Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #174: Simple Twist of Fate

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!

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Anonymous said...

I happen to like the version of 1984 shows. Quite interesting, actually.

rob! said...

Glad to see this blog is back.

STOF is just so very sad that you'd think putting it right after the exuberant TUIB would be a tonal mistake, yet it works--as does everything on this album.

The version he performed on the Hammond Tribute, IMO at least, works just as well as the album version, yet in a very different way. One of the things that has made me such a die-hard Dylan fan is his ability to change a song that seems utterly perfect into something else, and have it work completely on its own terms. Simply amazing.

allan said...

welcome back!!!

we're getting into the good shit now (though planet waves has passed and it is in my top 5 dylan albums, i think)

Matt Waters said...

Happy to read you again… It's obviously a song Bob himself loves, having named the protagonist in "Masked and Anonymous" 'Jack Fate.' There's a beautiful, human sadness to this song, mystery, too. I sense some confusion about love and intimacy, perhaps… when perceived as separate, even conflicting emotions, relationships can become unbearably complicated. The man in the song clearly loves the woman, but when he 'feels the spark' he then immediately 'feels alone.' And he wishes he 'watched out' for the 'simple twist of fate.' Well if he loved the girl, feels a spark when she looks at him, why would he then feel alone, and wished he watched out for the simple twist of fate that bought them together? It’s as if he can sense the heartbreak coming around the corner… I think there’s a pretty good chance that the park scene and hotel scene occur years apart. Very complicated song, written from the heart.

On another note, I remember I started reading this blog at a very different point in my life... it's been fun checking back on it, through the seasons of existence... heh heh. Write what ya can, man.

ch51 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ch51 said...

This is my favourite Dylan song ... and I like the '84 versions too.
In fact, I have all the '84 versions - and sometimes play them all in a row.
Different lyrics every time - I'm OK with that. The meaning (whatever that is) is still there.
There's an interview - I don't remember where right now - where he talks about writing two sets of lyrics originally, so he sometimes does one, sometimes does the other.
To me, this is a song of longing - partly for what was, but more for what wasn't - what could have been. The "what if" game taken to a further level.
As Matt waters said: "I sense some confusion about love and intimacy, perhaps… when perceived as separate, even conflicting emotions, relationships can become unbearably complicated."
I feel this is (even more than usual for Dylan) a song of imagery. This is one of the songs (like Tangled ...) that was from his "painting period". Thus, the changes in gender, changes in time, changes in viewpoint. I don't think you can take the words of this song as literal little story nuggets. They are sketches of emotion and feeling. That's why, even when he changes the words, the feeling is the same. He's capturing a feeling.
That's also why, I think, that it doesn't matter whether the listener has experienced these particular things - everyone has met someone special - most people have lost someone special - the details vary - the emotion is the same.
I could go on and on - but I suck as a writer.
As Matt waters said: "I think there’s a pretty good chance that the park scene and hotel scene occur years apart. Very complicated song, written from the heart."
Damn straight.
Keep on bloggin'

David said...

inThis comment is from a guitar player who has learned many of Bob's tunes over the past. What is really interesting about this album, especially before he recut half of it in Minnesota, is that all the songs musically sound so similar. Bob originally played every song with the same open E tuning, just different variations of the chords and strumming. It seems like the music did not matter to him as much as just getting the words out. Could be why there is so much emotion from the lyrics. The simplicity of the music really brings the message forward for me. A lot of pain going on.

drowning too said...

Tony, keep on blogging. You're great.

But this is "about" Suze Rotolo--not a one night stand.

Christiaan said...

Why would Dylan be writing about Suze Rotolo at the time of his break-up with Sara?

Pulp Revolution said...

Though lately I've been spending a lot of time with his more recent records (and the basement tapes), these posts were a great reason to go back and listen to Blood on the Tracks. What a great record! I love the "hard" sound associated with the NY songs. Spare and desperate. Pared with the "softer"(?) songs from Minnesota, in which the sound does a great job at taking the sting off some (not all, just some) off his most cutting lyrics. This is a great work of art.

Unknown said...

Simple twist is my favorite dylan tune. In my opinion the song is about a fleeting one night stand and not the death of a long relationship.

"Well if he loved the girl, feels a spark when she looks at him, why would he then feel alone, and wished he watched out for the simple twist of fate that bought them together?"

I take it as he had very strong feelings for her but he didn't have the courage to tell her in that moment. He then realizes she would never know how he felt and he had missed his opportunity.

Maybe the simple twist he hoped he'd watched out for was meeting her in the first place. If he had never met her, he would have continued on his way instead of spending his days searching for a girl who may have forgotten about him a week later.

The song is heartbreaking because the main character might have found "the one", but he didn't do enough to hold on to her.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I think this is his best song. So beautiful, so poetic.

countertops said...

Your truly well-informed. I cant believe how much of this I just wasn't aware of. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic for me. I'm truly grateful and really impressed.

drowning too said...

@ Christiaan: "Why would Dylan be writing about Suze Rotolo at the time of his breakup with Sara?" Why not? The breakup with Sara, the love of his life, obviously triggered other important memories. I can hear fragments that remind me of more than one important woman in Dylan's life in "Tangled Up in Blue." "You're Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go" is "about" Ellen Bernstein and God Knows who "Shelter from the Storm" is "about." All of you are right; we all bring our own preconceptions to Dylan songs, and Dylan himself is moving in multiple directions. So "Simple Twist of Fate" is not always "about" Suze, and it can be "about" whomever you want it to be. Still, it's been fairly widely reported that Dylan has explicitly referred to Suze at times in live performances of the song, e.g. Earls Court, London, June 30, 1981.

Anonymous said...

"Still, it's been fairly widely reported that Dylan has explicitly referred to Suze at times in live performances of the song, e.g. Earls Court, London, June 30, 1981."

I think that Heylin wrote that the subtitle on the original lyric sheet is (4th St Affair), or something.

It in any case, its a beautiful testimonial to lost love.


David George Freeman said...

Hello Bob Dylan fans, interested in this track? Then read the short version, the long version and listen to every version inside Bob Dylan's Music Box. Lift the lid and come inside, relax and listen

Isaac said...

Hi! I'm late to the party, I know...
But I'd like to comment on the line "he walks along with a parrot that talks." It always struck me as a kind of piratical take on what it means to walk around repeating pleasantries that others say. It gives a kind of pedantic undertone to the latter half of his song that exposes his loneliness and repetitive visits to the waterfront docks.
Hope I added some value!