Simple Twist of Fate

The incomparable Ralph Ellison published an article for Esquire in 1959 called “The Golden Age, Time Past.” Eulogizing Minton’s Playhouse, the small performance space from which bebop would emerge and change music history forever, this was a major piece by Ellison, capturing a significant moment in African American culture. Ellison started the piece with lines reflecting on time, memory, and the art of preserving recollections:

“That which we do is what we are. That which we remember is, more often than not, that which we would like to have been, or that which we hope to be. Thus our memory and our identity are ever at odds, our history ever a tall tale told by inattentive idealists.”

These arresting words, especially, the concept of an “inattentive idealist,” is a good place to start when considering Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” from Blood on the Tracks:

The song opens with Dylan on an acoustic guitar accompanied only by a bass player who immediately takes a little solo which may be the only time in which a bass solo opens a Dylan song. The chords are jazzy, creating a quiet, even somber mood. In this reflective space, Dylan tells a seemingly straight-forward story of a man who is picked up by a woman for a one-night stand. In the morning, she leaves and the narrator wakes up, finds her gone, and feels alone and bereft. He then wanders through the city searching for her.

This clear-cut narrative is upended by Dylan in a few ways. The story is told from a third-person perspective: “They sat together in the park;” “She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones;” “He woke up, the room was bare / He didn’t see her anywhere.” Yet in the second verse, Dylan writes: “They walked along by the old canal / A little confused, I remember well.” Within the written words of the song, there is both a “he” and an “I” and, by writing, “I remember well,” Dylan links the third-person occurrences in the song with the memory of a first-person narrator. Much like the meeting of the man and the woman in the song is a “simple twist of fate,” Dylan himself is twisting the narrative perspective of the song.

The last verse of the song is also told in a first-person tense:

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.

With these lines, Dylan rips off his mask all the way in the final scene to reveal that the man being sung about in the song has been the narrator all along: “This isn’t about someone else. It’s about me. It’s about her.” Furthermore, not only is there the reveal of a narrator within the song, Dylan has acknowledged that there are autobiographical aspects of the song. When he sang “Simple Twist of Fate” on the live Bob Dylan at Budokan album in 1978, he introduced the song by saying, “Here’s a simple love story. Happened to me.” Though Dylan is not always the most reliable of sources, additional confirmation came from journalist Anne Margaret Daniel, who analyzed the private notebooks in which Dylan composed the songs for Blood on the Tracks. She discovered that the original title for “Simple Twist of Fate” was in fact “‘4th Street Affair,’ recalling the address of the apartment where [Dylan and Suze Rotolo] began to live together in early 1962.” Of course, Rotolo was Dylan’s girlfriend in the early 60s. Dylan confirmed that the song was about her when performing the song in London on June 30, 1981 by singing: “He walked along through the city blocks / Hunts her down – he remembers Suze when she talks.”

Knowing this information, we can connect Dylan and the narrator of “Simple Twist of Fate” as one in the same. Besides, Dylan himself is singing the song, so it’s easy for us to accept this song as Dylan’s point of view. When he sings, “I remember well,” it transforms the song into memory. As Ellison writes in the quotation included at the beginning of this post, our memories are unreliable because they are viewed within our own identity. Memories should not always be treated as straight history as we are “inattentive idealists.” Through the composition of “Simple Twist of Fate,” Dylan shares Ellison’s belief about the nature of memory, evidenced through the perspective shifts within the text of the song. Additionally, there is an out-of-time element to the song. The narrative which is presented depicts a one-night stand, but knowing that the song is about Rotolo, the song transforms into the story of an entire love affair from beginning to end. The moments within the song — sitting in the park, walking by an old canal, searching the waterfront docks  — are no longer viewed as happening within a confined amount of time as in a one-night stand, but rather in a timeless context as one would look back on a relationship. Dylan once described the free verse of Arthur Rimbaud as a “chain of flashing images.” Here, Dylan is utilizing the same technique when capturing specific moments from his memory of the relationship. Ultimately, Dylan singing “I remember well,” is an ironic statement because the entire nature of the song is a contortion of perspective and time. Therefore, the use of the word “twist” in the title of the song is not only about the actions of the characters in the song, but also serves as a sign of the twisting that occurs when considering  one’s own memory.

