Changing of the Guards

Jonathan Cott asked Bob Dylan the following question about songs on his recent release Street-Legal during a November 16, 1978 Rolling Stone interview: “As in a dream, lines from one song seem to connect with lines from another. For example: ‘I couldn’t tell her what my private thoughts were / But she had some way of finding them out’ in ‘Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)’ and ‘The captain waits above the celebration / Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid’ in ‘Changing of the Guards.’

Dylan said:

“I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it to you. Those questions can be answered dozens of different ways and I’m sure they’re all legitimate. Everybody sees in the mirror what he sees – no two people see the same thing.”

In another Rolling Stone interview, this time in December 22, 2001, Mikal Gilmore reminded Dylan that he said in a different interview that his 2001 album “Love and Theft” was autobiographical. Dylan seemed to jump out of his seat in response:

“Oh, absolutely. It would be autobiographical on every front. It obviously plays by its own set of rules, but a listener wouldn’t really have to be aware of those rules when hearing it. But absolutely. It’s not like the songs were written by some kind of Socrates, you know, some kind of buffoon, the man about town pretending to be happy [laughs].”

 Street-Legal marks a pivot point in Dylan’s career. This is the first album he wrote and released after his divorce in 1977. It is the last album to be put out before his embrace of Christianity and the three subsequent albums in which he is outspoken about his love of Jesus Christ. Street-Legal is also the moment when the sound of his voice is truly torn, moving into a different kind of vocal delivery from how he sang in the 60s and 70s. The lyrically dense writing style on the album ties back to Dylan’s mid-60s mode that he once described as “chains of flashing images.” The songs on Street-Legal connect more to “Gates of Eden” than the country-music-simple-direct language of, say, “If Not For You.”

The music fades in as “Changing of the Guards” begins. It’s the first song on Street-Legal, and we hear another point of transition for Dylan as it is a big band sound – multiple guitars, multiple keyboards, a sax, and background singers. Dylan would go on to sing with background singers in concert and on record for the next 10 years. As we saw with “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan utilizes these singers in ways we don’t usually see, providing emphasis to the flashing images that Dylan is introducing throughout the song.

I admit to not having a firm grip on the lyrical content of “Changing of the Guards.” Dylan says in the quote at the beginning of the post that he’s not going to provide assistance when it comes to interpreting a song such as “Changing of the Guards” and even if you find something to grasp, it’s not any less valid than what someone else has discovered. Besides, it might be completely subjective, simply what you want to see. Hey, Bob, thanks for all of your help! But tell me, what does it say when you don’t see something reflected in the mirror? Does that mean that you are a vampire blogger?

The interviewer says to Dylan that the images in the song generate a vivid dreaming effect. Calling a piece of art “dream-like” sometimes is an easy out, a way to avoid confronting an impenetrable piece of art. Ah yes, it’s a dream; no meaning is meant to be discovered! But the feeling one has listening to “Changing of the Guards” is similar to the feeling after a particularly significant and weighty dream. It must mean something because one’s center has become uncentered. The pull of the dream or the song continues to compel long after waking or listening. 

Turning to the other interview excerpt quoted above, Dylan not only cops to the fact that his songs are autobiographical, he even suggests that it’s apparent. Of course they are autobiographical! Since Dylan has provided the opening for an autobiographical interpretation of his songs, let’s start with the opening verse:

Sixteen years
Sixteen banners united over the field
Where the good shepherd grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

1978, when the song was released, marks 16 years since Dylan first began professionally recording music. Street-Legal is also Dylan’s first album after his divorce. The song details the despair and difficulty of moving through his world, post-divorce. The division of the couple generates desperation: “Desperate men, desperate women divided.” On the other side of divorce, the couple is forced to “spread their wings” or try to live in different ways in the “autumn” or the beginning of the decomposition of their union. The desolation continues after the separation and throughout the song, leading the narrator to places unknown heretofore. There are opportunities – “fortune calls” – but the narrator has to step out the shadows of uncertainty to a “marketplace” that is unfamiliar and contentious. The narrator stumbles as he passes “destruction in the ditches,” which signifies other failed relationships around him. “Peace will come,” the narrator reassures himself, if he is able to brace himself and have the courage to face a change, the “changing of the guards.”

