Shelter From The Storm (1975)
by Jochen Markhorst
To today’s readers, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has a sometimes painful preoccupation with physical abnormalities. His novels are teeming with disfigured and flawed people, but at least there is often – but not always – a function. Handicaps with children and the poor elicit a sympathy with the reader (Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol and the faithful, crippled servant Phil Squod in Bleak House, for example), with bad guys the body defects serve as external manifestations of inner depravity or as a justified punishment for moral failure.
In Our Mutual Friend the parasite Silas Wegg has only one leg, the sycophant Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is spastic, the monstrous Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop) is a malicious dwarf with a hump. It is only a small selection; it is a coming and going of canes, crutches, growth disorders, spasms and convulsions.
Dickens’ letters show that defects and malformations really fascinate him. It looks like he has a tendency to laugh at them – often he mentions a physical defect only to achieve a comical effect. In a letter from 1839 to one W.C Macready he writes:
“With the same perverse and unaccountable feeling which causes a heartbroken man at a dear friend’s funeral to see something irresistibly comical in a red-nosed or one-eyed undertaker, I receive your communication with ghostly facetiousness.”
The one-eyed undertaker in “Shelter From The Storm” (l. 27) is one of the much-discussed images from one of Dylan’s most beautiful songs, but he is never seen as irresistibly comical. Many Dylan fans consider the song a personal favourite and that leads to abundant convictions, unwavering opinions and assertiveness in the Drain of the Western Civilization, in the ‘discussion groups’.
The one-eyed funeral director is a gun and a metaphor for Death. No, a syringe of course, the song is about heroin use. It is “clearly a reference to Bakuu-Met, the one-eyed Persian God of Death”. It is the penis and the I-person visits a prostitute. One comic relief still offers, unintentionally, a Flemish analyst:
“People with one eye haven’t got depth-view. They only see two dimensions to exaggerate a little. In everyday -live -outside -intimacy these things/people blow the horn. Undertakers are (in my experience) typically of those one-eyed types.”
Jeroen from Antwerp thinks that the word undertakers means ‘entrepreneurs’ and thus continues a fine tradition; “We are a nation of undertakers,” said a pedantic Dutch prime minister Den Uyl once, in the 1970s, to a group of undoubtedly baffled entrepreneurs from America.
The interpreters with more knowledge of English offer surprisingly, often very coherent, but completely divergent interpretations. One sees the song as the monologue of a returning Vietnam veteran or a Holocaust survivor, another as the reflection of a drug addict over his addiction, a third hears the autobiographical wrestling of a husband whose wife eludes him and another recognizes the report of the died soul before the throne of God – and lo and behold, even within the limitation of such a one-dimensional reading, many analysts manage to produce remarkably coherent, line-by-line interpretations.
Agreed, here and there some flexibility is required. God is a woman, in the 1960s blackness became a virtue (?) and not a word was spoken between us refers to the language barrier between American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers, but apart from a few really desperate jumps, those interpretations are quite fitting. And all of them equally right and wrong, of course. What they have in common is: they trivialise a sparkling poetic highlight by degrading it to epic, to a story. In doing so, the exegetes deny the lyrical enchantment of “Shelter From The Storm”; that the song expresses feelings, that the song moves, not because it tells such a catchy or gripping story, but through the beauty of the evoked images of despair, consolation, redemption and hope.
It would also be atypical, in the poet Dylan’s oeuvre. He does not do it too often, but if Dylan wants to tell a story, then he is absolutely clear about it. He either calls such a narrative song a ballad (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), or he leaves no misunderstanding about the identity of the main characters (“Hurricane”), or he explicitly mentions the historical event (“Tempest”), or he chooses a cinematic narrative style including direction instructions, dialogues and decor descriptions (“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”).
Characteristic of his lyrical work is the suggestion of epic, though. In “Hard Rain” the poet achieves that suggestion by the question-and-answer structure, in “Visions Of Johanna” by opening with a cinematic wide-shot and here in “Shelter From The Storm” by word choice. Subtly inserted signifiers such as ‘Twas in …’, ‘up to that point’, ‘suddenly’, ‘now’ and ‘someday’ insinuate a linear cause-and-effect story plus summary conclusion, as well as the structure of the refrain promises epic, narrative art: “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”. Direct speech, two everyday platitudes (come in and shelter from the storm), neatly connected by she said … yes, this really does seem to be a patch from some tale.
Incidentally, the textual adjustments and corrections of the poet seem to confirm that he wants to avoid biographical interpretation. In the first versions we hear an extra verse:
Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied by one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide. It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn. “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.
‘The relation is damaged, but can be restored’ … with outpourings like that the writer leaves little room for interpretation, this is getting indiscreet – and that, indiscretion, is precisely what Dylan wants to avoid. It might be true that his marriage with Sara is currently showing surface cracks, but the artist allows reflections only in universal, generally applicable terms.
