In September 1974, Bob Dylan entered A & R Studios in New York with an acoustic guitar and a notebook full of new songs. Over the four days he was in the studio, he experimented with the structure of each song, but one song needed only four takes to achieve a master recording, seemingly arriving fully-formed:
Dylan performs the song with his acoustic guitar accompanied only by Tony Brown on bass. Acoustic guitar has never sounded better than the acoustic guitar recorded during these New York sessions. The lyrical arrangement of the song hinges on a line repeated at the end of every verse: “‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’” In the first half of the song, Dylan provides a series of images to represent the narrator’s feelings about himself before taking up with this woman, including this line from the first verse: “I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.” In this characterization, there’s a sense of stripping away of everything that came before, no family, no history, no shape even. He is barely a sentient being and in need of a life-giving force to feel definition once again. Dylan’s “creature void of form” is a kind of ego death, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “complete loss of subjective self-identity.” It also aligns with the Hero’s Journey archetype as conceived by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The narrator of the song “came in from the wilderness,” mirroring the rite of passage found when the hero “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.”
Other descriptions of the pre-sheltered narrator include the following:
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
There is violence at the core of these descriptions as can be seen in the verbs utilized by Dylan: burned, buried, poisoned, blown out, hunted, ravaged. Additionally, the narrator portrays himself as wearing a “crown of thorns.” With that Christ-like image, another verb can be added to the list: persecuted. The intense extremity of these impressions are presented by Dylan to demonstrate the narrator’s need for shelter. Other than “safe and warm,” there is no other description of this place of shelter that the woman offers. Instead, Dylan concentrates on showing how this refuge serves as a countermeasure for the narrator’s defeated state.
The narrator goes on to illustrate how he meets this woman:
Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
There’s a lightness in the description as if the weight of the persecution felt by the narrator has been lifted. “Silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair” presents a joyful vision. It aligns well with a line from another song composed in 1974, “Scarlet Begonias” by the Grateful Dead. That song also depicts a chance meeting between a couple in which the woman provides a chance for renewal for a male narrator. He describes her with the following words: “She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes.” That line by the lyricist Robert Hunter is taken almost directly by the old nursery rhyme, “Banbury Cross”:
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.
The notion of a “fine lady” producing perpetual music in the nursery rhyme surely had resonance for Hunter, who uses this image to create a feminine ideal for the narrator in “Scarlet Begonias.” Dylan’s line of “silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair” does not have the same musical connection as Hunter’s line, but there’s a symmetry between the images created by both writers.
One of the compositional approaches that Dylan used for the songs that eventually became Blood on the Tracks was inspired by painting lessons that Dylan took from Norman Raeben in 1974. Dylan commented on this during an interview with Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone in November 1978:
“I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet [Raeben] in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt. And I didn’t know how to pull it off. I wasn’t sure it could be done in songs because I’d never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks. Everybody agrees that that was pretty different, and what’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics and also there’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it: you’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening.”
The timelessness that Dylan alludes to in this quotation is prevalent in “Shelter from the Storm.” As discussed above, Dylan describes the narrator’s emotions in the time before he meets the woman in question. This period is cited by Dylan as “in another lifetime.” We also explored the verse in which the narrator and the woman meet, the moment in which she actually provides the shelter for the narrator. In the verse immediately following the meeting, Dylan sings:
Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
Dylan shifts to the present tense, providing a new perspective of what is happening in the “now” of the song that “somethin’ there’s been lost.” This change then calls into question the timing of the rest of the song as there is a mix of past and present tense throughout. When the narrator uses the past tense, is he referring to the wilderness time before meeting the woman. Or, is he referencing the time after receiving shelter but before the “now” time when there’s a wall between the narrator and the woman? Case in point, Dylan sings the following in the second to last verse:
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
The depiction of what happens in this verse could be before their meeting as the narrator offering “up my innocence” and being “repaid with scorn” has the sense of the narrator’s time of being lost in the wilderness. Or, these events could be what caused the wall to be built between the two in the present of the song. Interestingly, the first line in that verse — “In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes” — aligns well with another Dylan song, “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” which was explored previously on Recliner Notes. That song portrays a real-life encounter that Dylan had with the so-called king of the gypsies, whose daughter he was presumably sleeping with. Dylan described the situation as “dangerous territory” for him. Dylan actually wrote the song “Shelter from the Storm” before the events that he captured in “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” so he seems to be anticipating the events of his own life in his songwriting.
