Simple twist of fate: a knife twists inside a simple song

By Tony Attwood

Simple Twist of Fate” is the second song on Blood on the Tracks released in 1975.

Its position continues the long established tradition of having an upbeat opening track and then a slow or sombre second track.  Just listen to the end of Tangled up in blue and the opening of this track – the contrast is overwhelming.

But Simple Twist of Fate is not just the obligatory slow number slotted in as track two, for this is a song of magnificence – an incredibly complex revelation contained in six musically identical verses.  As such it is a true masterpiece of songwriting.

It is a song that is at the start reliant on the descending bass line with variations.   The chord sequence, while not unusual in pop and rock is unusual in Dylan – I can’t think where else this approach is used in Dylan’s songs.  And it contains a twist.

The recording is in F major, and the moment that sticks in the memory throughout is the move from B flat to B flat minor in the fourth line (for example “’Twas then he felt alone”).  It is not a Dylan invention, but it portrays musically all the pathos and depth of feeling that the lyrics contain.

The accompaniment is simple: the acoustic guitar strumming, bass guitar and harmonica when there is no vocal.    Indeed the complexity of the meaning combined with the simplicity of the music has made it a song that many like to sing – Joan Baez included it on Diamonds and Rust, and Brian Ferry on Dylanesque, plus many others.

The simplicity of the music seems to be apparent in the lyrics from the start – the lovers meet but the man feels this isn’t going to work for some reason…

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

So we know there is a history, and wait to find out what.  But then two things happen to the song which turn everything upside down.  On occasion the “He” becomes “I” while the woman turns out to be a prostitute working the docks and the singer is an old man harking after the charms of a young woman.  The he/I dichotomy gives us a difficult feeling, while the tale of an old man and a hooker seems out of place with the gentle melody and chord sequence.

In fact, if ever there is a Dylan song that gives you a knife in the heart after fooling you at the start this is it.  You need a strong heart to take this…

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

What are we to make of this “I remember well”.  It seems in fact that the story teller is looking back to his past and is so removed from that past that he now confuses his personal memories with those which, because of the pain of the memory, he has had to place outside himself.

If you have ever experienced that pain, and had to take to that final recourse of separation from yourself to deal with it – or should I say if you are old enough to have to do that – then you will know the level of the anguish of what might have been, but now can never be.

So now we think we have this juxtaposition sorted, we understand the pain, but then Dylan hits us again.

A saxophone some place far off played
As she was walking by the arcade
As the light burst through a beat-up shade where he was waking up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

He can’t forget her and his casual encounter.  But she is up and on with her work, although showing a feeling for those worse off than her that might take us by surprise.

Now Dylan either does one of his time-mix tricks where we find the story is not told in sequence or he wakes the next day, and finds she is not there when he has perhaps been dreaming of her, tries to deal with it, but can’t.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

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

The “he could not relate” line is the key to the “I” / “he” dichotomy – the “he” and “I” are the same person, because as this line says, the man cannot relate to these feelings.  He is truly lost.

Then time passes, he searches her out, desperately hoping to find her again, but nothing is in his control.  She has the power and he is lost.

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

And then we move on to this wonderful final, final verse.  It hardly feels as if Dylan has been singing a straight strophic song with no variations – that B flat to B flat minor pulls the heart every time and keeps us focussed.  He draws his conclusion – and for anyone who lives in a world of emotion and feeling – anyone who understands what it means to feel the pain of “if only” knows what he is saying with the opening two lines.

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

And now the “I” comes back, the eternal wishing for and thinking about a woman whom he met but could never get to know, could never love, but who is forever in his mind.  The beautiful woman symbolising everything hopeful – she was born in spring.  He is in the autumn of his life, and thus they are forever separated.

So strong is the emotion that the ability to separate himself into the “other man” who had these feelings, and the actual man living in the real world, now breaks down.  He is that man, and all the pretending in the world cannot remove that reality.

The pain of memory is there, and is eternal.

