Monday, December 10, 2012

A Simple Twist of Fate

Yesterday when I wrote about short stories, I mentioned that many of Dylan's songs are themselves stories in lyric form. I cited several examples and wanted to go a little deeper here by shining a light on A Simple Twist of Fate, the second cut from what some critics call his greatest album, Blood on the Tracks.

Even the album's title has a double meaning. The initial image for most people might be railroad tracks. But in writing school there's a saying that to really produce great work you need to slit a vein and let what's inside you bleed out. The second meaning here is just this, this album comes from a place where there has been deep wounding, and the album's tracks have Dylan's blood on them.


They sat together in the park 
As the evening sky grew dark 
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones 
’Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight 
And watched out for a simple twist of fate 

The first stanza really tells the whole story. He is meeting a woman and things are going to happen, but it is not going to be a joyous moment of shared exhilaration. The way she looks at him lights him up and depresses him simultaneously, and he is fully aware of the emptiness that will come later in the story. He's been down this road before and wishes he'd avoided it.

They walked along by the old canal 
A little confused, I remember well 
And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright 
He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train 
Moving with a simple twist of fate

What impresses me here is the elegant manner in which he describes their intimacy. With a few deft strokes it's done. He doesn't dwell on any of the details. It's a contrast to the explicitness in so many films today. "He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train." Simply smashing.

A saxophone someplace far off played 
As she was walkin’ by the arcade 
As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up, 
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate 
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

There it is. The deed is done, she's already gone... because for her this is not a love affair, it's a financial transaction. The tough life a street walker. No glamor here. But notice her sensitivity displayed toward another down-and-outer like herself. Once again, there is so much contained in the details.

He woke up, the room was bare 
He didn’t see her anywhere 
He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide 
Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate 
Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He told himself he didn't care. But he was lying to himself. It hurt, because he was lying to himself going into it. Truth can be painful and inelegant.

He hears the ticking of the clocks 
And walks along with a parrot that talks 
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in 
Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait 
Once more for a simple twist of fate 

I was surprised to learn how much prostitution there was in our region's history here in Duluth and Superior. Then again, I grew up in suburbia, not a port town "where the sailors all come in." According to one very elderly bar owner whom I spoke with in Superior, many years ago the north end of Tower Avenue would see limos from Duluth's East End on Friday nights, the moneyed men supporting working girls. One of the most popular restaurants here in Duluth takes it's name from a grand dame of the trade.

And so, in this stanza our desperate hero has returned to find her again. How long must he wait?

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

He still wants to believe she's his soul mate. He still wants to believe that he's a victim of bad timing. He still wants to believe that his problem is not his own making. The problem had been created by fate. It could not be his fault. And maybe it's true. And maybe not. The pain is real in either case. 

A Simple Twist of Fate is Copyright © 1974 by Ram's Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music.

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