In the last verse, Dylan specifically embeds the concept of time into the text of the song:
Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
The narrator says that he’s “livin’ in a foreign country” — is the “little hilltop village” from the previous verse located in this country? Furthermore, the narrator yearns to “turn back the clock.” This desire reflects a frustration he is experiencing in the present, not only in his relationship, but also a dissatisfaction with time itself. He wants to inhabit a zone in which “God and her were born;” a true description of a space before time when time itself is meaningless. In a sense, the narrator here is living out the intention of Dylan’s compositional approach cited in the quote above to write songs with “no sense of time.” In this moment in “Shelter from the Storm,” the narrator of the song shares the same goal with Dylan.
Dylan released Blood on the Tracks in January 1975 after re-recording some of the songs he had previously recorded in New York. He did not attempt to re-do “Shelter from the Storm.” After the album’s release, Dylan spent time in Malibu, CA, where he had built a house with his wife. During the mid-70s, Dylan was a shadowy fixture in Malibu, especially for Neil Young and his extended crew of friends and band members. Jimmy McDonough shared the following anecdote from artist/Neil Young running mate James “Sandy” Mazzeo in McDonough’s essential biography of Young called Shakey:
“Mazzeo remembers piloting his ‘54 Pontiac hearse into town one day. ‘I hear bam! Bam! Bam! On the divider, and I’m thinkin’, ‘Oh my God, it’s a ghost.’ I look in the rearview mirror and it’s Bob.’ Dylan had apparently crawled in the back to get some shut-eye, only to find his bed moving the next morning. ‘Dylan was in his turban stage, and he’d slept in his turban and it had come all undone—he looked like the mummy.’ Mazzeo offered to drive him back to Malibu, but Dylan said he’d thumb a ride. ‘Last time I looked, he was straightening out his turban and getting ready to hitchhike back to his house. Those things happened in Malibu all the time.’
While Young was recording the album Zuma with the reformed Crazy Horse in June 1975, Malibu Dylan wandered into the recording sessions that were happening at the Zuma Beach house belonging to producer David Briggs. McDonough writes about this encounter:
“Dylan, who lived around the corner from Briggs, shuffled in and joined the Zuma session, first on piano, then guitar. ‘He didn’t talk, just nodded,” said [Crazy Horse guitar player Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro]. ‘He was dressed in Sears clothes—I didn’t know it was Bob Dylan’…The action-packed lineup fizzled when the Horse inevitably fell apart. ‘We did a bunch of his songs, never got one right all the way through,’ said Poncho. ‘Neil told me later Dylan said, ‘Your band has a good beat, but they can’t play,’ and Neil replied, ‘Yeah, but think about it, Bob—you could play with them.’”
McDonough writes that Sampedro recalled Dylan leading Neil and Crazy Horse on a group of songs from Blood on the Tracks. There has been speculation about if recordings exist of this Dylan-backed-by-Crazy-Horse session. Wondering how a Crazy Horse version of a Blood on the Tracks song might sound, there are a few hints. First, we can look to Neil Young’s own work for an indication. Young recorded the song “Kansas” in January 21, 1975, the day after Blood on the Tracks was released:
This version of “Kansas” is a hauntingly quiet tale of a doomed one-night stand. Young reflects on the spoils of his success in the middle of this short-term love affair, recognizing that it will have to serve as a stand-in for true love at the moment. Though the lyrical content is different, the feel of this recording is similar to “Shelter from the Storm,” especially in the solo musical approach.
