The song, Angelina, is an outtake from the album, Shot Of Love, being the last release of Dylan’s so called "reborn Christian" or "gospel" period (1979-1981). An outtake? Why? A brilliant song like this? Alright, I don’t know why Dylan chose to exclude the song, but some say that it was his producer, Chuck Plotkin, who argued against it. But honestly, it doesn’t really fit into that album. I don’t know where it fits. However that may be, it's a brilliant, mysterious, enigmatic song, not easily interpreted. Which I nonetheless will attempt to do.
Fortunately Angelina has later been released on The Bootleg Series 1-3. The accompanying booklet refers to the song as follows:
How to comment on this extraordinary piece of Writing? Recorded at the Shot Of Love sessions of April-May 1980, "Angelina" is unlike anything else Bob Dylan has ever written—part Cocteau film, part Braque painting, totally surreal, it defies logic and heads off for the deepest, darkest parts of poetic mystery. Though Dylan has never commented about this song in public, chances are that he'd confess that it was as much a mystery to him as to anyone else.
Whether the song has been a mystery to Dylan himself, I don't know. It is true, though, that it’s a mysterious song. It’s enigmatic, you are spellbound. Great set of lyrics, but what are they about? They sound like a vision of doom, of destiny; it's about tearing down false idols. But there is hope – a bleak one, it seems – for the one who dares take the needed step.
We shall come to that soon. But try to look at the song the way you look at an impressionistic painting. You take two steps back and then you watch how the sum of the dots make out a meaningful entity. In this case what appears is a narrative, a sequence of events in progress. At least that's the way I see it.
The song is introduced by solo piano, immediately followed by Dylan’s voice. A rich and powerful combination in perfect accordance with the opening lyrics. The backing choir soon joins softly in and succeedingly we hear bass and organ. All kept very low-key. Between 1st and 2nd verse the angel-choir gains power and a discreet snare is introduced. The music is working itself up through the second verse until full power is reached in the refrain. But then 3rd verse takes off in a somewhat subdued way thus enhancing the dramatic effect and supporting the feeling of destiny at work. The sound regains power throughout the second half of the 3rd verse which goes well with the definite statement in the lyrics. The 4th and 5th verse … what can I say? The progressing drama in the lyrics is convincingly mirrored by the music. The guitar comes in play and even a mandolin, making the band complete. The vocal gets more and more emotional from the refrain of verse 4 and to the end of the song.
Anyway, as enigmatic the lyrics may be, it appears that there is a certain code, a code that can be broken. If you want to keep the magic intact, you better stop reading now.
It’s a narrative then, a story working itself up to a final conclusion. And furthermore there is a certain scheme, repeated from verse to verse. Roughly spoken: The first four lines of each verse set the stage, so to say. The last four lines represent the actions taken within this framework. As a matter of fact there are only left three lines for the action part, because the fourth and last line is the word "Angelina" in all verses except the fourth.
There are four persons taking part in the story. There is an "I" and there is a "You". Then there is a "he" and a "she". Four persons acting or so it seems. In fact there is only one person acting: the narrator, the "I"-person. And two of the other persons are not even real persons, but projections. The "You"-person, Angelina, is not acting, she’s reacting. She is under siege. She is confronted with a deathly demand and she can’t escape. Our narrator is sent out – or sends himself out? – as an messenger of doom, if not death.
We are taking off in a rather light mood, 1st verse:
Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances
My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances
Where the current is strong and the monkey dances
To the tune of a concertina
Nice! The narrator proudly presents himself as a person open to whatever shall befall, a person led more by his feelings than by reason. A courageous person, but also a person who cherises life in it’s many aspects.
But there is work to be done, a task to be performed:
Blood dryin’ in my yellow hair as I go from shore to shore
I know what it is that has drawn me to your door
But whatever could it be, makes you think you’ve seen me before
The narrator has obviously set out on a challenging journey and it has not been an easy road. The "You"-person, Angelina, now enters the scene, and the narrator declares that he knows what it’s all about, but wonders how Angelina can recognize him, although only faintly.
