Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Dylan's Three Angels Are Still Singing

One of my favorite Dylan albums for the longest times was New Morning, a 1970 release that quickly went gold in the U.S. and reached #1 in the U.K. The much maligned Self Portrait preceded it by four months. Three Angels is the second-to-last song on side two of this album and quite a curious one at that for many people.

New Morning is full of Biblical and spiritual allusions. The title track itself implies an awakening of sorts. "If Not For You" hinges on the "who" of you. George Harrison clearly interprets this as God. "If not for You, Lord." "The Day of the Locusts": though we know this song's inspiration comes from an event very far from Biblical, locusts were one of the ten plagues which contributed to Israel's release from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. And here in this song, we find a strange story about three angels high up on their poles in the middle of a city. It begins...

Three angels up above the street
Each one playing a horn
Dressed in green robes with wings that stick out
They’ve been there since Christmas morn

If you take it literally, it's quite curious. How high are the poles? Is the color green significant? Is the number three important? What kind of poles are they that angels can stand on? Is this a variation of the question how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Tony Atwood's Untold Dylan blog addresses the three angels in a different manner than I will. (He may even be more correct than I realize.) We're both only speculating. Atwood points out that there are three angels in the Book of Revelation chapter 14. You can read his account there.

I see the angels on poles as symbolic of elevation. It doesn't matter how high the poles are. The number three is one of those numbers repeated throughout holy Scripture. And this song is actually three parts, the first being the description of the angels and what they are doing: making music.

The rest of the song is part two up until the very last couplet. It is a description of the kinds of ordinary things one sees on the street of any big city. A guy going quickly by in a hurry, a lady in a colorful dress, a U-Haul, an abandoned vehicle, a bus, dogs, pigeons, men who have been up too late partying and are dragging themselves to work, a bakery truck.

All the while the angels keep making their music, all day long.

The wildest cat from Montana passes by in a flash
Then a lady in a bright orange dress

One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels
The Tenth Avenue bus going west
The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work
Nobody stops to ask why
The bakery truck stops outside of that fence
Where the angels stand high on their poles
The driver peeks out, trying to find one face
In this concrete world full of souls
The angels play on their horns all day
The whole earth in progression seems to pass by
But does anyone hear the music they play
Does anyone even try?*

The song isn't really sung, it is narrated. All throughout the music builds, and toward the end something akin to an angel chorus is also singing in the background. 

The whole earth in progression passes within earshot of these angels singing. But who hears them? And what are they singing? 

In fact, Dylan goes further with this indictment: Does anyone even try?

We live in a crazy world with the result that a lot of folks are suffering from "crazy mixed up confusion" and it's killing them. If only they could hear the angels.

The Book of Revelation is often referred to Apocalyptic Literature, and after the turbulent Sixties there was a lot of spiritual questing stirred up. Dylan's post-motorcycle-wreck produced songs that showed a keen awareness of this end-of-the-world cultural current because it was happening within himself, though songs like Hard Rain clearly come from the same place and the accident didn't introduce the idea, only amped it. I believe the music these angels were playing has indeed been perpetual, though in a different realm from our own, a "new song" that was born on Christmas morn and can be found in Revelation chapters 4 and 5. It took another decade for the seeds that birthed this song produced the slow train that emerged from the fog, but it's outlines were visible early. 

I can't remember if I was in high school or whether it was a few years later but all the spiritual inuendo and animation in Dylan's lyrics led some critics to suspect that one day Dylan himself would become a spiritual leader, and potentially even an object of worship. This kind of burden, however, was as distasteful as that of being "the voice of a generation." If Dylan brought light to the world, its aim was to provide illumination for an object far more worthy of our reverence. 

* * * * 
Meantime, life goes on all around you. Listen to the music.

*Copyright © 1970 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1998 by Big Sky Music

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