Angelina: Dylan’s Shot of Love misfired

Angelina by Bob Dylan

Please note that this review was written before I heard the Ashley Hutchings version of the song, at which point I changed my mind quite dramatically.   But that often happens!  If you want a more informed and in-depth review Jochen has (of course) provided that.

A (confused) commentary by Tony Attwood

Angelina was intended to be on Shot of Love – the third and final religious album from Bob Dylan – the one where the Doubts start.   It was recorded in 1981 and not released until 1991 when it appeared on The Bootleg Series volumes 1-3.

When I first heard it (and this of course is just my personal reaction) my feeling was that I could see at once why the song was cut.   The reason is simple: the rhymes are so horribly convoluted to fit the prescribed pattern AAA; B; CCC; B that I was almost curling up waiting for the next horror.

To take this rhyming sequence in verse one we have

  • A: chances, advances, dances
  • B: concertina
  • C: shore, door, before
  • B: Angelina

Now there is nothing wrong with any of this at all – and the A’s and C’s are always fine, but the struggle to find words that rhyme with “Angelina” results in some truly awful rhymes:

  • conertina
  • hyena
  • subpoena
  • Argentina
  • arena

And even here there is nothing wrong with these words or the rhymes.  It goes wrong if you start to feel that a word is only there to make the rhyme rather than add to the meaning or evoke a feeling.

It’s like rhyming “you took me to the sea side” with “and we went on a fairground ride”.  We yes, maybe you did, but it just sounds so horribly forced.

The “concertina” works because we are close to the start and don’t quite know where this is going.  “Concertina” is certainly possible – it feels ok, its an unusual word, and yes the monkey jumping off the itinerant’s shoulder could dance to the concertina he is playing.  But when hyena, subpoena and Argentina roll in with no explanation other than a forced previous line to try and make them fit into the song, then it just feels so, so, wrong.

The song itself is packed with religious – particularly Biblical – references.  So when Dylan says, “Tell me, tall men, where would you like to be overthrown, In Jerusalem or Argentina?” one is left thinking, “Why Argentina?”  But even that is beaten by the judge with his subpoena.   All we are left thinking is what???

And it is a valid question, because this is a superb song, with many great lines, a good melody and a really good arrangement.  So why put these strange lines in the seem to jerk out of the song like shards of glass where the surface should be smooth?

Why, when the whole song is packed with its Biblical references.  This is a song where the references are deliberately obscure, where meaning is hidden for the very good reason that there is no meaning beyond the total uncertainty of what on earth is going on.  Those rhymes just are not needed.

There’s another oddity here – the song is performed in D flat major.  Nothing wrong with that except hardly anyone records anything in the pop/rock genre in this key.  Simply because there’s no benefit and its just unusual.  Unusual for no purpose in fact.  One is almost tempted to postulate that it was recorded on analogue technology in D and slowed down, or C and speeded up.  But that still doesn’t explain why.

As for the music, its just a rotation around the major chords of I, IV and V (D flat, G flat major and A flat major).  Very effective, no problem, no comment.

So if we look at the lyrics that float above these major chords we have…

Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances
My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances
Where the current is strong and the monkey dances
To the tune of a concertina

And we have to think yes, yes, yes this is going to be great.  Taking us into strange worlds that no one has ever painted in a song before.  The man taking chances, this sounds really good…

Blood dryin’ in my yellow hair as I go from shore to shore
I know what it is that has drawn me to your door
But whatever could it be, makes me think you’ve seen me before

The mystery deepens; we don’t know what’s going on, or if it will be untangled, but we want to go on…

His eyes were two slits that would make any snake proud
With a face that any painter would paint as he walked through the crowd
Worshipping a god with the body of a woman well endowed
And the head of a hyena

This is a particularly interesting verse, since there is no god that fits this description – another reason to think it is a forced rhyme.   (Seth, god of the dead, has the body of man and the head of a hyena).  And yet we have the hyena, and begin to think, “oh hell, he’s put that in to rhyme with Angelina.”   And I say “Oh hell” because Dylan doesn’t normally fall into this trap – that’s one of the many things that makes him great.

But the good lines continue

Do I need your permission to turn the other cheek?

That’s interesting since it seems to suggest that someone is trying to take control of Jesus’ command – giving permission to do as Jesus says.   Is this an attack on the priesthood?