It’s time now to get a bit more hold of the story. The narrator and Angelina seem to be lovers but Angelina lives by substitutes. She doesn’t see any of the two as they really are. She sees them the way she would like them to be, she makes projections. That’s what the third line expresses. That’s why it is surprising that she recognizes him at all.
Let us take a closer look at Angelina's projection of the "I"-person, the narrator:
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
The nightmare of any mother-in-law. A dangerous man. Resourceful but dangerous. Our narrator too is resourceful and he is dangerous if challenged, but something evil and vile has been added to the "he"-person. The woman with the head of a hyena gives associations to the Egyptian deity, Anubis with the jackal head. The god of mummification and the protector of the dead body. He (still the projection of the "I"-person, the narrator) is said to worship this deity.
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
So much for the nature of Mr. Snake-eye; here comes the action. What happens in those four lines is that the narrator apparently has been subjected to some kind of interrogation to which he refers sarcastically. Angelina wants to know if he knows anything about Snake-eye and of course he does, but he denies. This whole exercise is basically about destroying false idols, so: "No, haven’t seen him."
Next scenery, 3rd verse:
In the valley of the giants where the stars and stripes explode
The peaches they were sweet and the milk and honey flowed
I was only following instructions when the judge sent me down the road
With your subpoena
Um, yes, it’s about where the narrator comes from and why. That much is clear. We are told that he originates from a place inhabited by strong and righteous people. The reference to USA seems obvious but I think that "stars and stripes" is merely a symbol of power. And yet…
There is a small but interesting addition to this. One night Dylan is sitting with Bono from the rock band U2, having a beer or two. Dylan tells a story about where America was born. It was up North by the shores of The Great Lake, in the Mesabi Range. There is a wooden statue there depicting a viking-like figure. Anyway, Mesabi is a Djibwa word, an Indian word, meaning Land of Giants. Dylan was born and raised in this very part of the country (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, p. 175). One does sense a connection here, right?
But he is leaving these powerful regions because he has to. He is sent. By a judge, it’s said. Or an internal moral or religious demand, perhaps? Anyway, some high instance, if not the highest. And with him he brings a summon to The High Court. The verdict of Angelina is set in motion.
That’s the situation, and our Executioner of Justice speaks to her:
When you cease to exist, then who will you blame
I’ve tried my best to love you but I cannot play this game
Your best friend and my worst enemy is one and the same
Why must Angelina cease to exist? Wasn't the idea that the projections should disappear, not Angelina, the loved one. The answer is found in the third line. Illusion is the best friend and worst enemy. Illusion must vanish. But if you live on illusions, what is left then when illusions are gone? Therefore Angelina, stripped of illusions, must cease to exist. Our narrator "cannot play this game", and he won’t, so Angelina has to face reality even if the result will be that she must vanish. The final round can begin.
Verse 4: The battle is already raging:
There’s a black Mercedes rollin’ through the combat zone
Your servants are half dead, you’re down to the bone
Tell me, tall men, where would you like to be overthrown
In Jerusalem or Argentina?
Who may sit in that ominous black Mercedes? Not just interested VIP’s I guess. It looks to me more like referees who shall tell right from wrong. The battle has gone badly for Angelina and her combat team, and the prospects aren’t good. Our hero mocks them. Self confidently he assures them that not only are they going to be overthrown, but boldly asks them where they want it to happen. Your choice, boys. We can afford to be magnanimous.
But precisely why Jerusalem and Argentina? Well, Argentina is easy, it rhymes with Angelina. But Jerusalem, then? In what way are they supposed to be opposites? I don’t know, but I happened to hear some historical fact. It was about the former nazi Adolf Eichmann. He had lived for years in safety in Argentina and had grown an old man, when the Israeli intelligence service captures him. He was convicted in Israel, but some felt pity for the old man and suggested he’d be sent back to Argentina. He stayed in prison in Israel till his death though, but imagine what would have happened, had he been sent back. He would be frozen out by his own people who wouldn’t trust him anymore, and who didn’t want to be seen in his company. There would be no life for him. In other words, tall men, pick your choice.