Index to all the songs, and the articles


  1. I’ve never quite got my head around the lyrics of this song. I’ve always been fascinated by it over the years though & never tire of listening. Thank you so much for the interpretation – it all falls into place now.

  2. Three things: 1. Jerry Garcia used to play this and his versions are incredible and heartbreaking. 2. He was “born too late,” meaning he was YOUNGER, not OLDER. The whole thing happened in his youth (where she was probably a more mature woman) and he’s recalling it wistfully now, which honestly makes the “he/I” disconnect make more sense overall. 3. This song reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “Ralph: A Love Story” by Donald Justice. Highly recommended. Thank you!

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  4. I agree with mtlhwk above. I always took it as a 50-something-year-old man remembering his past, when he loved a woman older than himself, who he truly loved but was unable to keep. He goes to a prostitute to forget, but instead remembers as if it had all happened yesterday, and in the end, trying to find the prostitute again, is left alone with only his memories. Easier to blame that simple twist of fate than to blame himself, I guess. Such a sad song… and if you hear Jerry Garcia sing it, it will give you chills. I have heard versions that literally made me weep… especially at the end.

  5. Dylan likes to mixup the medicine in his song lyrics calling upon souls within the house of poetic history.

    “With a neon burning bright/
    He felt the heat of the night”

    takes us back in time to:
    “Tiger, tiger, burning bright/
    In the forest of the night”

    A Blake line he uses in ‘Roll On John”.

    “She dropped a coin in the cup/
    Of a blindman at the gate”

    to John Whittier:

    “How blessed the swineherd’s low estate/
    The beggar crouching at ths gate”
    (Chapel of Hermits)

    Later in “Scarlet Town” by Dylan:

    “Beggars crouching at the gate/
    Help comes but it comes to late”

    In Scarlet Town, Dylan speaks of the garment hem being torn that he touches while Whittier lines goes
    ‘Who touched His seamess garment”; the Quaker poet also speaks of the ‘Light of the New Jerusalem’ bringing it all back home to William Blake.
    Samplings from poets and songwriters, as well from blues and folk music, is a Dylan hallmark;
    Disguised as Robin Hood, he’s an artistic genius from Desolation Row, a master thief from Tin Pan Alley.

  6. Dylan refers again to Blake:

    “And did those feet in ancient time/
    Walk upon England’s mountain green”
    (William Blake: Jerusalem)

    “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea”
    (Dylan: Every Grain Of Sand)

  7. I think it is a dream, where he meets the female part of himself. The female part leaves him and he feels lonely.

    “Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate
    Brought on by a simple twist of fate”

    It is a simple twist of fate if you are a male or a female. What would you do if you met the male/female version of yourself?

    Would you scream and run away or would you stay 😉

  8. Thank you for the interpretation. Amazingly, this song has always had the ability to break my heart, but I never had any idea why!

    Two things:
    1) But I lost the ring – what does that mean?
    2) walks around with a parrot that talks – Is that a woman that he can have, that is vastly inferior to the one he can’t? Or what? If he is literally walking around with a parrot, it’s kind of random and clumsy, even, not in character with the writer.

  9. I’ve seen no mention of it, but it seems significant that Dylan has altered the lyrics of this song significantly in performances. For instance, he’s changed the “parrot that talks” to “alone the city blocks” and the first line of the last stanza to “people tell me it’s a crime, to feel to much at any one time.” These aren’t the “official” lyrics as they were originally recorded and still published on Dylan’s web site, but we have to wonder what moved him to make these lyrical alterations in performances. Any theories?