If you can read my mind, why must I speak?
No, I have heard nothing about the man that you seek

Oh the mystery – we’ll forgive the Seth cock-up and go with this…   But then,…

In the valley of the giants where the stars and stripes explode

What are we to do with this?  The valley of the giants is one of the borders of Judah, so that’s important.  And it is a novel by Peter B Kyne in which we have the story of evil big business trying to push the honest local guy around.   So yes, Kyne did indeed bring the valley of the giants into the USA.  But, so what, for either meaning.  It is almost like Dylan is trying to be clever and show us that he knows these references.  But Dylan?  Surely not.

But surely yes…

The peaches they were sweet and the milk and honey flowed
I was only following instructions when the judge sent me down the road
With your subpoena

Now I am utterly lost.  We are in the Promised Land, and then… well, then?   And yes we then have these terrific lines as if from any one of a hundred Dylan lost-love songs

When you cease to exist, then who will you blame
I’ve tried my best to love you but I cannot play this game
Your best friend and my worst enemy is one and the same

There is a whole of explanations for this, but in this case I don’t think the average listener who came to this without noticing the forced rhymes would worry.  It is simple, it is effective, it just feels right even if the meaning is obscure.

But then I get lost – for there is no sense in the Argentina reference that follows.  Surely Dylan isn’t talking about the allegation that Nazis headed off the Argentina after the second world war.  That is just so disconnected with everything else, and it doesn’t really tells us much about the “tall men” either.

She was stolen from her mother when she was three days old
Now her vengeance has been satisfied and her possessions have been sold
He’s surrounded by God’s angels and she’s wearing a blindfold
But so are you, Angelina

Blind justice?  I don’t know – I’m guessing – and I don’t want to be.  Not because I want to know what it is about, but because I don’t want to know – I just want to flow in the imagery.   Yet those wretched rhymes force me back away from the mixing words and dissolving worlds.

I see pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force
I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
In God’s truth tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena

This is all about the Book of Revelation and the Second Coming – I think.  I like the idea that after all that has gone before you can step up to the podium and declare yourself for Christ, and have it all.  However, I’m not a Christian so I am always open to correction, but I don’t think it is supposed to work like this.

Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weeping in unholy places
Angelina  Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

There is one commentary that I have to say I rather like.  I didn’t actually understand much of it but it ends with “the deceivers are also the deceived”.  With lyrics as convoluted as this, they probably are.

In the end I come back to a point that I made much earlier (or so it seems, for this is a long and meandering review, I do admit), the one where the Doubts start.   Take this as a song about a Christian having Doubts and slowly it makes sense.  It makes sense because it is so confused – and quite often that is what having doubts is about.  He could almost say, “Oh my God I’m so bloody confused.”

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email

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6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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  1. Dear Tony,
    if art could be completely explained, well, it’s not art, but something at a lower level.
    Anyway thanks for all your interpretation of Bob’ songs; they are very interesting.

    Giuseppe, old Dylan fan

  2. The Spiral Staircase generally refers to the path of spiritual ascension.

    The whole song seems to be like a wrinkled curtain in front of something truly meaningful, some mechanism of the modern world that just isn’t graspable.

    The “tall men” are probably the giants that the bible refers to at the time of the flood. Perhaps Dylan implies that these giants are still very much at work.

    I don’t have an actual interpretation here. Just a finger to point.

    Of course, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it said that even Dylan doesn’t understand his own music.

  3. Here’s my skeleton key to the song. It may be totally wrong, but I find it satisfying as a way in. The important thing to remember about Bob is that one way or another he’s always trying to seduce a woman. Peaches they were sweet and the milk and honey flowed. That’s his marriage to Sara. Then came the subpoena. The divorce. If you’ve ever gotten one of those, you’d realize there’s no mistaking the feeling. And he’s down the road, feeling all broken up and wanting her to come back to him.

    Tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course. Just step into the arena. (You might have to fight a few lions before you get it.) He’s lived in the arena of fame for all his adult life, and he’s still standing. Bob wanted to be a rock star, but it’s cost him more than he ever anticipated. Among the things it’s cost him is the ability to live a normal life. Sara is who he wanted to live a normal life with, but she couldn’t take it because the arena rubbed off on him. He’s coarser and more insensitive than he would have been if his work had been less demanding. But he’s still a child of God, and she shouldn’t give up on him. They could live a holy life together if she’d just open her eyes to what the Lord is making of him.
    There’s also something a little waspish in there. He’s had to fight for everything he’s ever gotten. Why does she expect a perfect love from him right off the bat? If she wants the best of him, she should fight for it instead of walking away. I haven’t thought out the rest of it yet, it usually takes me years to think through a Dylan song. But in general I think he’s described how broken the world is, and how the only hope of happiness on earth is the love between a good man and woman, of the kind she threw away before it ever really arrived.

