Dylan’s Angelina like you have never heard it before: the most beautiful rendition

by Jochen Markhorst

The first German officer who is shot by Vassili Zaytsev in Enemy At The Gates (Jean Jacques Annaud, 2001) is standing under an improvised shower in the remains of a house in the ruins of Stalingrad, which is under siege and constantly being bombarded. The officer’s transport has just arrived and is waiting in the combat zone, between the bomb craters and the debris: a black Mercedes 170V Funkwagen. Not a genuine one, by the way, but the Props Department has done its best.

Usually it is a more glamourous Mercedes. The Mercedes-Benz 200 Lang in Inglorious Bastards (Tarantino, 2009), for example, although in the opening scene SS officer Hans Landa arrives at Perrier LaPadite’s cottage in also an (open) Mercedes-Benz 170V. But preferably the top Nazis, from Hitler to Goering and from Himmler to Colonel Stauffenberg (Valkyrie, Bryan Singer, 2008), both privately and on the battlefields, to concentration camps and execution sites, are transported in the Mercedes-Benz 770 K Special -Tourenwagen 7-sitzer. That’s der Große Mercedes, the luxury car in which Hitler took the parades (a dark blue one, in this case), the car he gave Franco as a gift, in which Himmler visited the Konzentrationslager and Goering his Luftwaffekameraden. Emperor Hirohito was given a red one, Pope Pius XI a white one, but the Nazis generally preferred black, sometimes khaki.

And black are, consequently, almost all Mercedes in war films.

It is therefore a loaded, dark image, that the poet Dylan evokes in this one verse line of “Angelina”: There’s a black Mercedes rollin’ through the combat zone.

It does not stand alone, this dark brooding line. Blood dryin’ in my yellow hair as I go from shore to shore, for example. Incidentally, also an image that without much digging summons up associations with World War II and blond Nazis in Argentina, thus pushing fragments such as marching, stars and stripes, explode and tree of smoke also towards the battlefield.

However, in spite of this correlation, no coherent, unambiguous story or mood emerges from the lyrics; “Angelina” remains an enigmatic, threadless song.

It seems that an initial inspiration should be attributed to Harry Belafonte. Dylan writes the song when a Caribbean wind blows around his head, a few weeks after his schooner Water Pearl is launched. Reggae and calypso are in the air, there on those paradisiacal Little Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, and Dylan writes songs such as “Caribbean Wind”, “I And I”, “Heart Of Mine” and “Jokerman”, songs in which the sounds of the Windward and Leeward Islands echo.

It must have taken Dylan back to his first steps in the music business, to his harmonica contribution to “The Midnight Special” on Harry Belafonte’s eponymous 1962 album.

The experience does something with the young Dylan. He will honour the King of Calypso and “The Midnight Special” in the twenty-first century, in Chronicles and in “If You Ever Go To Houston”.

Belafonte’s album also features “Gotta Travel On”, which is already in his repertoire and which he will record later (Self Portrait, 1970) and apparently he also listens to Belafonte’s record before this one, Jump Up Calypso (1961). Its final number is released as a single: “Angelina”, with the chorus

Angelina, Angelina, 
Please bring down your concertina
And play a welcome for me 
'Cause I'll be coming home from sea

There are more echoes of the song in Dylan’s oeuvre, by the way. Harry’s from Curacao up to Tokyo becomes from Tokyo to the British Isles (“Caribbean Wind”) and a Dylanesque couplet like

Yes it's so long since I've been home
Seems like there's no place to roam
Well I've sailed around the Horn
I've been from San Jose up to Baffin Bay
And I've rode out many a storm

 … seems to resound in “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, “Lo And Behold!”, “Santa Fe” and “Heart Of Mine” – through the poetic vein of songwriter Lord Burgess (real name Irving Louis Burgie) flows the same blood as Dylan’s, and Dylan, hopping from Antillean islands to the West Indies, connects automatically. The jump to Belafonte and calypso is not that far, after all.

The strongest trigger is the chorus. Dylan started with the rhyme Angelina / concertina, presumably wrote a row of unrelated rhymes on a scrap paper (subpoena, hyena, Argentina, arena) and thought: we’ ll see what happens. Also a strategy that he shares with Belafonte’s main supplier Lord Burgess, who also jumps through the weirdest hoops to squeeze meaningless rhymes into a song. Like in “Gloria”, the B-side of the single “Angelina”:

Please marry me Gloria, 
Darling can't you see Gloria
With all your faults, 
I want you like a long dose of Epsom salts

 Or, at least as bizarre,

So please marry me Gloria, 
Darling can't you see Gloria
My belly does boil, 
I want you like a bad dose of castor oil.

