The mastery of form shown on "Shelter From the Storm" simply leaves one breathless; Bob Dylan uses just three chords and a simple but sublime melody, delivered with a deep passion, to convey the narrator's sense of loss: "I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose...If I could just turn back the clock to when God and her were born...try imagining a place that's always safe and warm/'Come in' she said 'I'll give you shelter from the storm.'" In the Grammy-winning liner notes for Dylan's relationship post mortem, Blood on the Tracks (1975), Pete Hamill was moved to quote W.B. Yeats: "We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Dylan's narrator certainly sounds like a man out of balance in "Shelter From the Storm." With a heightened sense of drama, he pictures himself before he met the object of his affection as "burned out from exhaustion/I was buried in the hail/Poisoned in the bushes/An' blown out on the trail/Hunted like a crocodile/Ravaged in the corn."
The listener could easily be put off by what seems to be exaggeration. Walter A. McDougall, in an editorial for The New York Times, used the opening lines of the song to describe how he felt looking back at himself as a young man in Vietnam: "'Twas in another lifetime, full of toil and blood/When blackness was a virtue, and the road was full of mud." In this light, the lyrics don't seem to be hyperbole at all; perhaps Dylan is writing from the point of view of just such a soldier. Regardless, the narrator himself deflates his own sense of self-importance with the line "She walked up to me so gracefully/And took my crown of thorns." It is only one of a few references to Christ in the song; in a sense, the "salvation" this woman provides for the "ravaged" protagonist is Christlike in its unconditional support and love. Yet, like an earlier Dylan song lamented, he throws it all away: "I took too much for granted/I got my signals crossed/Just to think that all began/On an uneventful morn." Dylan illustrates a classic case of not knowing what you have until it is gone -- the sort of love that sneaks up and is gone before one realizes. Like much of the album, Dylan, as narrator, seems to blame himself, but also allows for that "simple twist of fate," a fleeting sense of love and time and the arbitrary nature of human relationships. Unlike much of the album's material, "Shelter From the Storm" ends on a somewhat optimistic note: "Beauty walk a razor's edge/Someday I'll make it mine."
There are various recorded versions. Fans would be well advised to avoid the live At Budokan (1979), where, in a monotone, Dylan sleepwalks through a highly stylized and meticulously arranged interpretation -- an almost emotionless recitation of the lyrics with silly backing vocals and a completely out of place saxophone solo. A better live recording can be found on Hard Rain (1976), recorded on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, with some inspired guitar work from Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett. The takes from the Blood on the Tracks sessions remain the best readings of the song, though. Both recordings have Dylan on harmonica and acoustic guitar and Tony Brown on bass guitar -- Dylan's cuff buttons knocking a random rhythm against the top of his guitar. On the take released on Blood on the Tracks, the approach is a bit more finessed than the alternate take released on the 1996 soundtrack to Jerry Maguire. On the former, Dylan dips a bit deeper into the lyrics on his phrasing, and strums the guitar more delicately than on the latter, which is a bit more raucous.