds just a touch of wistfulness to his voice to let everybody know that it won’t be a good end.

He leaves the couple in the middle of the gunfight, the bandit’s life slowly spilling away while the bride is shooting blindly at his foes. The hopeful refrain kicks in one more time, all the more painful now that we know the end of the story. Suddenly, the beautiful mingling of violin, mandolin, and accordion sounds like a dirge, as Dylan sings, translated from the Spanish, “God is watching us.”

It’s a heartbreaker of an ending, but one that affords these two characters a sliver of grace in their demise. “Romance In Durango” may be a story often told, but who cares when it’s told this well?


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