She was stolen from her mother when she was three days old
Now her vengeance has been satisfied and her possessions have been sold
He’s surrounded by God’s angels and she’s wearin’ a blindfold
But so are you, Angelina
Finally we have some further notifications about Angelina’s own image of herself, the "she"-person. She was never allowed to have an existence of her own and now she wants revenge. She goes to trial with determination. Everything has been taken from her and it is easy for her now to cast away illusions, and so she does, and that’s her vengeance. And now "he" and "she" stand together in the ring of fire. I can’t tell for sure if God’s angels are guarding "him" from escape, or if they honour him for accepting his verdict willingly? I think both notions are meaningful, one way or the other. But "she" has certainly volunteered, standing blindfolded. A goddess of justice or just receiving her doom willingly?
Angelina herself is blindfolded, too, but for other reasons. First of all, she is the accused in this trial, the one who is to be executed in the name of Justice. But there is another obvious reason. Angelina has gone blindly through life, and now she shall go blinded into death. She never wanted to face reality anyway, so she hides ostrich-wise.
Dylan gets really emotional in the refrain. There is almost like a sob after each "Oh", and he sings the rest of the song with strong emotion.
5th and last verse: The end of all times is upon our heads:
I see pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force
I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
In God’s truth may you tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena
We may continue from here to interpret the lyrics in a strict psychological way. The psychologist, C. G. Jung, would speak of "individuation process" and "archetypes", and he would be right from his point of view. But to Jung all this also had a religious aspect. And furthermore knowing that Dylan was very explicit about his religious beliefs at the time, it makes good sense to interpret the symbols religiously.
I do not pretend to be a biblical scholar, but I can see that much that we have strong apocalyptical symbols setting this scene. In the Books of Ezekiel and Revelation you’ll find imagery like this. It’s about doomsday coming, and doomsday it is. For Angelina, at least. Speaking with Jung or speaking with the Bible, it’s the same thing. The road to individuation and the road to redemption is shit. It’s a path you don't want to tread.
So Angelina is in deep trouble, but there is one chance for her. The same chance we are all given, to take full responsibility for your own existence. "Just step into the arena". Become! is the demand. Take the responsibility of existence upon you. Fight your own fights, don’t let others do it for you. It may be of minor relevance, but I can’t help thinking of one of Dylan’s most important songs throughout his career, the pop-history milestone Like A Rolling Stone, from the album Highway 61 Revisited (released 1966), where he sings, "Don’t let other people get your kicks for you". It’s basically the same thing he is talking about at that early stage, but without these definitive philosophical and/or religious notions of doom, death, and promise of rebirth. Our Angelina from the year of 1981 (an angel to become?) is hanging between Heaven and Hell.
Anyway, do it! "Step into the arena", the narrator almost pleads. It is the key sentence of the whole song, the turning point. What it is all about. Do your thing and you’ll be rewarded in ways you can’t even imagine. But it’s not just like that. There’s a price on everything:
Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places
Alright, when you have made your decision – there weren’t that many options, really – there is a way out, a retreat. Not an easy way, but the one you inevitably have to tread. You have to pass The Tree of Smoke which prevents you from facing reality, and the Angel with Four Faces who may parallel the four players in the present game, but who is also defined by Ezekiel (1:6 and 10:14) as some sort of guardian overlooking the execution of the last days and the final doom of the world.
You think you have thrown every little thing away, you find out there will always be more. You’ll have to pass through Hell, you’ll have to stand up to horrors you didn’t even know existed. Omens of Death at each and every step. You must repent, repent, repent. Hard stuff, ill-tasting medicine. Give yourself up completely to become yourself. Or with St. John in Revelation: Destroy old evil to make room for the New Jerusalem