  10. Some of the changes are a reply to joan baez who changed some of the lines herself..they sang these back and forth to each other during the rolling thunder revue

  11. He is the blind man at the gate with the tin cup. She did not recognize him, perhaps deliberately. He can hear the ticking of a clock, but his eyes are the parrot that talks. The melancholy in this song is so powerful, that I wonder how Dylan conjured it up so powerfully, such insight and masterfully told the story of two humans who would never meet again, she was born in spring, he was born too late. Sarah Jarosz’ cover of this song is worth a listen :

  12. Hi Kevin,
    “But I lost the ring”

    I think it’s the brass ring on the merry-go-round. For a moment he had the prize, but then “I lost the ring”

  13. Reportedly, Dylan sometimes wrote lyrics that were personal, then made changes to make them vague and universal. This was said specifically of Blood on the Tracks, where early, raw versions of some of the songs recorded in New York were replaced with new versions recorded in Minnesota.

    There’s an example of that with Simple Twist of Fate. In an early performance on September 10, 1975 (available online, “Bob Dylan: The World of John Hammond), the third verse starts: “He woke up and she was gone, he didn’t see nothing but the dawn, he got out of bed and put his clothes back on, pushed back the blind, found a note she’d left behind.” The final verse is quite different too, especially “She should have caught me in my prime, she would have stayed with me, instead of going off to sea.”

    Based on those early lyrics, the song seems not about a prostitute, but rather a look back at his important relationships at the time his marriage to Sara was breaking up. Suze Rotolo went “off to sea” to “Italy, Italy,” an apparent subject of other Dylan songs. Dylan and Baez famously shared a room in the crummy hotel overlooking Washington Square that she wrote about in Diamonds and Rust (there may even be video of the hotel in Don’t Look Back), they were briefly twins (the king and queen of folk music), and she has said Bob once raised the question of marriage, though the ring in the last verse could also apply to Sara or be meant in a general sense (“I Threw It All Away”).

    Basically, I think Simple Twist of Fate is the slow version of Tangled Up in Blue. The official lyrics are better poetry, but the real hurt (“she would have stayed with me”) is in the early version and it’s easy to imagine why the changes were made.

  14. I really like how he implies that the universe conspired for them to meet and be together but also for them to break up by saying ‘I was born too late’. He is not saying that he was younger than her but rather that he was immature. however if he had been any older they probably would never have met.
    I still think he says ‘I lost the RAIN’ (ie the feeling) and ‘she was born in SPAIN’ – perhaps he is being very specific and yet deliberately vague as to who this could be about. Hmm, ‘Boots of Spanish leather’, anyone? Could he be speaking about Suze’s trip to Europe where she grew up while Bob had remained wayward and immature?

    I don’t believe Bob loved Joan Baez, instead he was starstruck by her and then rode her coat tail to achieve his own fame. Suze was his true love, his soulmate, his ”twin”. When asked about their break up in No Direction Home he answered rather cryptically ‘ You can’t be wise and in love at the same time’

  15. Have listened to this song a lot over the last few years. This article really opens it up more deeply for me. The album following his separation from Sarah evokes such deep imagery and pure suffering from lifetimes. I see archetypal patterns in the verses – he is relating to different women from different times of his life, all reflecting his anima, which all men try to form union with. It’s illusive and sweet and cruel at the same time. But god when the heat of the night hits there is nothing in life like it – and for me that is on many levels in a loving sensual relationship, never long enough and always overwhelming and leaves me clutching for scraps of the memory.

  16. Another few thoughts:

    The lyric is ‘another blind man at the gate’ not ‘of a blind man at the gate’ which to me is a direct reference to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

    To me this has to do with the BIG love of Dylan’s life Sarah, and more importantly the timeless and eternal relationship he has with the feminine or his anima, that operates according to destiny and fate. You have to be picked out by chance, you can’t choose the grace of this kind of bliss.

    I was struck by the writer’s observation that the music is surprisingly gentle considering the two characters of an old man and a hooker, and also that she would give a coin to someone less well off. Why? Is it not possible for them both to have gentle, even sublime emotions even with the desperation (or maybe because of) their lives may be filled with?

