This review updated 19 July 2018, with the addition of three videos of the song, plus the missing verse and a short debate on the meaning of mythopoeic and a comparison with Gormenghast. Plus a list of other articles that to greater or lesser extents take in this song along the way.
by Tony Attwood
Long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heylin, called this “a lyric worthy of any poet laureate”, which shows a rare bit of insight, even if it was wholly fortuitous in its predictive sense.
He continues, “Another long song, the “Shelter” narrative descends from some mythopoeic realm…” which had me reaching for the Complete Oxford dictionary – and yes that word is there, meaning the making of myths. Rather in the manner of Tolkein, William Blake, Mervyn Peake… which immediately had me wondering where my copies of Gormenghast were.
But really, is the story here enough to be a myth in the sense that the Gormenghast trilogy is a myth? No of course not. Not even if we add in the missing 11th verse
Now the bonds are broken but they can be retied By one more journey to the woods, and the holes where spirits hide It's a never ending battle for a peace that's always torn "Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm"
This is Dylan playing with images, showing us that lyrics can paint any picture, even against the simplest of musical textures. And that is brilliant; of course it is a brilliant song. But just as Dylan is playing with words, so is Heylin. It’s not a myth, it’s a story. There’s no need to pretend it is something more, just to show you know what a long word means.
But what took me at once from mythopoeic to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast; that city where nothing changes and the meanings of the rituals that dominate everyday life have long been forgotten?
I think probably it is the fact that everything in this complexly woven tale is told around three chords; the same three chords in every line in every verse – the same rotation of I V IV I. Nothing changes save that lines two and three of each verse miss the final tonic. Nothing moves on, the last line is always the same – exactly as is isolated Gormenghast. It is a world of nothing moving on.
The instrumentation is also played out in the same terms of never-endingness (if there could be such a word). Acoustic guitar playing chords, a double bass and a touch of echo on Dylan’s voice.
And that choice of instruments feels quite right: the song is so simple. He finds her when he is nothing and has nothing or both, she welcomes him in, and he wanders off and loses her, much to his eternal regret. She is the shelter from the storm of life – in a world of total doom, crying babies, nails and broken teeth.
Here’s a variant form – I’m not sure it is better but it is so engrossing to hear it after a lifetime based on the LP version. I’m playing this over and over…
To me this represents the conflict of the man perceiving beauty and his desire to possess it (which will ultimately destroy that peaceful beauty). Hence the simple presentation, the repeats and repeats, and yet the complexity encoded in the lyrics.
Steve Adey actually went further in recording it and took it so slowly that it lasted forever, which fits the end, but to me, not really the start, for at the start he has come in and taken shelter from the storm. Dylan does get exercised in his singing, occasionally emphasising a line here or there. That seems to get it exactly. But if you have eight minutes to spare, here it is…
But overall, if you want an image for this song, just think of a cottage with no other habitation around, and a howling wind blowing outside, with all manner of evil lurking in the dark as the thunder crashes and rain falls. Then you have it. But as you find your own image, just remember those opening lines…
’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
Here’s the world:
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
And this is her:
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
And this is the singer:
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
She ends his torture…
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
She is a goddess, he is a mortal. He wants to possess beauty, but knows that he count – and yet he can’t let go of that desire. In the end that’s it. He wants to possess, but she will not let him for beauty is to be shared.
Always, always, always.
Many people find this to be the greatest re-working of all by Bob. I’m not sure if it is the best, but to me it passes the eight minutes with more meaning and insight than I get from Adey.
What else is on the site?
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members. (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm). Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.
On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article. Email Tony@schools.co.uk
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews