This Rock Midrash originally appeared in the LABA Journal.
There are two Angelinas in Bob Dylan’s musical canon. Each offers an approach to human ambition and humility in the face of divinity, and each remains partly hidden in broad daylight for many years.
The first figure is the namesake of “Farewell, Angelina.” Written by Dylan in the mid-60s as the first wave of his career crested, he did not release his own recording of the song -- though it was a part of Joan Baez’s repertoire for decades -- until the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 more than twenty-five years later.
The second Angelina is the character whose name punctuates every verse of “Angelina,” one of the most beautiful compositions of Dylan’s so-called Born Again Christian era. “Angelina” was written and recorded in 1981, but like “Farewell Angelina” it was also held back from the public until the triple volume The Bootleg Series was released.
“Farewell Angelina” features Dylan full of hubris and invention. His is a post-modern hipster having nearly shed the folk persona that brought him first fame. As art historian Thomas Crow has explained, the Dylan of the period of “Farewell” was not only flexing his muscles as one of the prototypes of the rock star era, but also stood with the likes of Andy Warhol as a trendsetter predicting the global impact of pop culture for many years to come.
Here Dylan looks at the vista of history unfolding and finds the world corrupt and chaotic, a pop hero speaking both confidence and wonder to an apocalypse awaiting beyond the humdrum domesticity that Angelina offers:
The bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits
I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles
And the trumpets play slow
The sky is on fire
And I must go
This Dylan sees the godhead and the world as a landscape for a war for glory he wants to march upon, leaving his sweetheart behind as if part of a newsreel-comic book-oldies movies cliche.
“Angelina” is a very different kind of work, a ballad of a man no longer a rising star with a sense of power and rich circumstance before him. This song is built on many parallelisms, opposites canceling each other out which also almost cancel out the hero himself. The sky still on fire, the narrator is now dreaming of returning to Angelina rather than spending more time in a world that cannot be conquered:
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
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 it could be, makes me think you’ve seen me before
Metaphors and scenes in “Angelina” are discordant -- “a black Mercedes rollin' through the combat zone” and “a god with the body of a woman well endowed and the head of a hyena.” The narrator, rather than accepting a call to action as in “Farewell, Angelina,” is a witness to many opportunities missed.
These two songs can be heard as echos of the same cast of characters separated by two and a half decades of life and change, the narrator of “Angelina” reflecting on who he was and what he wanted through the presence of his lover, muse, and friend. In the second song, when he sees “pieces of men marching; trying to take heaven by force” just as he once marched -- as Dylan’s contemporary Phil Ochs once sang -- he “ain’t marchin’ anymore.”
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
As a figure of humility who sees dialectics of justice and injustice, peace and strife, and left and right twisting upon themselves into a riddle that cannot be solved, Dylan’s narrator of Angelina as both witness and witnessed separated by a quarter of a century shines light on the shadowy illusions of human ambition. We cannot influence the divine through a fast without intent; nor can youthful hubris outflank the hard realities of a life lived.
At the close of “Angelina” Dylan offers an image of both ascent and descent symbolizing how his narrator’s spirit has come to a humble draw with the world and ultimately the divine itself:
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 is the narrator’s angel, a divine presence both acting and acted upon in the human realm as a means of teaching people what is real. Conflating divine and human love, witnessing and being witnessed, service and being served, “Angelina” in light of “Farewell, Angelina” suggests that only a hero on his knees in an unholy place submitting to tears -- perhaps in both joy and sorrow overflowing -- can urge his eyes to really see.