  17. I’ve heard some people say how when he says “she looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones. ”Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’s gone straight and watch for a simple twist of fate” that he is referring to a gay man that falls in love with a women, and the realizes that he should have been straight or heterosexual

  18. The parrot that talks being his wife that he “settled” for I had never considered. That brings the whole song together. I think he married someone that he settled for and then (probably for many years) degraded her in his mind because she wasn’t his “soul mate” that he met as a young man. I remember when I was young and older women I had relations with and their comfortable nature in their own skin is intoxicating when you’re used to young girls that don’t have that depth yet. So I imagine him walking along the docks with his wife and reminiscing and fantasizing about what his life should have been.

    PS I always assumed he had an actual parrot and would troll for hookers by looking the part of a sailor. Essentially he’s gone mad. The parrot being a woman makes so much sense. Thanks! I hope my post is readable.

  19. One way of thinking about the song is as a parable – the parting is what happened, the length of the relationship is indeterminate. And he is ‘the blind man at the gate’ who has been given a coin.

  20. I can’t say I agree that the woman in the song is a “prostitute”. The song seems to tell the story of two people looking for the same thing and are unable to find it one another. She moves on to someone else while the man is unable to. Which brings me to my next thought.

    I used to think, as you write, that the word “relate” was used to mean in relation to something else or some other past event. However, having listened to the evolution of the song on the new Bootleg Series, I have come to think that in the “could not relate” line Dylan is instead saying the man cannot express his emptiness, that he has never felt anything like it and is, like an angry child, unable to describe his pain in a mature, healthy manner. Being that he cannot communicate his pain, the man wallows in it, searching for the woman, playing with the wound. The song is clearly written from an older POV, one in which the writer CAN express the emptiness in words, naming it and describing it. The same for the “kiss her for the kid” line on Your’re a Big Girl Now. It’s not a kid he’s writing about but himself, who was a kid then but is no longer, both physically and emotionally (or so the writer thinks).

    I also don’t believe the woman has any power at all. In fact it seems to me that she is far more experienced with these types of romantic issues and simply moves on. They are both lost, but the woman can relate the pain, deal with it, move on. The man cannot. As for the final verse, I always think of Citizen Kane and Mr. Bernstein talking about what a man remembers, mentioning a girl he saw on a ferry: “She was carrying a white parasol,” Mr. Bernstein says. “I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

    I enjoyed the piece. Keep up the great work!

  21. I don’t agree with this interpretation because I think it’s taking the narrative too literally. Lines like she drops a coin in the tin of the old man read as meataphires for what has happened between them. He feels like she has given him a token of compassion and attention, there’s not much connection or real care there, she’s just getting on with her job. The conceit if her as a prostitute is also metaphorical, this is how he perceives she treats him and there is real butt Ness and pain there that she hs not shared his profound sense of union and instead rendered it something cheap that takes place in an old hotel. This is about the feelings he has and his perceptions if how she has behaved in the relationship. There’s no assertion that it’s the truth from her side and he acknowledges that his jadedness is to blame. She was born in spring but he too late. There are echoes of the archetypal Shakespeare tragedy of Romeo and Juliette which turned around timing and anyone who has ever experienced loss of a relationship because of that understands how critical being in the same place mentally emotionally and physically it is for a relationship to work. Indeed a simple twist if fate is a great interpretation of that tragedy where tltheur timing was just off enough for it to all go wrong. I think beyond the expression of pain the importance of this song is its pointing to our ultimate powerlessness, that this is the tragedy of the human predicament, we are at the mercy of fate or karma or tiime, whatever name you give it and surrender to that is all we can do to find freedom in acceptance. The lyrics express the pain of knowing this and still holding out sine resistance but point to the ultimate liberation that will fine when surrender is complete

  22. Thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts on what I consider one of Bob’s finest .

  23. I pretty much agree with Tony’s description of what the song is about and read through all the comments, like all great songs the lyrics mean different things things to different people, when I first heard heard it I was in tears, relating to an example in my life where I possibly let a soul mate- twin, which was much younger slip through my fingers- too late, regret, what if ? Which I’m sure everyone has experienced, thanks Bob for your Poetic description of the human condition and regret.

