When I was first getting into Bob Dylan, I laughed about this song with my old friend and Dylan running mate Mike Vago (author of the Wiki Wormhole column and host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie?). Namely how this song seemed like a dare: “Hey Bob, write a song with as many rhymes of the name ‘Angelina’ as possible.” Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, another master of songcraft, once said,
“Humor is a necessary aspect of rhyming. If you can’t say anything that might be interpreted as silly, you can say very little in rhyme, which is why Bob Dylan and Cole Porter are full of silliness.”
The song “Angelina” is a perfect example of Dylan’s silliness. Who else is rhyming “Angelina” with “subpoena?” Yet the song is bold. Anyone can use a rhyming dictionary. But look again at the list of those words. To make a song out of them is the actual challenge: “Hey Bob, write a song using the words concertina, hyena, subpoena, Argentina, arena, make it about a woman named Angelina, make it all connect by commenting American foreign policy on Third World countries in the early 1980s.”
The song opens tentatively with Dylan on piano and the band and backup singers coming in slowly throughout the song. It could be that Dylan is building the momentum for the song. Or, it could be that Dylan hasn’t shown the band how the song goes. He famously works fast in the studio, sometimes starting without even telling the band the song’s chord structure or even the key. Sometimes he only does one take. This may result in a song never coming out right for Dylan. “Angelina” is another song that was recorded and considered for an album – this time 1981’s Shot of Love – and then discarded. Dylan must have thought that the feel of “Angelina” isn’t right in the context of Shot of Love. It was eventually released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 in 1991. “Angelina” is one of many songs in that collection that inspires disbelief. “You’ve been sitting on that and didn’t release it?!?” In an interesting connection to “Angelina”, another song in The Bootleg Series that was recorded in 1965, but left off of albums at the time is “Farewell Angelina.” “Farewell” is a different kind of song than the one being considered in today’s post – it’s when Dylan is working in his Rimbaud “flashing images” phase. Yet we have two major works of imagination about a woman named Angelina, and Dylan discards both to be released later, after the fact.
The song opens with one of the great opening couplets of Dylan’s career: “Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances / My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances.” An impressive and singular conceit, it does lend to the previous suggestion about U.S. foreign policy, playing off the cliché that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. “Blood dryin’ in my yellow hair as I go from shore to shore.” Obviously, Dylan doesn’t have blonde hair, but we have the image of the American blonde hair, blue-eyed idealist taking in all the countries of the world and yet “His eyes were two slits that would make a snake proud.” The setting is a sort of paradise: “The peaches they were sweet and the milk and honey flowed.” And then the U.S. enters “the valley of the giants… and the stars and stripes explode.”
Then we enter the second half of the song and we get into more specific and violent images.
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
Maybe down in Jerusalem or Argentina?
The paranoids’ cliché of the CIA or some other secret department of the U.S. government is usually the image of black helicopters, but Dylan replaces that form with a “black Mercedes,” equally intimidating and menacing. Dylan addresses “tall men” or a government, saying that your demise is inevitable. He’ll give you a choice. It could be Israel; or it could be South America. Just ask, and we can make it happen.
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 tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena
But let’s not stop with this world. We can send troops anywhere. We can start the apocalypse now – as signified by the unknown rider and the pale white horse – we can even take heaven. We have the guns, the men, and the power. Want to step into the arena? Just ask and we can make it happen.
Alex Ross, the classical music writer for The New Yorker and a fellow Dylan freak, once wrote about “Angelina” and ended his investigation into the song with the semi-tongue-in-cheek warning, “Kids, don’t ever mix coke with the Book of Revelation.” This great line actually hints at the mastery of Dylan’s work in the early 80s. The albums Slow Train Coming and Saved reflected his commitment to Jesus Christ with Dylan sharing his testimony as a full evangelical Christian. Shot of Love – for which “Angelina” was recorded (and subsequently shelved) – came next. Dylan began to explore secular matters again all within the filter of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Much of his best work in this time has an apocalyptic tinge, pulling images and inspiration from Biblical sources while commenting on the political and social issues of the time. The results – as evidenced by the last verse – are jaw dropping:
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
The audacity of this writing; who else is writing in this way in pop music?
End note: A cool instrumental version of “Angelina” is circulating from the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack sessions. This version plays up the border feel of the melody that’s not emphasized on the original recording.
Photo by: Scott Bunn