The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #17 “Simple Twist Of Fate”

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“Here’s a simple love story, happened to me.”

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.


9 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

    Is much better.

    Perhaps the most complete song on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Shelter From The Storm” are at least as good lyrically, but I don’t think they’re as perfect musically.

    “You’re A Big Girl Now” and “Buckets Of Rain” are lush – with some great lines – buck lacking the depth of the album’s big four.

    Best song on the list.

  2. Evan, – gerat summation of this song and its place in the Dylan cannon. The “Tangled Up” / “Simple Twist” lead in to Blood on the Tracks is one of, if not the greatest, 1-2 punches of all time for ‘rock’ albums.

    I’m glad you mentioned the Garcia version from 1991. It really represents one of Garcia’s best-ever takes on a Dylan song. Great guitar work and a bass solo from John Kahn. They really stretched out a song that one would not think of as a “jam” tune. Very tasteful version. Garcia usually got Dylan right; Bob Weir on the other hand did not have the taste or interpretive skills to sing Dylan songs correctly.

  3. Wouldn’t call Garcia’s version ‘jazzy’ by any means, but I would say to anyone reading this, get you hands on a copy of the album “Jerry Garcia Band.” Not only is there the moving version of “Simple Twist of Fate,” but an equally moving version of “I Shall Be Released,” a jovial “Tangled Up In Blue,” and a wonderful version of “Senior.” Plus, the other songs on the album are fantastic too. No one does Dylan like Dylan the saying goes, but Jerry Garcia will make you think about it.

  4. The two versions are equally good … and that’s the point. My favourite Dylan tune – possibly my favourite tune. On Dylan’s 1984 European tour he played this song on at least half the dates … but changed the lyrics for every performance! Like any Dylan tune, part of it is the delivery. The timing. Greil Marcus talks about the delivery of one of those verses at a concert in San Francisco in 1981.

    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 …

    (you’re wondering what’s coming next)

    … instead of going off to sea

    (you’re wondering how he’s going to bring it back)

    And leaving me to meditate …

    (he gotcha)

    … on a simple twist of fate.

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