    This is a collage of imagery, it’s not supposed to flow. Each image is a data point for how he feels at one instant of time. They don’t necessarily connect with each other. The flow of feeling is what is continuous. He uses biblical images because he’s always reading the Bible. And he’s always been one to jot striking phrases down. Maybe he doesn’t even know what they mean at the time, and maybe when he finally slots them into the song he’s writing they mean something other than what they meant in the Bible.

    Also, he has addressed a number of songs to Angelina, starting some two decades earlier. So it would probably help to listen to all those songs at once before you try to decide what any one of them means.

    It’s probably better, too, when you study Dylan, to look at every stanza as a separate poem. That gets you to the heart of it faster than if you try to manufacture one continuous narrative about it. Think of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, no two stanzas having anything in common except they are things that happened on the Highway 61 of Bob’s mind. Highway 61 is the way out of Duluth, Minnesota down into the world beyond the north country, and ultimately to the Deep South that is completely unlike the Iron Country of Hibbing. Teen-aged Bob longed to travel that road, as he mapped it out with images from the radio and anywhere else his mind traveled. He saw Abraham there, and Mack the Finger, and Louie the King. And when the song is over you’ve learned absolutely nothing about Highway 61, but you’ve seen inside the soul of young Robert Zimmerman.

    And why shouldn’t he have kept writing that way?

  4. The Angelina-Concertina rhyme had already been used successfully a long time ago in Harry Belafonte’s “Angelina”

  5. “The peaches they were sweet and the milk and honey flowed
    I was only following instructions when the judge sent me down the road
    With your subpoena”

    I’ve always taken this verse as being from the point of view of Lucifer. The first line is reminiscing about his former home, the judge in the second line is God, and the subpoena is for mortals who are condemned to hell when they die. He is only following instructions by assuming his role as the ruler of hell, because even his war on heaven and subsequent downfall were predestined and part of God’s plan.

    Full disclosure I’m not Christian.

  6. Forgot to add to my previous comment,:’sent me down the road’ could be in reference to Lucifer’s descent from heaven, it keys in with the rest of my interpretation.

  7. I don’t know , but when I first heard the song I chuckeled thinking how funny and snarky a line “ and head of a Hyenia; …Angelina “ it cracked me up and I was like , yes ! You go Bob with your sarcastic , witty angst , but now 4 years later having listened to this song every week at least, out of sheer glee , I’ve become more confused about what it’s about ! Thus leading me here to you all, and honestly , I was beginning to think it was a commentary about Adolf Hitler !?!? No joke ! First I was sure it was a witty so long sucker kinda song to an ex ; but now with the references to marching ; blonde hair ; worship, Jerasulem , Argentina …… it lead me to believe that it was an alagorical song referencing The Natzis , Being Jewish, judgement day and his Ex ,? So of course I decided I must be crazy , and need to find the true meaning of this song and now I fear I’m even more confused and have exposed my soft underbelly of ignorance when it comes to Dylan’s songwriting ……….
    Still one of my favorite Dylan songs
    Katriona Butcher

  8. Someone has commented on regarding each Dylan stanza apart from the rest. Did not Bob, many moons ago, state that each line of one of his songs could be the start of another. All contributors are of interst but a little too much of the “I am not aChristian” often whereit is inappropriate. Still it’s all grist to the mill.

  9. I like most of Tony’s reviews but he’s way off the mark here. “Wretched” rhyming??! Exquisite rhyming more like.

  10. Zimmy – this is one of the problems of having a website that has run for just on 13 years. In the early days all the articles were written by me (simply because no one else volunteered) and I had good days and bad days both in my life and in my writing abilities.
    I really must go back and change that review because over those 13 years this has become one of my all time favourite Dylan compositions.
    So yes, I agree with you.

  11. Tony–
    You should put a note at the start of this article that references your October 21, 2021 comment, since you now disagree with the main point of your own old review. Just as a heads up to your readers. At least until you rewrite it.

  12. Daniel’s vision of the “leopard” interpreted as as Germany…
    Nazis escape to Argentina

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