In the mid-Sixties, Bob Dylan wrote “Farewell Angelina,” which featured a melody that was very much in the folk idiom, but lyrics that found him stretching towards a deeper surrealism, one he would soon explore full-time on Bringing It All Back Home.
“King Kong” “Little Elves,” and “Jacks and Queens” populated the song’s strange landscape. Joan Baez was a fan — she covered it and borrowed the title for her 1965 album of the same name.
Flash forward to 1981, when Dylan’s career was in a comparative state of decline. His ability to write poetic lyrics that were both obscure and obscenely meaningful, however, was in full flower.
“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/Angelina”
Dylan uses his words like a painter here, blending religious imagery from several sources, so that they seem more primal than specific.
His eyes were two slits that would make 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 impassioned vocals (“just step into the arena!”) are what drag the song into “classic” territory though. His voice is ravaged from whatever excesses lead him to sound like a bull frog in the fog, but he must have taken his “annunciation pills” that day, as every word is as clear as a bell, and as piercing as an epiphany at three in the morning.
It was recorded for 1981’s Shot of Love, the third and final album from Bob’s born-again Christian period, but was left on the cutting room floor, to appear ten years later on The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 (along with “Farewell Angelina.”)
This is just one of those Dylan songs where you have to say, “where were you hiding yourself?” and, “thank god you arrived.”