He does not write ‘confessional songs’ and even wants to avoid the suspicion of it – and so he deletes such a verse. The same applies to smaller interventions (he changes she gave me a lethal dose into they gave me a lethal dose, for example).
It does not help, not in the longer term either. To this day, the biographical interpretation, also among professional Dylanologists, is the most popular. And in doing so, son Jakob is always quoted, who is said to once have stated that “I hear my parents talking” when he listens to Blood On The Tracks.
The Vietnam, Holocaust and Second World War interpreters are guided by the first images that the song evokes. They indeed invite to war associations. Toil and blood Dylan borrows from Churchill’s first speech as prime minister, in The House of Commons on 13 May 1940: I have nothing to offer but toil, blood and sweat.
The opening words also have something British; “Twas in another lifetime” reminds of Dickens’ opening of A Tale Of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and that sublime second line when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud. inevitably summons up war scenes.
In the third line, however, the poet takes a turn to the Bible. Distinctive jargon as ‘void of form’ and ‘wilderness’ comes from Genesis. Again: not to be missed. Already the second line from the Bible is And the earth was without form, and void (Gen. 1:2), in the further course of Genesis the term wilderness occurs seven times.
Together, it is a chilling portrait of the disheartening emptiness from which the desperate I-person is saved. And that is not all; the song is a necklace with ten sparkling gems – each verse being more beautiful than the next.
The artifice of the first verse, connecting war rhetoric with Biblical idiom, returns a few times, with the same strength. Interpreters of course notice that the first person chronicler identifies himself with Jesus (he wears a crown of thorns, his clothes are gambled away), but again deny the lyrical power of the chosen images: they are metaphors. The protagonist does not say ‘I am Jesus’, but she freed me from my crown of thorns, in other words: she eased my pain.
Here and there we see signs that Dylan’s associative spirit has led the pen, that he has let the stream of consciousness flow again. The deputy walks on hard nails revives “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” from Dr. John, and one of the best known lines, beauty walks a razor’s edge is a beautiful contamination of Byron’s She walks in beauty and the expression walking on a razor’s edge.
Noteworthy, especially given the classic standing of “Shelter From The Storm”, is the fact that there still seem to be some errors, both in the official publication of the lyrics (Lyrics 1961-2012, for example) and on Dylan’s site bobdylan.com. That weird grammatical archaism in not a word was spoke between us and the transcription of futile horn, in particular. The various studio versions sound more like feudal horn, the live version on Hard Rain leaves little doubt; Dylan really sings a d. A feudal horn does sound a lot tougher, more warlike than a futile horn, of course – although futile can also mean ‘fruitless, in vain’ and then in any case, with respect to content, fits the previous nothing really matters much. Remarkable, but not too important. The one-eyed mortician who blows a horn remains an ominous, Hieronymus Bosch-like image either way.
The mythical status of the song does not discourage. Even among the professionals there are dozens of artists having a go at a cover and that is brave. It is a fairly long song, with no variation in the accompaniment (from the beginning to the end the same three chords), so in order to enthral the listener from start to finish, quite a lot of performance skills are required.
Predictably, even the usual suspects fail more often than they succeed. Barb Jungr flees to an unsophisticated jazz arrangement and ditto vocals, Jimmy LaFave does not know how to hold the attention and even Manfred Mann, who often likes to play the song, is sterile and unimaginative this time.
Much more successful is the version by Rodney Crowell with Emmylou Harris. Sultry, sober and perfectly restrained, but he does cheat a little: Crowell transposes a few couplets to a different key and thus actually adds chords. Forgiveable – it is a beautiful rendition, thanks also to Emmylou (on The Outsider, 2005).
A division and a lot of speeds lower Steve Adey runs his slow laps. The English minimalist sounds like a copy of John Cale and his dragging covers can turn out to be sleep-inducing, but this hypnotic version of “Shelter From The Storm” works perfectly. On a monotonous sequence of three piano chords, halfway a cello draws long, languid lines and a crisp guitar occasionally sparkles bright accents. Depressing, yes. And very compelling (All Things Real, 2006).
The approval of the master himself only Cassandra Wilson receives, even before he has heard her version. In the Time Magazine interview with John Farley, September 2001, Dylan sings, unrequited, her qualities:
“Among the few contemporary acts that excite him is jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. ‘She is one of my favorite singers today,’ says Dylan. ‘I heard her version of Death Letter Blues—gave me the chills. I love everything she does.’ He says he would like to see her cover some of his songs.
Cassandra does not give him a chance to change his mind. Immediately on her next album, Belly Of The Sun (2002), she performs a chillingly beautiful version of “Shelter From The Storm”, full of pent-up suspense, a slightly hoarse, muffled and most of all sensitive, lyrical execution.
Sending enough chills down Dylan’s spine to turn him into a Dickens sub-character, undoubtedly.
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