One of the mysterious references in “Simple Twist of Fate” is found within the following lines: “He hears the ticking of the clocks / And walks along with a parrot that talks.” What’s with the parrot? Is Dylan a pirate? Is he in a tropical locale, playing the part of an American expatriate abroad? Curiously, the reference to the parrot was seemingly revealed more than 30 years after the release of Blood on the Tracks when Dylan hosted Theme Time Radio Hour. During the “Dogs” episode, he played the song “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window” by Patti Page. In the song, Page expresses how much she wants that doggie in the window by listing animals that she doesn’t want. She specifically sings: “I don’t want a parrot that talks.” Is it outlandish that Dylan would reference a Patti Page song in “Simple Twist of Fate”? He expresses his admiration for her work in the intro to the song on Theme Time Radio Hour by saying:

“Here’s a record that everyone always talks about when they talk about how dull radio was before rock and roll. Personally, I don’t agree with them; I think Patti Page made beautiful records.”

Moving beyond Patti Page and parrots, there is another fascinating reference within “Simple Twist of Fate” which connects to another song Dylan would write a year later. In “Simple Twist of Fate,” Dylan sings the line: “I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring.” Dylan expands on the concept of the ideal lover as a sibling in the eyes of God in his song “Oh, Sister” on the album Desire:

The comparison between that line from “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Oh, Sister” deserves its own essay, outside the purview of this post. When Dylan hit the road with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 after the release of Blood on the Tracks and before Desire, “Oh, Sister” was a featured part of the tour’s setlist. Dylan also performed “Simple Twist of Fate” regularly as well. Most notably, Dylan sang the song during a special Revue appearance at a mahjong parlor of all places in Falmouth, MA, on October 28, 1975. The recording of that performance was released as part of Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings:

Before the release of this recording in 2019, the only way those of us who hadn’t seen Renaldo and Clara even knew of Dylan’s performance of “Simple Twist of Fate” at the mahjong parlor was through a description by Sam Shepard in Rolling Thunder Logbook, an account of his participation in the Rolling Thunder Revue. In this scene, Shepard tells us that the mahjong parlor is filled with middle-aged and senior citizen Jewish women. Before Dylan takes the stage, Allen Ginsberg reads one of his poems. Shepard writes:

“[Ginsberg] approaches the podium, brown suit, papers in hand, looking for all the world like a latter-day Whitman with black trimmings instead of gray. He mounts a tall stool and hunches into the microphone. The ladies smile charitably and Allen begins his piece. His long, terrifying, painful prayer to his mother. These are mothers too, but the needle’s too close to the vein. The mothers go from patient acquiescence to giggled embarrassment to downright disgust as Allen keeps rolling away at them. His low rumbling sustained vowel sounds becoming more and more dirgelike and persistent.”

It is within this atmosphere that Dylan takes the stage. At the beginning of the recording, there’s a halting, yet lavish introduction for Dylan as an unknown drummer walks him up to the stage with a resort band beat. Dylan gets to the microphone and says, “Thank you,” and laughs. The laughter must be at the combination of the awkward introduction, the showbiz drumming, and the odd mood in the room. Shepard continues:

“Dylan moves up on the platform to the rickety old upright piano used for years for the sole purpose of producing middle-class pablum Big Band sounds of the 30s and 40s. He sits, stabs his bony fingers into the ivory, and begins a pounding version of ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ Here is where it’s at. The Master Arsonist. The place is smoking within five minutes. The ladies are jumping and twitching deep within their corsets. The whole piano is shaking and seems on the verge of jumping right off the wooden platforms. Dylan’s cowboy heel is driving a hole through the floor.”

The driving excitement of the performance that Shepard describes is evident in the recording. Dylan is playing piano here instead of guitar as heard on the studio recording. If there is anyone else from the band playing, we can’t hear as the recording is all Dylan’s vocals, his hot shit piano playing, and the cymbals from the drummer. Dylan substitutes the word “clarinet” instead of “saxophone” as the instrument playing far away. Is that a nod to the “Big Band sounds of the 30s and 40s” that Shepard describes? Dylan does indeed burn that place down. After he finishes, Dylan yells with a smile, “All right!” It’s a captivating performance. Shepard tells us how witnessing it shapes his own view of Dylan:

“This is Dylan’s true magic. Leave aside his lyrical genius for a second and just watch this transformation of energy which he carries. Only a few minutes ago the place was deadly thick with tension and embarrassment, and now he’s blown the top right off it. He’s infused the room with a high feeling of life-giving excitement. It’s not the kind of energy that drives people off the deep end but the kind that brings courage and hope and above all brings life pounding into the foreground. If he can do it here, in the dead of winter, at an off-season seaside resort full of menopause, then it’s no wonder he can rock the nation.”

