Bob Dylan Countdown #122: “Changing Of The Guards”

There are a few theories I have about why Street Legal, an album which contains five great songs out of nine total, a damn good batting average even for Dylan, is often maligned by critics. First of all, there isn’t any hook to the album. Blood On The Tracks was the divorce album, Desire was the epics album, and Street Legal, well, it’s more like just a collection of songs. It is indeed a bumpy ride of highs and lows, but those highs are stratospheric.

I also have read in multiple sources that the sound was a bit muddled in the original release. I was only six years old upon the original release in 1978, at which point the only music I had in my collection was a Barry Manilow 8-track. (Don’t judge.) I bought Street Legal on Super Audio CD (remember those?) along with a bunch of Dylan’s other albums to fill out my collection about 10 years ago, and the sound is great. This song in particular, featuring the sax work of Steve Douglas and Dylan’s barking of the lyrics, really jumps.

My point is that, since the album gets a bad rap, some of the songs get dragged down with it. Which is a shame with “Changing Of The Guards,” a pretty fine piece of work. I’m not going to presume that I understand everything going on here, but the thing I like the most about the song is the feeling like there is something at stake.

What I mean by that is, if you can pick through all of the ornate imager, shifting perspectives, and fantastical settings, each of the characters that veer in and out of the song seem to be at a personal precipice, some turning point from which their lives can pivot in any one of several directions. In most cases, they are left at this point by Dylan, leaving us hanging until the next character is introduced.

The penultimate verse is a standout, the point at which all of these underlying stories coalesce in a statement of purpose and prophecy. A character addresses a group of onlookers and says that his days of humoring them are over, because the times are about to a-change:  “But Eden is burning, better get ready for elimination/Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards” The apocalyptic feel of these lines highlights the import of the message.

This one man, whether he’s a savior or a fool, has come to the realization that the time is nigh for everyone to look into themselves and decide where they stand, because the status quo cannot sustain through what’s coming. A hint at the proselytizing Dylan would do in the coming years? Perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a pretty forceful exclamation point on the action that has taken place in the rest of the song. 

If there is one frustration I have with “Changing Of The Guards,” it’s that it didn’t end right there; the last verse always felt anticlimactic after that. It’s a small chink in the armor of this wondrous song, one which deserves a fresh listen from those who might have dismissed based on old judgments.

                                                                                                                                                                                 

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8 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #122: “Changing Of The Guards””

  1. That’s an interesting take on a song whose narrative is so fragmented I’ve waited years for someone to explain it. I do love the sound of the song and the verse structure is sui generis in Dylan’s work. The images and characters by the way – all through Street Legal – reference the Tarot.

    • countdownkid says:

      I did know about the Tarot references, but I decided not to dive too deep down that manhole. Like I said, I really don’t have a clue how it all comes together, and yet I feel like it does in the end.

      • gingeclub says:

        Yes, agreed, it all comes together, but I don’t know how. For sure he’s using stuff he’s taken from old authors and classics that won’t ever go away, and also the tarot. The wheel of fire is Lear. Tower and Moon make me think Yeats. Plus the idea of being torn between opposites like Jupiter and Apollo is something Yeats would have recognised (no one knew more about Tarot than he did) But the bit that means the most to me is the juxtaposition of the cold inhuman moon with the captain sending his (very human) thoughts to the girl he loves.

      • countdownkid says:

        You’re more of a Yeats scholar than me. I better keep up with my reading.

      • Here’s one. Compare Crossing the Green Mountain with Lapis Lazuli. Yeats has got 3 chinamen climbing a green mountain of Lapis Lazuli and its got the line Heaven blazing into the head, which, if memory serves, also occurs in the Dylan lyric.

  2. rw says:

    a great great underrated song. Just because i can’t tell you exactly what it means doesn’t mean it doesn’t have that spot on parallel track with human emotion….

  3. Even the “minor” works on Street Legal have merit. Baby Stop Crying is fantastic (even better live performances too) … We Better Talk This Over… hugely under-rated. The album was also dismissed in the US. (The Rolling Stones released Some Girls at the same time and the two were compared and it was thumbs down for SL) In Europe it was hailed as a tour-de-force…. Dylan could do no wrong here… until Slow Train upset us!!

    • countdownkid says:

      That’s interesting info about how it was received in Europe. I’m not too partial to those songs you mentioned; I do feel that the album was a rollercoaster, but the highs are fantastic.


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