Dylan switches pronouns over the course of “Changing of the Guards,” a device he used three years earlier when writing “Tangled Up in Blue.” This shift in point of view in the song underlines the narrator’s isolation. “I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow.” The narrator is telling us that her allure is too powerful to resist. A few verses later, the perspective shifts: “She’s begging to know what measures he now will be taking / He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks.” This switch removes the narrator from the action and also distances him from the emotions inherent in the scene, as if to say: I’m not the one who will have to answer for my actions, he will.

In the May 13, 2021 episode of the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism, we hear music critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib muse about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys in the studio making up fake take numbers – saying “take 50” instead of take 10 – because he is, in Abdurraqib’s words, “Creating this idea of stamina because that is what is required to get what lives in the imagination into the world.” Abdurraqib says that this is “The space of walking the imagination to the living world, even if, by the time it gets to the living world, it looks different. A little bit different. A funhouse version of it.” The writing of “Changing of the Guards” is Dylan processing his own lived experience through the written word; walking the imagination of the living world to use Abdurraqib words. Whereas the act of recording the song is “the stamina required” – as Abdurraqib says – to present his lived experience to others.

Abdurraqib says that the result of the artistic process is a funhouse mirror of the living world. It reflects skewed images, grotesque and funny, yet still familiar. Dylan loves a mirror metaphor as we see in his quote about interpreting his songs at the beginning of the post. Dylan seizes on the metaphor in the text of “Changing of the Guards” as the narrator occupies a “palace of mirrors” in which “dog soldiers are reflected.” According to Wikipedia, the dog soldiers were “historically one of six Cheyenne military societies. Beginning in the late 1830s, this society evolved into a separate, militaristic band that played a dominant role in Cheyenne resistance to the westward expansion of the United States.” The narrator can no longer see his own reflection in the “palace of mirrors” but rather someone who is disconnected from society and forced to violence because of the overwhelming pressure of historical circumstances. This only underlines the narrator’s desperation as detailed above.

Dylan told Jonathan Gott the following in 1978:

“‘Changing of the Guards’ is a thousand years old. Woody Guthrie said he just picked songs out of the air. That meant that they were already there and that he was tuned into them. ‘Changing of the Guards’ might be a song that might have been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it.”

Dylan has always peppered his songs with Biblical references. “Changing of the Guards” is no different. Powerful forces in the song “shaved her head,” which represents a test for those who have taken a vow of purity. Additionally, the references of the merchants and thieves in the marketplace who are “hungry for power” touch on the cleansing of the Temple Bible narrative in which Jesus expels the merchants and money changers in another act of purification. The desperation of the couple in the song as well as post-divorce Dylan reinforce the yearning for something new represented in the act of purification. This may be a hint of a new direction for Dylan as he is born again in a few months after the creation of “Changing of the Guards.”

Not satisfied with a Biblical reading of the song? How about tarot? Many commentators have found strong tarot references in Dylan’s work. “Changing of the Guards” is certainly ripe for that interpretation, especially with the closing image of the song, the combining of the “King and the Queen of Swords.” (By no means do I have any tarot expertise, so I will leave this line of analysis for others.) 

Entire books deserve to be written about “Changing of the Guards.” Maybe it needs its own choose your own adventure book, since the song presents so many different choices. Is it a dream? Is it Dylan trying to explain his world after a heartbreaking divorce? Is it Biblical? A trip through a tarot reading? Is it secret lore expressed in closely guarded code that has been passed down over generations to Dylan, who alone has been entrusted with the key that he is not allowed to reveal? Is it simply a beautiful melody with captivating, yet impenetrable images? The song is truly a collection of “flashing chains of images” with Dylan at a desperate moment of his life and his art, grasping for metaphors and meaning wherever he can find them.


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