Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dylan, Ambiguity & Changing of the Guards

To be a serious Dylan fan means, I suspect, to be affectionately attracted to the ambiguity so pervasive in many of his lyrics. Last night, as I listened to "Changing of the Guards" for perhaps the thousandth time, I was still enjoying the wordplay that hints at elusive meanings and penetrating music conveying abstract sensation with no clear understanding. Though filled with imagery, there remains a surreal inexactness to the overall story which arouses imagination and engagement.

What is it about ambiguity that gives it such appeal?

Kent Bach’s entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins his essay on ambiguity in this manner.

A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. The word 'light', for example, can mean not very heavy or not very dark. Words like 'light', 'note', 'bear' and 'over' are lexically ambiguous. They induce ambiguity in phrases or sentences in which they occur, such as 'light suit' and 'The duchess can't bear children'. However, phrases and sentences can be ambiguous even if none of their constituents is. The phrase 'porcelain egg container' is structurally ambiguous, as is the sentence 'The police shot the rioters with guns'. Ambiguity can have both a lexical and a structural basis, as with sentences like 'I left her behind for you' and 'He saw her duck'.

Bach's essay is at least partially helpful in understanding the playfulness behind some of Dylan's lexicographic misdirection. What follows are the lyrics to a song which I consider nothing less than remarkable, the opening cut on Dylan’s 1978 Street Legal album. Was Dylan telegraphing something in this song about the changes occurring in his life? This is the album that just preceded Slow Train Coming and his Christian music phase. Ponder and enjoy.

Changing Of The Guards

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

Fortune calls
I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace
Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down
She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born
On midsummer’s eve, near the tower

The cold-blooded moon
The captain waits above the celebration
Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid
Whose ebony face is beyond communication
The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid

They shaved her head
She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil

I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks
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

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Peace will come
With tranquillity and splendor on the wheels of fire
But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall
And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating
Between the King and the Queen of Swords

Copyright © 1978 by Special Rider Music

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