“Sixteen years”. Those are the emphatic words that open “Changing of the Guards”, the third and final single from Street Legal. Released in 1978, it was exactly sixteen years since his debut album, and, for me, sixteen weeks into this one-year-one-week trek through Dylan’s life.
I have to say it: I love this song. I mean, I really adore it. Seriously, today I would put it among the top ten songs that he’s ever written. It’s the lead song on an album that most people don’t like. It has all the elements that people deride – the back-up singers, the sax between every verse – and that might be a problem with the way that the song was recorded. But as a song, I think it’s one of the best things that he’s ever done. It’s a full on and complete return to the lyrical complexity that marked his best mid-1960s material. The song, to me, is an absolute triumph.
It’s almost impossible not to read this one in autobiographical terms. Apart from the opening declaration, there is, for example, this verse:
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 whole thing plays out as a reminiscence on his career to date, and also on his relationship to his now ex-wife, Sara. The lyrics are vague, mystical, and quasi-religious, filled with mythical elements (“She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo”). Lyrically, it is a superior piece of work.
What really puts this one over for me are the live performances of it. This is the third straight non-charting single that Dylan would only ever play on his epic 1978 world tour, but he played it incredibly well. It was frequently in the encore, and it was the rousing anthem that was used to send the crowd home happy. Dylan punches those short first lines (“Sixteen years”, “Fortune calls”, and my personal favourite, “They shave her head” (such a bizarre way to begin a verse in any song)) and often creates beautiful segues out of the sax part. I’ve been listening to a lot of the 1978 tour this week already, and this has quickly become the major discovery of the year for me.
The version that is found on Street Legal is far from the ideal way to listen to this song. Here’s Dylan performing it in Nashville (the sound starts after ten seconds or so):
Here’s another way to do it – the inimitable Patti Smith: