Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Changing of the Guards

Bob makes some changes
Sixteen years into his job.
He might have found God.

One of the most vague and sometimes annoying songs in Bob Dylan's catalogue, "Changing of the Guards" is an anthem full of willful obscurity, best viewed from a distance. Musically it sounds fine, but my experience always has been that I listen to the words more as sounds and focus on the music, or else I start asking myself too many questions about "what it all means."

I couldn't avoid that question any longer, however, so I concluded that in 1978, 16 years after his commercial debut, he was announcing a number of changes in his moral, spiritual and musical path. Why 16? Because the song begins with the words, "Sixteen years, sixteen banners united over the field where the good shepherd grieves."

Then there's divorce and opposition and departure: "Desperate men, desperate women divided, Spreading their wings 'neath the falling leaves."

Other "clues:"

Entrance upon the professional stage: "Fortune calls, I stepped from the shadows to the marketplace."

And his historical problem with hangers-on and managers: "Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down."

What to make of the captain sending loving thoughts to a woman beyond communication, with an "ebony face," and who eventually has her head shaved and is torn between Jupiter and Apollo? No idea. For what it's worth, he follows her past a fountain, but it sounds like he loses her.

Then there's the heart-shaped tattoo with stitches still mending, dog soldiers reflected in a palace of mirrors, lovemaking with a blonde, long-haired guy and gal amid mountain laurel, another rejection of the music business: "Gentlemen, he said, I don't need your organization, I've shined your shoes, I've moved your mountains and marked your cards."

Then there's the challenge that he issues to all the grubbers, mooches and other people in his life: "But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards."

And finally, peace comes, but apparently it's represented by false idols -- perhaps an early reference to the more explicitly stated idea on the "Infidels" album that "sometimes Satan come as a man of peace." And then there's a thoroughly obscure reference to death surrendering, and the death of death retreating between two tarot cards. Right. Enjoy yourself...

("Changing of the Guard" was the first song on the "Street Legal" album of 1978, a period after Bob's divorce when you get the impression that he was entering a period of sour milk moods and general grumpiness, not long before he'd find Jesus and enter a period of general religious grumpiness.)

I can't get the Dylan version to load, so here's Frank Black and the Catholics doing their own raucous take.




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