Dylan would go on to perform the song later in the tour for a traditional rock music audience:

Dylan performs the song by himself on guitar once again, leaving the piano behind. The tempo is much more upbeat than the studio recording, but not reaching the burn-down-the-theater level of intensity at the mahjong parlor. He adjusts the melody slightly, adding a minor chord here and there. The word “fate” is sung with multiple notes, dropping down to a lower octave as a way to emphasize the end of each verse. Dylan toys with the lyrics throughout, substituting different words and turns of phrases. As in at the mahjong parlor, he changes the entire last verse, leaving behind the idea of the woman at the center of the song as his twin. Instead, Dylan sings:

People tell me it’s a crime
To know and feel too much at any one time
She should’ve caught me in my prime
She would’ve stayed with me
‘Stead of going off to sea and leaving me to meditate
Upon that simple twist of fate.

This rewritten last verse further emphasizes the regret that Dylan-as-narrator has in not holding onto the relationship. The emotion is certainly there in the studio version, but “She should’ve caught me in my prime” tells us that he knows he didn’t have the necessary experience to be with her. He simply wasn’t ready for the relationship.

It’s interesting to compare these renditions from the Rolling Thunder Revue with how Dylan presents “Simple Twist of Fate” a few years later during the 1978 tour as captured on Bob Dylan at Budokan:

This is a full band performance as the solo acoustic delivery is gone. There’s a different sort of charm to this rendition as Dylan is leaning into the nascent jazz feel of the song’s chord structure. This sound can get a bit on the nose as Dylan sings the line about the saxophone playing, there’s an actual saxophone player who doesn’t miss the opportunity to let the audience hear what the narrator is supposed to be hearing. There’s a big build up to the music leading up to the final verse in which Dylan again changes the last verse. He sings:

People tell me it’s a crime
To remember her for too long a time
She should’ve caught me in my prime
She would’ve stayed with me
‘Stead of going off to sea and leaving me to meditate
Upon that simple twist of fate.

The important line change here is the second line: “To remember her for too long a time.” By adding this line, Dylan emphasizes that while the song is about a relationship, the notion of memory is even more prominent. Indeed, as Dylan utilizes the word “meditate” in the new final verse, the song is truly understood as a meditation on memory. Through the different performances and rewrites of “Simple Twist of Fate” Dylan is inhabiting the role of Ellison’s notion of an “inattentive idealist” as he plays with the ideas of perspective, time, and memory.

Image: William James, 1908, Couple rowing in lagoon, Toronto Island, Toronto History from Toronto, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “Simple Twist of Fate

  1. This might sound dumb, but it strikes me, reading this, that a common theme in Dylan’s early work is what a walkable city New York is. Across the river, Mr. Springsteen gets in his car when he’s ready to take a long walk, but Bob is adrift walking the streets and along the old canal (now also a street, but real New Yorkers know which streets besides Canal St. were once waterways). His emotional landscape resides in this physical landscape.

    In Dirge, he sings “I went down on Lower Broadway, and I felt that place within, the hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.” The darkest place in the soul has a street address; you can get there on the 6 train. That’s Dylan’s New York (and every New Yorker’s).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Love the insight! For Dylan, “Simple Twist of Fate” is a memory of a relationship as well as a specific place. It could be argued that New Yorkers are inattentive idealists about New York.

      Like

  2. 3 of us, all 19 years old, drove 3700 kms (2200 miles) in only 8 days in 1975. Melbourne to Barcaldine and back. Blood on the Tracks, on cassette, is all we listened to on that trip. It is the best album I have ever owned. I have needed to repurchase it maybe 7 times so far, vinyl, cassette, cd and hopefully, finally digital.

    Liked by 1 person

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