“Here’s a simple love story, happened to me.”
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That’s how Bob Dylan introduces “Simple Twist of Fate” on 1979’s live At Budokan album. “Simple Twist of Fate” is the sleeper hit on Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan’s most lauded album; the “divorce album” that found Dylan bottoming out emotionally, discovering a whole new writing style, and regaining the trust of the nations’ critics and disappointed Dylanologists.
Maybe it’s true that this song “happened to him,” or maybe it is one of a series of songs based on Anton Checkhov short stories, as he hinted in his autobiography, “Chronicles Vol. 1” (There is a talking parrot in Chekhov’s novel “The Shooting Party.”) Or maybe it’s both, with a whole lot of artifice thrown in.
Does it get any more poignant than “Twist of Fate?” The whole album is a monument to poignancy, poetry, looking back and pushing forward. The song itself is the sound of waking up from a dream and realizing your soul mate has just slipped through your fingers. It captures the rise and fall of a relationship on the brink of ending, but uses mostly abstract details to do so, describing the evening sky, the sound of a saxophone, and the light coming in through a beat up shade. The hypnotic, repetitive melody is a testament to the power of repetitive melodies. The first four chords are the same as the ones found in The Beatles’ “Something.”
Dylan remains a relentless tinkerer when it comes to his lyrics (you’d think someone who received so much praise for them would want to leave them as they are). For example, the songs in the Dylan compendium “Lyrics,” which served as a sort of bible for songwriters in the days before the Internet and it’s multitudes of lyric sites, often feature different phrases than the ones that made the album. Which can be annoying as all get out when you’re singing one of his songs live and using the book as your guide.
Like this little quatrain from “Meet Me in the Morning”:
The birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well, the birds are flyin’ low babe, honey I feel so exposed
Well now, I ain’t got any matches
And the station doors are closed.
Can’t say I recall hearing that verse before.
Dylan never tinkered with an album’s lyrics more than he has with Blood on The Tracks. “Simple Twist of Fate” has the distinction of existing in at least two different versions, both of which are worthy of being called definitive. The dual set of lyrics, heard in the live and studio versions, means the song never really has a fixed position. It can’t be defined; it exists on multiple planes. It’s always in flux.
Is this one of the best Dylan verses of all time?
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.
Or is this one better?
People tell me it’s a crime
To know too much for too long a time
She shoulda caught me in my prime
She would have stayed with me instead of going off to sea
And leaving me to meditate on a simple twist of fate.
Bob Dylan, wounded romantic. “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” he said in a radio interview. “It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?”
Anybody who’s a fan of “Girl From the North Country,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “One To Many Mornings,” or “Sara” can feel free to ignore him.
Joan Baez covered “Twist of Fate” the same year it was released on Diamonds and Rust, and Jerry Garcia cut a jazzier version for 1991’s Jerry Garcia Band. Most recently, Jeff Tweedy lent his golden pipes to the song for the I’m Not There soundtrack. Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall’s version can be heard here.
In 1994, Steve Martin and Gabriel Byrne starred in a movie called A Simple Twist of Fate. It wasn’t any good.