Fast forward to June 12, 1975 during the aforementioned Zuma sessions, Young recorded record “Kansas” with Crazy Horse:
The lyrics featured in both versions of “Kansas” are the same, but the feel is different. This performance is less doomed and somehow more hopeful as Crazy Horse provides their singular torn-flag-flying-proudly-in-the-wind sound. A Crazy Horse interpretation of “Shelter from the Storm” may not have topped the solo acoustic version of the song, but it could have shifted it into a different place.
Dylan’s attempts to play Blood on the Tracks songs with Crazy Horse may have influenced the arrangement of “Shelter from the Storm” that can be heard when Dylan brought the song to the stage during the spring 1976 leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue. As recounted previously for Recliner Notes, Dylan’s mood was sour that spring as his marriage reportedly was not doing well. It was at this time that Dylan began to incorporate Blood on the Tracks material into Rolling Thunder Revue setlists. He played “Shelter from the Storm” a number of times on the tour before including it in the penultimate show for the tour on May 23, 1976 in Fort Collins, CO. This rendition would appear on the live album Hard Rain:
As seen in the video, Dylan is in full turban mode along with the rest of the band. Surprisingly, he is playing slide guitar on a large, white, United States-shaped National guitar that he only took out for this one song during the concert. The sound of this performance is dominated by dirty electric guitars, not unlike what Crazy Horse might sound like playing “Shelter from the Storm.” It’s not apparent who is playing the lead guitar riff of the song, but it’s an engaging approach to the song’s three chord structure. Scarlet Rivera and her gypsy violin, which dominated the sound of the fall Rolling Thunder Revue, is nowhere to be seen or heard in this video; it’s all guitars and percussion. Besides playing incongruous slide on his capoed guitar, Dylan keeps his eyes closed throughout most of the performance. There’s not much subtlety to his singing on this “Shelter from the Storm.” Unlike the studio version which is understated and lovely, here he is yelling. His vocal approach, like the band backing him up, is all power. In this full band performance, Dylan and company are embodying the idea of what being “hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn” might sound like.
When Dylan returned to the road in 1978, he set about leaving previous models of his songs behind, altering and even subverting his back catalog. Recorded on February 28 and March 1 at Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo, Bob Dylan at Budokan includes a performance of “Shelter from the Storm”:
This rendition is a perfect example of Dylan disrupting his own work during the 1978 tour. As opposed to the all-power version heard on Hard Rain, Dylan is seeking a more rhythmic approach to the song. There is an engaging and sexy reggae feel to the groove. The backup singers are locked in with Dylan. His love of singing with them is apparent. A saxophone takes a big solo as does an electric guitar. It’s a complete reimagining of “Shelter from the Storm” from both the Blood on the Tracks and Hard Rain models. Steve Gunn, an imaginative, engaging, and visionary songwriter and guitar player, provided the definitive summary of the Budokan version of “Shelter from the Storm”:
“I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by Dylan’s ability to continually reinterpret himself. In this version, the delivery is declarative and minimal, holding a steady line and giving the song a different life than the original. There’s a new confidence, which gives one of my all-time favorite Dylan lines new resonance: ‘I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.’ Dylan’s life is full of comeback waves, and the energy propulsing through this song is testament to his genius for looking deeper into his art.”
Though it’s easy to draw parallels between the songs from Blood on the Tracks and Dylan’s personal life, Gunn touches on the universal quality of “Shelter from the Storm.” Throughout Dylan’s career, he is able to leave behind his past and own biography, constantly emerging from different wildernesses and taking on new forms. No matter when he performs “Shelter from the Storm” in concert — as he has consistently throughout his career — the “no sense of time” aspect of the song allows Dylan to constantly stay in the present moment.
Image: Paul Cézanne, between 1886 and 1890, Hameau à Payennet près de Gardanne, oil on canvas. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.