Angelina by Bob Dylan

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.”

Index to all the reviews of Dylan songs.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Angelina

  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. SageEquallingHeaven says:

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *