By Tony Attwood
*Yes, I know he played it once live on 12 November 1980, but “never” makes a better headline.
This review revised and updated 13 April 2007.
Having reviewed Angelina it makes sense to move on to Caribbean Wind also an out-take from Shot of Love.
But the question any reviewer of this song has to face is “Which Caribbean Wind?” for this is the most re-written of all the Dylan songs. Indeed the lyrics that appear on the official Dylan site have little to do with the first version that appears on “Shot of Love Sessions”. And it is this version that I am going to use for this review. It also appears on Biograph.
The “Shot of Love Sessions” collection of songs was recorded at Rundown and Clover Studios, March and May 1981 and if it is the detailed movement of the lyrics that you require then “Still on the Road, the songs of Bob Dylan volume 2” is the book you need, but the ten page history of the song can be summarised easily. For his own reasons Dylan wrote and re-wrote this song, taking out any references that might be tracked back to an individual, a situation or a theme, and gradually the song became less and coherent as each line started to lose any connection with the line before or after.
In the end the most likely explanation as to why Dylan abandoned the song is simply because the endless re-writes had delivered a stream of interesting lines but no coherence from one to the next. As a result we can ultimately see the song as a celebration of the disconnection of fandom thoughts and maybe this is what Dylan wanted, for the writing of this seems to have come at the moment he decided to move away from predominantly religious pieces.
It starts off with the rose of Sharon, Sharon being a Mediterranean coastal plain between Joppa and Caesarea. We then have Milton’s Paradise lost, and that’s the first line. Then in line two we are in Rome and in line three on tour with Bob.
What are we to make of any of this? No one really seems to know. Jesus is still there, but He now becomes a bit player in the endless flow of images.
She was the rose of Sharon from paradise lost
From the city of seven hills near the place of the cross
I was playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy
Told about Jesus, told about the rain
She told me about the jungle where her brothers were slain
By the man who had been dyin’, who disappeared so mysteriously
Is Bob talking about his religious doubts or something else? Everything is possible with such a varied collection of ever changing lines.
Was she a child or an angel, did we go too far?
Were we sniper bait, did we follow a star?
Through a hole in the wall to where the long arm of the law cannot not reach
Could I have been used and played as a pawn?
It certainly was possible as the gay night wore on
Where men bathed in perfume and practiced the hoax of free speech
The notion of being confused about his religious commitment is an attractive explanation several times…
The cry of the peacock, flies buzz my head
Ceiling fan broken, there’s a heat in my bed
Street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee”
We met at the station where the mission bells ring
She said, “I know what you’re thinking, but there ain’t a thing
You can do about it, so let us just agree to agree”
And sometimes we seem to be back with Bob’s favourite book of the New Testament – the Revelations of John…
Every new messenger brings evil report
‘Bout armies on the march and time that is short
And famines and earthquakes and train wrecks and the tearin’ down of the wall
Or was that actually Jericho? It is hard to know. There are so many “end of days” lines that one keeps coming back to Revelations however
I see the screws breakin’ loose, see the devil pounding on tin
I see a house in the country being torn apart from within
I can hear my ancestors calling from the land far beyond
But there is something else: the music, which is not mentioned in most reviews. For the music as captured in the first track on Shot of Love Sessions, is something quite remarkable. It is that descending baseline that Dylan loves (for example Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands) with one hell of a bounce and beat, coupled with a chorus which is musically taken from Isis. And we always know, when Dylan hits that descending bass, we are like as not in for one hell of a treat.
Certainly that the descending bass isn’t quite true in the first line, it jumps around a bit, which is a nice touch, but the feeling, emphasised by the second line, is there all the way through.
So what we get in chordal terms is
G, D, Bm, Em, C
G, D, Em, D, C
So yes, it is the classic descending bass that arrives in the second line (G, F sharp, E, D, C) which announces this is Dylan in classic mode and which run with different chords in the first line. (Actually the bass player doesn’t make the most of the descending bass possibility in the first line, where he could play G, F-sharp, E, D as a passing note, C but doesn’t. But hell, that’s a detail.)
And just then when we have had that classic sequence four times what do we get? Isis!
F C C G
F C G
OK, it is Isis with an extra bar added (that second C in the first line) but the reference is unmistakable.
