You Angel You: The meaning of the music and the lyrics

“His fans had already had enough of this kind of song,” says Clinton Heylin.

Not this fan.

But then I suspect I start from a quite different point of view.  And really that’s the problem with a critic like Heylin when he moves from the extraordinary task of trawling through all the notebooks, all the concerts and every interview to piece together Dylan’s life.  When he says that in a notebook this changed was made in crayon, and that in a certain concert 30 years ago this song was suddenly introduced with a variant second verse, we all believe him, because he is not normally found to be in error.

However when he slips seamlessly from that approach to one in which he seeks to speak for Dylan’s fans en masse and to comment on their reactions as if they were uniform, he is misleading.  He can’t possibly know.  He can present evidence about sales of course, and concert attendances, but otherwise there is no measure of the ordinary fan who buys some of the albums, maybe goes to some of the concerts, likes this, doesn’t like that…

Of course many critics do try to speak for those who they have never met and opinions they have not gathered.  That’s not the problem – it is the problem of mixing reports that can be backed up with evidence (the notebooks, recordings etc) with personal judgement set out as fact.

And Heylin’s got it very wrong here with his generalisation in “Revolution in the Air”.  I like this song, and so do quite a few other people I know.  He may not, fair enough, but I wish he wouldn’t try to speak for me.

For me Dylan is an exquisite songwriter who loves to experiment with all sorts of different formats and styles.  He virtually invented the “songs of disdain” like Rolling Stone and rock as a surreal adventure as in  Visions of Johanna.  Plus he’s been to protest, religion in pop, travelled through “Songs of my leaving”, given us “songs of despair”  “Love found and lost”…

And he also meandered into nursery rhymes, did a lot of blues, and wrote straight pop songs like this and the crazy songs like Quinn the Eskimo.  And why not?

What, after all, is wrong with diversity of genres?

True there is a lot of half baked pop around, and some of it has become rather popular.  Yes, I can do without Chubby Checker singing “Let’s Twist Again”, not just because it is a boring little song, but also because I don’t want to watch a fat man waddling on stage.  But I can enjoy, and indeed I have enjoyed performing everything from “Peggy Sue Got Married” to “The Way You Look Tonight”. just as I’ve enjoyed listening to it, and indeed dancing to it.

So what is wrong with You Angel You?

Well apparently Dylan dismissed in 1985 as having “dummy lyrics” – and yes they are straightforward pop lyrics but even when Dylan is doing straightforward pop he gives us a surprise that most other people can’t risk in such a straight song, as with the “more and more and more…”

So Dylan didn’t like it and thought it too obvious and simple – but it has a superb tune.  Played in A and just using A D and E chords, what it does is use the descending bass line that Dylan employs in so many songs with probably more effect than in any other single.  It doesn’t always work but oh it certainly works here.

Just listen to the single line

The way you walk and the way you talk

Now try and pick out what the bass does.  It is simplicity, it fits, it is perfection.

But there is one thing is wrong.  For although the bass works and indeed works well throughout, overall the accompaniment from The Band does not.  It is not the redeeming feature, as Heylin suggests, but the failure of the session.  The problem is the whole recording is totally under rehearsed.  Dylan makes a vocal mistake at the start, but leaves it in the recording, perhaps telling us he doesn’t care for the song (fair enough, it’s his song). but then everyone wants in, the organ comes in with extended runs when it ought to be holding chords, the lead guitar is uninspired, the piano tries and tries and tries to push in and get a bit of airtime, and in the end everyone falls over everyone else and no one bothers to call a re-take or at the very least mix it properly.  And no one (apart from the bassist) has a clue what to do with “more and more and more”

It is the Band, and the truth is they sound like they are not used to this type of song, and it seems they didn’t seem to have a chance to get used to it.  Just listen to the fade out muddle.  It’s horrible.

Then go back and compare with the opening introduction and first verse which is balanced and controlled.   But the descent of the recording is quick, meaning most of this song is a musical muddle.  Indeed even the official Dylan site does not reflect the recording’s version of the words which is odd.

What I think Dylan sings is

You angel you 
You got me under your wing
The way you walk and the way you talk [note the descending bass]
I feel I could almost sing.

You angel you 
You’re as fine as anything’s fine
I just want to watch you talk 
With your memory on my mind

And oh I can’t sleep at night for trying.  [This is where the musicians start fighting each other for space]

And so on as it declines into a horrible messy instrumental and its down hill all the way.  And what a shame because it is in reality a really good pop song.

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