Bob Dylan’s best songs: Angelina

bob dylan drammen 1981
Drammen, Norway – 1981

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
~from “Angelina”

…. there were some real songs on this album that we recorded, a couple of really long songs, like there was one I did – do you remember Visions Of Johanna?…. Well, there was one like that. I’d never done anything like it before. It’s got that same kind of thing to it. It seems to be very sensitive and gentle on one level, then on another level the lyrics aren’t sensitive and gentle at all. We left that off the album.
~Bob Dylan (to Neil Spencer – July 1981)

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 the song in public, chances are that he’d confess that it was as much mystery to him as to anyone else.
~John Bauldie (TBS1-3 booklet)

@ number 80 on my list of Dylan’s 200 best songs.

Angelina is credited as being recorded on May 4, 1981 on “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3”. According to “Krogsgaard” & “Olof’s – Still on the Road“, this is not true, as it were mixed on that day, but recorded March 26:

Rundown Studios
Santa Monica, California
26 March 1981
1st Shot Of Love recording session. Produced by Jimmy Iovine

  1. Angelina
  2. Angelina
  • Bob Dylan (vocal & piano)
  • Steve Ripley (guitar)
  • Danny Kortchmar (guitar)
  • Carl Pickhardt (keyboards)
  • Tim Drummond (bass)
  • Jim Keltner (drums)
  • Carolyn Dennis, Regina Havis & Clydie King (backing vocals)

It was presented on the first sequenced tape of Shot Of Love but later removed:

The first sequence tape of “Shot Of Love” was made on May 12.
It had the following songs:

Side 1: *Shot of Love / Heart Of Mine / *Property Of Jesus / *Lenny Bruce / *Watered Down Love.

Side 2: Dead Man, Dead Man / *In The Summertime / Magic / Trouble / *Every Grain Of Sand / Angelina.

shot of love

 …one of his most disturbing and rewarding performances…. the words of the song are so powerful, punching the listener in the gut at two or three different places in every verse…
~Paul Williams (BD – Performing Artist 1974-1986)

Wikipedia:Angelina” is a song written by Bob Dylan, originally recorded in 1981 for the album Shot of Love. However, “Angelina” was cut from the record, and fans would have to wait until 1991 when it was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. Like Dylan’s similarly named “Farewell Angelina”, “Angelina” is full of imagery and biblical allusions (the ‘four faces’, for example, of the final stanza appear to allude to Ezek.10. 14 and 10.21). Considered by most critics to be one of the best songs written during his “born-again” period, “Angelina” is the classic Dylan work in which obscure yet meaningful poetry and a seemingly all-encompassing vision take on mankind’s most pressing problems, all the while making for a pleasant listen.


…This is trance music, ‘In the valley of the giants where the stars and stripes explode’, performed in holy quiet. A love song, in 3-D.
~Brian Hinton (BD Album File & Complete Disc.)

It’s a beautifully crafted song, and the performance from Dylan – coaxing out the words he offsets with that teasing tune on the piano – is fully up to the task.
~Clinton Heylin (Still On The Road)

The song has never been played live by Bob Dylan.. so all we got is the released studio version:




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

Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

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

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

Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

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

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

Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

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?

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
And so are you, Angelina

Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

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

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

Oh, Angelina. Oh, Angelina

bob dylan 1981

This attention to detail, which always avoids reductive predictability in favour of intuitive flash, stays with us throughout the song’s long journey. It gives us the dying breath with which Dylan appears to expire on the long-drawn-out end of ‘arena————’ and then the final climb up the melodic steps which begin with ‘up them spiral staircases’ (no-one else could sing that phrase at all, let alone with the sumptuous sadness and humane modesty Dylan brings to it) and which keep ascending, words and melody perfectly at one, till the last cathartic incantation of the song title itself.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

Check out:  Bob Dylan’s 200 best songs


13 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s best songs: Angelina”

  1. In the last verse Bob pauses slightly after “tree of smoke”
    “spiral staircases”
    “angel with four faces
    “unholy places”

    This is the touch of a Master and is one of those things that only Dylan can do and is why “covers” never really work.

  2. This really is Dylan’s finest song performance. ‘There’s a black Mercedes rolling through the combat zone’ is a movie in itself, let alone what follows. And, as many have already mentioned, the singing is superb; absolutely suited to the lyrics.

  3. “Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances…My right hand drawing back while my left hand advances,” is perhaps the greatest opening of a Dylan tune–with the possible exception of Bobby Gregg’s snare shot on Like a Rolling Stone. 😉 Anyway, when i perform it, I alter the last line of the first stanza, thusly:

    Where the current is strong and the monkey dances
    With the silhouette of a ballerina.

    (perhaps my change is inspired favorite ‘pop’ musician after dylan–van morrison.)

    I make a second alteration later in the song:

    Tell me, tall men, where would you like to be overthrown
    In Jerusalem or Rosh Pina?

    I’m from Jerusalem…and I know something about the esoterica messianic (redundant?) traditions–primarily kabbalistic–within both Judaism and Christianity and the significance of this lovely small town in the Galilee. And, alas, the rhyme is preserved! Besides, “Argentina” gets enough attention–as “Buenos Aires”–in Angelina’s twin masterful song of “eschatological exhuberance”, Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.

    Shalom to all!!!

  4. One of my favorites.

    The lyrics on the page are wonderful, but the performance is something else.

    Just listen to the way he sings “Begging God for MERCY – weepin’ – in – unholy PLACES” Oh, Angelina, indeed.

  5. “Angelina” is every bit as great as “Every Grain of Sand” and “Caribbean Wind” (the major three songs from the ‘Shot of Love’ sessions). If “Angelina” had been officially released on that 1981 album I am sure it would be just as revered as “Every Grain of Sand” is now. The mind boggles to think what an album “Shot of Love” would have been if “Caribbean Wind” and “Angelina” had been put on it!

  6. How can a genius write such an unbelievably beautiful and strong song, sing it in the best way possible, and leave it of a record in favor of such silly earpunishing stuff like Watered Down Love and Property of Jesus? Somehow hearing this song makes me mad he did not couple it with the endearing Every Grain of Sand, threw in Shot of Love, Caribbean Wind, Groom’s still Waiting at the Altar, Dead Man Dead Man, In the Summertime and maybe to tone it down a bit Heart of Mine, then he would have scored a masterpiece again… But he was lost, as he said himself later, and maybe afraid to make such a piece of art… just too unsure to get into that strange territory again where he had gotten on fire already two times before… Christian humbleness is not very fruitful for artists… And indeed, there is a touch of devilishness in this divine song

  7. Hi,
    great that you care about this song, one of the three best, intense
    songs – in my humble opinion- he’s ever written a n d performed – although two of them just in the studio:
    Angelina / Red River Shore / Every grain of sand….
    Sometimes I wonder : What may heve been the whereabouts and circumstances where Bob has written them ? Midnight under a starry sky ? We will never know….
    Suggestion: listen to those 3 masterpieces – under a starry sky – in a row and get an idea yourself.
    Eternal thanks, Bob, for creating such emotional, touching pieces of art….

    1. as @wolfgang wrote “great that you care about this song” –

      though I’m not a friend of ranking, I do agree about “Angelina / Red River Shore / Every grain of sand”

      if you can read my mind, why must I speak”

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