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.

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20 Responses to Simple twist of fate: a knife twists inside a simple song

  1. Kieran says:

    Great stuff! Really enjoying this website…

  2. BigGG says:

    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.

  3. mtlhwk says:

    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!

  4. Tabitha says:

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  5. Jinq says:

    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.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    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.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    *at the /too late (typos)

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    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)

  9. Babette says:

    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 😉

  10. Kevin says:

    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.

  11. Mitch says:

    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?

  12. Gary Crawford Ph.D. says:

    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

  13. Mateus Salzmann says:

    This is one of my favorite songs ever, even though its Kind of sad it makes me feel good.

  14. Greg says:

    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 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyQdzT9Ud2U

  15. dock says:

    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”

  16. CB says:

    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.

  17. Jack Rollins says:

    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’

  18. Robert says:

    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.

  19. Robert says:

    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?

  20. Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/573/Simple-Twist-of-Fate Follow us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on TouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

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