Dylan Covers Week No 8: Changing of the Guards - Patti Smith
Well, we've had a week - that is seven entries - of Dylan covers and I realise there's still loads of great tracks we haven't covered yet, so Dylan Covers Week is going to have to extend for a fortnight.
In 2016, when Dylan was announced as that year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was one of those who thought it was a travesty, when there are so many poets and novelists who have spent their lives writing and who I thought probably deserve it and need it more.
But I have since changed my mind. An article from the Guardian of 2/4/17 quotes from the blog of Sara Danius, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary:
"Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse...Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: ‘Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes,’ loosely translated as 'And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery'."
....the significant bit being the fact that they have quoted from Virgil, a Roman poet most famous for the epic poem the Aeneid which he wrote consciously following in the tradition of the Greek poet Homer. Whether Homer the individual ever existed is much debated, but at the very least he represents a tradition of oral poetry that was most probably composed, modified and sung by bards travelling the Greek world of the Eastern Mediterranean around 700 BC. As they went from polis to polis (the Greek city states of the time) these bards performed poems that were essentially tales of adventure, heroism, tragedy and and general derring-do by Greek kings and warriors. These took the form of great epic poems which were unlikely to be performed at one sitting but more likely as segments over several evenings or by themselves, like a greatest hit. The two surviving Homeric epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey. And these are widely credited as being the the first identifiable origins of Western poetry, and thus literature altogether. About a hundred or so years later, on the island of Lesbos, another Greek poet called Sappho - this time definitely identifiable as having existed - essentially invented love poetry and her poems were, once again, written to be performed to music as songs.
Much of Dylan's best work clearly falls into these two forms: the epic fragment and the love song, arguably moreso than the work of any recording artist. His language is poetic and musical, full of the arts of rhetoric, his love songs redolent of the character of his lovers, so much more than the trite boy meets girl platitudes of his contemporaries songs such as the Beatles, the Stones or even Paul Simon. And unlike the poets and novelists of now, but like Homer and Sappho, he's a widely listened to bard, the troubadour for our troubled times. And instead of never making it beyond the confines of papyrus, he's continuing a live tradition that's nearly three thousand years old!
From "Shelter from the Storm" on the LP "Blood on the Tracks" onwards, Dylan produces more and more "epic fragments", seemingly extracts from a larger heroic action story and "Changing of the Guards", especially as rendered by Patti Smith, is one of the best. Here Dylan's song works on two levels, the love story against the backdrop of the tumult of the fall of a city or even an empire. We have romance and tragedy; myths, battles, angels and soldiers; a king and a queen, Greek gods; internal rhymes and striking images; line after line that takes your breath away when you stop to look and listen.
I've set it all out in full below in one chunk, no stanza gaps, like a Penguin Classic. Read it - like we do nowadays - it's epic.
Sixteen years Sixteen banners united over the field Where the good shepherd grieves Desperate men, desperate women divided Spreading their wings 'neath the falling leaves
Fortune calls I stepped forth from the shadows to the marketplace Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down She's smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born On midsummer's eve, near the tower
The cold-blooded moon The captain waits above the celebration Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid Whose ebony face is beyond communication The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid
They shaved her head She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo A messenger arrived with a black nightingale I seen her on the stairs and I couldn't help but follow Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil
I stumbled to my feet I rode past destruction in the ditches With the stitches still mending 'neath a heart-shaped tattoo Renegade priests and treacherous young witches Were handing out the flowers that I'd given to you
The palace of mirrors Where dog soldiers are reflected The endless road and the wailing of chimes The empty rooms where her memory is protected Where the angels' voices whisper to the souls of previous times
She wakes him up Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks She's begging to know what measures he now will be taking He's pulling her down and she's clutching on to his long golden locks
Gentlemen, he said I don't need your organisation, I've shined your shoes I've moved your mountains and marked your cards But Eden is burning, either getting ready for elimination Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards
Peace will come With tranquility and splendour on the wheels of fire But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating Between the King and the Queen of Swords