  24. The hotel where she left, is seen in the video of “Unbelievable”. Is the Dylanstory a puzzle? Yes.
    The twist of fate that brought her back to him, it happened, we can hear that in his songs after 1989. They broke up for a long time. And they kept their reunion “confidential” – this is also a song – and then she fell ill and died of lung cancer in 2011. In The Tempest, we can hear Dylan mourning his loss.

  25. I have yet to come across an interpretation of these lyrics that addresses what I believe is a critical line in the 1st verse: “and wished that he’d gone straight”. There is so much in this lyrical story, in fact the entirety of it, that could key off the internal struggles of a young man’s uncertainties around his sexual identity. For instance: “a little confused I remember well”; feelings “to which he just could not relate”; her picking HIM out (and he passively going along); discovering that she *could* be his true love/emotional object (“twin”); sadness that he was too young at the time (“born too late”) and therefore not mature enough at a pivotal time in his life to know his true heart. And he’s a dockman, or a merchant marine sailor — all exclusively male environments, where gay men — or men who believe they might be gay — could reasonably be expected to gravitate towards.
    Anyway, I stumbled on a JGB version being played a week or so ago on Sirius GD channel 23, and decided to learn it on guitar, and find it’s a very pretty and fairly easy tune to fiddle around with. Classic Dylan, and yet another example of why Jerry loved to cover his stuff so much.

  26. I read these interpretations and possibly am more confused. However I like that elusiveness. The ‘going straight’ reference never meant gay to me, I thought he might be an addict regretting not turning his life around, and this is why he is on the streets as she goes by, neither recognising their ‘brief encounter’ of years ago. I enjoyed Carson Mckee’s cover of this (apologies if that surname is mis spelled)

  27. Thank you so much for this article, I’m in a BLOOD ON THE TRACKS rabbit hole these days so I think a lot about these lyrics.

    I totally agree with Mario here, no way does “gone straight” mean gone from gay to straight. He wishes he had taken the straight path and not whatever detour led him to this bench which is the beginning of love wrecking him. Too bad I didn’t just go straight and avoid that whole mess.

    I read this specifically because I was hoping to get a good theory on “but I lost the ring.” The most obvious interpretation seems to be a wedding ring but it’s like, that’s a bridge too far to get to what he’s really trying to say here. I’m not sold on any of the other response’s ideas… WHAT DOES THIS MEAN??

  28. Also, is the author Tony Attwood, the psychology professor? If not, does this Tony Attwood have a website?

  29. No I am not Tony Attwood the expert in Aspergers. He lives in Australia and works in a university there. This Tony Attwood (ie me) lives and works in England, and I work as a writer, and have specialised particularly in writing concerning the organisation of schools, and psychological matters, particularly concerning dyscalculia. Running this website is a hobby.

  30. Hi Tony, thanks for this great article and website. It’s interesting that both you and the other Tony Attwood have an interest in psychology. I assume your name must have set you on that path.

    If you have time at some point, I’d love to hear if you have a theory on the line that ends, “but I lost the ring.”

    Thank you!

  31. In mythology, Persephone, kidnapped by Pluto, returns to the upper world in springtime to Adonis; she returns to the Underworld in autumn; Venus and Adonis get it on; things turn out badly:

    People tell me it’s a sin
    That’s it’s wrong, it’s wicked, and it’s too far down in
    I let her get under my skin
    Under my skin too late

  32. Referenced in the variation “I still believe she was my twin”, could be Apollo, the musician Sun God, and his wise twin sister Artemis, the Moon Goddess.

    Being Apollo is better; Adonis is mortal.

  33. Since first listen, I’ve always heard the line “lost the ring” as “lost the rein”, as if the relationship was under control, evolving, steering together — then he lost control (maybe as he “felt too much within”?) and dropped the rein. Not sure, but isn’t that kind of an old cowboy saying? “All was going as planned ’til I lost the reins …”? Funny how that works. Been hearing it like that for 30 years.

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