But then again; Belafonte and Burgie don’t have the slightest ambition to suggest depth, of course – Belafonte is a song and dance man par excellence, certainly in those early years of his career.

The poet Dylan, on the other hand, does have some aspiration to be profound. And Biblical references is one of his strategies to insinuate any literary cachet. The New Testament, and especially the four Evangelists, this time. Matthew in the first verse (“do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” 6:3), Mark in the third (as he walked through the crowd, the same scene Dylan refers to in “Scarlet Town”: I touched the garment), Luke 6:29 in the following (“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also,” from the Sermon on the Mount) and Peter’s denial from John (No, I have heard nothing about the man that you seek).

And that is by no means everything – “Angelina” is crammed with subtle and less indirect Biblical images and references. The last two verses quote Matthew and seem to refer to Armageddon, the pale horse is also from Revelation, the tree of smoke is an indication of the cloud in which God covers Himself when He speaks to Moses (Exodus, which is also the source for milk and honey) and the angel with four faces Dylan borrows from Ezekiel, from chapter 10, describing the cherubim: “each had four faces.”

All very expressive and most mysterious, but a coherent image still does not rise. In the end, as Dylan says in “Up To Me”, the lyrics do not come together: We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was too complex / it didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects – and the proximity to again the Sermon on the Mount is probably not a coincidence.

Just like “Up To Me”, “Angelina” is rejected. Beautiful recording, beautiful melody and thrilling tension, that’s not the problem. But Dylan’s commentary on yet another dropped masterpiece, on “Caribbean Wind” seems to be applicable to “Angelina” one on one:

“That one I couldn’t quite grasp what it was about after I finished it. Sometimes, you’ll write something to be very inspired, and you won’t quite finish it for one reason or another. Then you’ll go back and try and pick it up, and the inspiration is just gone. Either you get it all, and you can leave a few little pieces to fill in, or you’re trying always to finish it off. Then it’s a struggle. The inspiration’s gone and you can’t remember why you started it in the first place.”

(Biograph, 1985)

Neither does the “Tangled Up In Blue”-artifice, the shuffling of personal pronouns and verb times, help. Just like in Tangled, there is a subcutaneous surmise of a triangular relationship, with apart from that unapproachable Angelina and the I-person, another man – but that “he” can just as well be the I-person himself, of course. Dylan himself does not have a clear picture either, or so it seems. The two versions of the third verse do illustrate that lack of clarity. The official, second version (the one on The Bootleg Series 1-3) describes the male antagonist (or the I-person):

His eyes were two slits, making a 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

… but in the first version Dylan still sings about Angelina:

Her eyes were two slits, making a snake proud
With a face that any painter would paint and well-endowed
Praising the dead as she rode a donkey through the crowd
Or was it a hyena?

Implementing that hyena remains somewhat difficult, but at least in this first version we escape from that alienating wink at Egyptian mythology (although there are actually no gods with the head of a hyena – jackals, yes). The Jesus reference is maintained, but this time refers to another scene: the entry into Jerusalem, where Jesus, seated on a donkey, makes His way through “a great crowd.” It is, incidentally, the chapter after the raising of Lazarus, so perhaps that should not have been praising the dead, but raising the dead.

There are hardly any covers, despite the success of The Bootleg Series 1-3 (1991),  the official release of the song. The only noteworthy version is from an old friend: Ashley Hutchings, the bassist and co-founder of Fairport Convention. At the time, in the late summer of ’67, Hutchings was one of the lucky ones who were allowed to rummage around in the Basement Tapes (and then chose “Million Dollar Bash”) and his dowsing rod still finds gold twenty years later; Hutchings’ “Angelina” is really beautiful. He changes Jerusalem into God’s country and fiddles with personal pronouns too (He’s surrounded by God’s angels becomes She’s surrounded), but the indecisive bard surely will not mind (on the collection The Guv’nor Vol. 1, 1993, which also includes the Fairport Convention outtake “Dear Landlord” and a Steeleye Span recording of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”).

Dylan himself never plays the song. Not even when he performs in Berlin on April 4, 2019, at the Mercedes Benz Arena. Where a glittering black Mercedes is proudly showing off in front of the entrance.

Ashley Hutchings:

 

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