So we have now a second really strong musical clue as to what Dylan is talking about. The lyrics have elements from the end of time as reported in the Bible, and the melody takes us back to a woman who knows everyone, a woman who has suffered through a relationship in the past going wrong through the misdemeanours of the man. A woman who holds the power.
And these two themes do eventually come together
She was well rehearsed, fair, brown and blonde
She had friends who was busboys and friends in the Pentagon
Playing a show in Miami, in the theatre of divine comedy.
Talked in the shadows, where they talked in the rain
I could tell she was still feeling the pain
Pain of rejection, pain of infidelity.
This woman is everything, she could be both. Dylan just falls for her – or at least for her presence, but then the outsider steps up… The rattlesnake – the ex-lover or ex-husband who feels the needs to deal with the newcomer “trampling over his flowers”. (I only wish I had found the song much earlier. There are some guys I would have loved to have called a rattlesnake in this context!)
Was she a child or a woman? I can’t say which.
One to another she could easily switch
Couples were dancing and I lost track of the hours
He was well prepared, I knew he was
Paying attention like a rattlesnake does
When he’s hearing footsteps trampling over his flowers.
And then suddenly we get this amazing chorus – amazing no matter which version of the song you listen to. Everything can change everything can be anything. Nothing is set forever. The wind is the metaphor for change.
And that Caribbean wind still blows from Nassau to Mexico,
From the circle of ice to the furnace of desire.
And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free,
Bringing everything that’s near to me nearer to the fire.
Meanwhile the woman looks at Dylan closely and announces her ex is outside, doing the usual “its only your best interest that I am trying to protect”. He clearly loves her, even though he’s slipping back on the alimony.
And hearing this Isis chord sequence, we are wondering – are we going to build up to that famous conclusion:
She said, “You gonna stay”, I said, “If you want me to, yes”
We don’t quite get there, but the hint, the thought is always there…
She looked into my soul through the clothes that I wore
She said “we got a mutual friend standing at the door
Yeah, you know he’s got our best interest in mind”
He was well connected, but her heart was a snare
And she had left him to die in there,
Eighty payments due and he was a little behind.
“She had left him to die in there” – a real Isis line.
So to slip away from the unwanted attention of the ex they meet secretly. The woman says, just leave it – we can’t do anything about him – he’s just there. Forget it. And in this revised interpretation “Nearer My God to Thee” is not a central point but a passing bit of scene setting.
Well, I slip in a hotel where flies buzz my head
Ceiling fan was broken, there was heat in my bed
Street band playing “Nearer My God To Thee”
We met in secret where we drank from a spring
She said “I know what you’re thinking, but there ain’t a thing
We can do about it, so we might as well let it be”
Two years on, the world is falling apart, and the relationship is over. The way in which Dylan re-writes the melody around line three is incredible.
Atlantic City, two years to the day,
I hear a voice crying “Daddy” and I look that way,
But it’s only the silence in the buttermilk hills that call,
Every new messenger bringing evil reports
‘Bout rioting armies and time that is short,
And earthquakes and train wrecks and the heat was scribbled on the walls.
Should he have tried to keep close to her? Maybe, but he just has to keep moving, keep moving.
Would I have married her? I don’t know I suppose,
She had bells in her braids and they hung to her toes.
But I heard my name and heard destiny say to be movin’ on
And I felt it come over me, some kind of glow,
For the sake of “Come on with me girl, I got plenty of room”
But I knew I’d be lying, and besides she had already gone.
With Isis yes he says yes. Here he is ambiguous, and the Caribbean wind still blows.
The tragedy of this song is that this version has only one thing wrong with it, the attempt to make something special and different out of the last line. Musically it doesn’t need it, and the experiment is abandoned in the rougher recording that concludes the “Sessions” album.
I much prefer these lyrics to the seemingly much more forced lyrics that appear on the official site. That version starts with “She was the rose of Sharon from paradise lost”. OK if you know your horticulture you can think about it as a plant. It is mentioned in the Song of Solomon too. And having ploughed through Paradise Lost at university I can say there ain’t no rose of Sharon therein. But then, is it really a nothing way to start a song – far too forced – or is it one hell of a way to start a song and really keep me guessing.
In the end I enjoy all the versions. They all work for me, because in none of them do I really know what Bob is talking about. But he does it with such energy, such boldness, and such desire.
What is on the site
1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
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, is starting to link back to our reviews.