By Tony Attwood
If ever there was a song of Dylan’s in which (in my opinion even if no one else’s) one absolutely must consider the music and the lyrics as one, for me that song is Angelina.
And to explain this I would start with Dylan’s own comment,
“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.”
Of course such a comment as “I couldn’t quite grasp what it was about after I finished it,” gives us the notion that all Dylan’s songs have to be about something concrete such as a love affair, mankind’s propensity to fight, poverty, injustice…. And that is the perfectly reasonable line that many people take. After all, we live in a world of science where everything is explained except the paranormal and those who believe in the paranormal are often considered a little off-centre themselves. So “what it was about” is taken to mean the song needs to be about love, or lost love, or power and corruption, or religion, or … well something.
But the phrase “what it’s all about?” (or its variant “what’s that all about?”) is often used in a quizzical form, suggesting that in this piece there is no underlying meaning, and therefore something is wrong. Stuff happens, innocent youngsters die, the church authorises and encourages wars to scour the sinners and disbelievers from the face of the earth, an earthquake kills thousands….
Thus this “what’s it all about?” phrase can indeed be about a specific event or about life in general. And although “What’s it all about?” is not a phrase I tend to use, I think quite possibly if I was engaged in a debate about the Crusades I think I might be reduced to dragging it out.
So because it is such a common phrase, often used as a bit of a throw-away line, I don’t think Dylan’s single comment about this song should be taken as the be-all and end-all of any discussion about the song. Rather it could well mean that the recording just didn’t feel right to Bob as they listened to the playback. And of course, Dylan is an infinitely superior musician and lyricist to me, so I normally bow to his view. Except…. this time I think he called this one wrong. And although that sounds ludicrous, I take heart from the fact that commentators on the works of great artists have often suggested over the centuries that the artist, in whatever branch of the arts he/she works, doesn’t always fully appreciate what he has just created.
Then there is the second issue – the combination of the lyrics and the music. Just listen to the opening verse and I suspect you will see that what we have is a set of images in both the lyrics and the music. The music is hesitant, except in the way the word “Angelina” is portrayed; the lyrics portray a more secure world in which the singer knows what he is about … until it gets to Angelina. Thus when the lyrics are certain the music is unsure, when the music is certain the lyrics are unsure; it is a brilliant artistic contradiction.
The opening in Dylan’s version with the piano has a restricted melody line except for the word Angelina, which musically doubles up around itself in a most un-Dylan-like way. That name is sung like a snake coiling around – an utterly different musical moment from the rest of the song, which is much more Dylan-like. Also, it is worth noting that singing the word “Angelina” in that way is really difficult – you have to be an expert vocalist to get away with it, which may well explain why hardly anyone tries. Performing it and getting it wrong sounds utterly ghastly (believe me I’ve tried).
The musical image is of being haunted, being somehow removed from this world, when we think of Angelina. Meanwhile, the singer sings of himself in a way that tells us nothing except that this is a world of disconnected images.
Just take those two lines near the start
I know what it is that has drawn me to your door But whatever it could be, makes me think you've seen me before
This is a world of uncertainty. Just contrast “I know what it is” with “Whatever it could be” … is he sure or know. Yet this is often what the world of love is. One loves another person, but trying to describe exactly why or understanding the other party’s feelings, is often difficult.
And so Bob gives us all sorts of images such as the multiple Biblical references as Jochen points out in his review, but at the same time what we are getting are snatches from other moments in life
Do I need your permission to turn the other cheek?If you can read my mind, why must I speak? No, I have heard nothing about the man that you seek Angelina
We know nothing of the man who she is seeking – which suggests we are just suddenly jumping into a conversation that has been had in the past, and we are picking up the end, without any context. A bit like reading someone’s reply to a letter or email without having a clue what was in the previous correspondence.
Now one way to deal with such lyrics would be to have music that is just as confused as the singer of the song is portrayed as being. But Dylan does the reverse – he makes the music gentle and emphasises not the confusion but the quality of the singer’s reverence for the lady about whom he is singing.
And then he emphasises this beautifully with the chorus “Oh Angelina” – which says both in those two words and the four bars of music that accompany them a deep sigh of heartfelt love plus total uncertainty. Those four bars [I am taking it that the song is in 2/4 not 4/4 time] are both the lyrical and musical contrast with each and every verse of confusion.
This is how we can get to answer Bob’s pondering of what the song is about. It is about confusion, and the genius of the piece is that the singer can portray perfectly the confusion he finds around him (and indeed there is confusion in almost every line) while at the same time the music keeps us grounded. Yet there are no discordant harmonies, no clashes of percussion – which would be the obvious musical way to make the point. There is just an outpouring of love.
I don’t have any problem that Bob is supposedly quoting from the four Evangelists, because when I hear this song I don’t relate, “No, I have heard nothing about the man that you seek” to “Peter’s denial from John” as Jochen noted, but rather I perceive it as the heartfelt agony of the singer so desperately in love with Angelina, but knowing that the only reason she is talking to him is to find someone else.
And maybe I feel that so much because something slightly akin to this has happened to me – meeting up with a lady with whom I had had a relationship decades before; a relationship which I still recall with affection, and thinking I might enjoy this reunion conversation, only to find her asking me if I had any idea what happened to the guy she left me for. A guy who I had in the intervening years successfully forgotten all about. But seemingly she had not.
Getting personal meanings out of other people’s songs is of course always something that can enhance or reduce one’s affection for the song. But in this case, it doesn’t knock back my love of this piece, because the music is so beautiful while being so achingly painful. The constant repetition of the “Oh Angelina line”, as (at least it seems to me) the singer thinks back to those glorious days now long since gone, is achieved brilliantly in the music, in my view.
Jochen’s point is as ever well-founded when he says of the song, that it is “All very expressive and most mysterious, but a coherent image still does not rise.” And maybe that is the point. There is no coherent image in the lyrics, because the coherent image is in the music – particularly the chorus.
As I noted the last time I wrote about this song, “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.” It would have been fun to throw the song in, but maybe Bob had forgotten the lyrics. Or the whole song.
But as for now, it would be hard to compete in any arrangement or re-arrangement of the piece with the version that Ashley Hutchings created. And for so many, many years I have been so grateful to Mr Hutchings for making this recording of this wonderful song, and preserving such a beautiful recording of the performance. Somehow the non-existent Angelina of the song has, for me, in the strange world I inhabit, become utterly real. It is as if I have known her and lost her myself. Somehow she is out there, and one day, just possibly, we might meet.
- How most analyses of Dylan’s songs mistake the essence of what the songs are
- Dylan: how the music and the lyrics make the song. 2: Desolation Row
- The music and the lyrics: “Not Dark Yet”
- Dylan: the music and the lyrics: Sign on the window
- Dylan: the lyrics and the music. It ain’t me babe
- Abandoned Love