Along with “Street Legal’s” Senor, Changing of the Guards is one of that album’s most enduring songs. Senor at first captured everyone’s attention, considered by many critics to be the only song worthy of Dylan on the record. Jack White and “The Dead Weather” resurrected New Pony in recent years, in a dazzling version that utilizes the song’s tensile strength and raw sexuality. Changing of the Guards hung around under the radar for a good long time, considered to be too wordy and obtuse, but then Patti Smith covered it in what this writer considers to be a rather lifeless version – you can hear it here for yourself. To me, Patti renders it preciously, under glass, like Baez did with a lot of Bob’s early stuff, but regardless, she’s Patti and she made it suddenly OK to consider the song hip.
It is a great sprawling epic of a song, what it’s about exactly is anyone’s guess, but it’s got some killer lines –
gentleman, he said, I don’t need your organization / I’ve shined your shoes, I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards / but Eden is burning…. either brace yourself for elimination / or else your hearts must have the courage for the / changing of the guards
First rate apocalyptic Dylan, a song so chock full of imagery, so fable-like you could analyze it endlessly, finding plenty of comparisons to images in old literature but seen as a narrative, it’s mainly a great surreal visual journey – rousing, mysterious, challenging, mournful, strange, beautiful. Someone’s going to do the definitive version one day, like Jeff Buckley and Halleluiah. Chris Whitley and Jeff and Lang do a nice back and forth vocal trade on it, on Whitley’s “Dislocation Blues,” slow and spooky and it fits the subject matter, but there’s a genuinely scary and transcendent version waiting to be captured in a jar.
Then there’s Dylan’s live version seen in the video here, which is quite surreal, though not in any good way. Nashville, 1978. Word is that at the time, he’d become impressed with Neil Diamond’s stage show (huh?!) and modeled his own tour on it, with flashy clothes and the big band, gospel girl chorus. At the end of the song he runs back and forth with his guitar, even running backward! like Prince or something, doing head bobbing with the guitarists, and you realize that this is his exit song… this huge undecipherable puzzle of a mythic epic and he uses it, why not, to usher himself off stage, he puts down his guitar, awkwardly waves and they go on playing on behind him in an instrumental vamp, ala Neil, who took it from Elvis, then Bob walks off and we’re left counting our blessings that at least he didn’t lift up his arms, back to us, to show them connected to a cape, whew…. but there he goes, yes ladies and gentlemen… BOB HAS LEFT THE BUILDING!
That’s what a divorce’ll do to you, I guess. Interesting in its extreme bizzaritude, when time had done some kind of serious warp and things we’re tilting off kilter in Bob’s world, but hey, even then, the show must go on….