FYI: this was, and is, her favorite Dylan song.
And, from the grand and sweeping epic of "Tangled Up in Blue", we immediately delve into something far more intimate and self-contained, the short story to that first song's Great American Novel. "Simple Twist of Fate" can probably be read in two different ways, depending on (I suppose) your level of cynicism - a man waxing poetic about a one-night stand, or even a night with a prostitute (assuming that prostitutes tend to ply their trades on the docks; I guess my knowledge of the world's oldest profession is not as deep as it ought to be?), or a couple having one last final fling in a "strange hotel" (or "old hotel" in later live versions) before the female walks away, never to return. Either way, this leaves the man both condemned to spend his life searching for this woman, and wondering about that "simple twist of fate", the moment that brought them together and allowed two diverging paths to oh so briefly intersect. The interpretations are different; the upshot is basically the same.
I personally like to go with the "one night stand" interpretation, even though you don't normally get lasting romance out of that sort of thing, and here's why. Those that have read my blog from the start probably remember my discourse about the famous "white parasol" speech by Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane (here's the post in question - thrill at how much I wrote back then!), where I talked about regret and about the past and how those things inform your life no matter whether you want them to or not (most likely not). But what it also reminded me about, in a way not just tied to talking about "the past" as an all-encompassing concept, is the idea of how something so innocuous can stay with you forever. Now, clearly a one-night stand has a bit more emotional resonance than simply seeing some woman holding a fancy umbrella getting off a boat, but in the grand scheme of things it might very well be the same - a brief moment, not totally shared (we'll get to that below), that carries a disproportionate amount of meaning for the beholder. There's something romantic to that, almost as romantic as the idea of a couple in that hotel room - it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, so they say, but it could almost be even better to have not loved and lost to never have loved at all. I think.
Getting back to the song proper, what makes this particular song so great, at least to my ears, is the little details Dylan sprinkles into this song, avoiding some sort of uber-narrative and instead making every line come alive in your mind. This is not new to a Dylan song, certainly, but in this particular case, perhaps spurred on by memory of his own, Dylan really lays the richness of his word-painting power on thick. You can actually see the two of them, perhaps holding hands, staring up at the bright neon of the motel that they're planning on booking a room in (perhaps a married couple giving one last shot at spicing up a crumbling relationship?), slight befuddlement on their faces as the lights hit their eyes. You can hear the coin the woman drops rattling around in the tin cup of the beggar outside the arcade she walks down, never to see the man again, while he slowly wakes up to an empty bed. And you can watch the man wandering along past ships and dinghies and maybe even luxury yachts, perhaps with that parrot perched on his shoulder (forever the dopiest part of the song - does anyone REALLY miss it when he omits it during live performances?), searching in vain for a woman brought to him by circumstance and torn away by conscious decision (which, in its own way, is the most heartbreaking part of the whole thing...).
Actually, let me get to that last part for a second. Now, seeing as this is an album that deals with breakups and such, it's obviously going to have moments of heartbreak all throughout, so a few more instances aren't going to really stand out in theory. But what makes these moments stand out in their own way is just how quietly devastating they are, how they don't go for histrionics but simply portray how love can rip your heart out at a whisper and not just at a scream. Think about that line - "and forgot about a simple twist of fate" - and what that actually carries. The man, clearly, is doomed to always remember it (and it's always been interesting to me how the song switches from third person to first person for the final verse, like he was trying to tell a story to someone and make it out to be fiction, then just said "ah, fuck it, it's about me") and to chase the woman forever linked to her by it for all time, but for that woman it's already gone from her mind. That's just crushing to me; one person forever bound, the other like it never happened. And let's not forget the moment where the man wakes up, sees she's gone, and tells himself that he just doesn't care, even though the emptiness within him says otherwise. Self-denial is always a painful thing, especially when it comes to this sort of thing, and you can just feel the hurt this man feels as he tries to lie to the one person it's hardest to lie to.
I didn't talk about this in the previous post, so I suppose I should finish with a few words about the lyrical variations Bob throws in while performing this song in concert (courtesy of the amazing Dylanchords, of course). You've got the failed experiments of the 1984 shows, yet another reason why that tour more or less deserves to be forgotten - Dylan, rather than keeping the low-key philosophical vibe of the original, tries to a) build a real narrative and b) really go to the philosophical well, all to the song's detriment. And then you've got the odder moments, where Bob both adds a measure of vitriol (that 1980 "look that can manipulate" - it's like the '60s Bob never left!) and removes a bit of soul from the song (replacing the verse about not really caring and emptiness inside with a softer, kinda lamer verse about putting his shoes on and finding a note "to which he just could not relate" - falling prey to that old movie narrative mistake of telling and not showing), throwing the song off-kilter pretty much because he's Bob Dylan and that's how he does things. But, even with all of those changes (and the "she should have caught me in my prime" change to the final verse, which actually does add something in that we're now talking about young, dumb love instead of older, slightly less dumb love), the meat and heart of the song is still there, the man always bound to hold on to that one night forever, and the woman always a million miles away.
Bonus! Here's video of one of Dylan's great one-off performances: his performance of Simple Twist of Fate from the World of John Hammond PBS performance in 1975. Scarlet Rivera plays her gypsy violin, Rob Stoner plays on bass, and Howie Wyeth plays drums - a miniature dress rehearsal for the Rolling Thunder Revue, in other words. Enjoy!