16 November 2010

Your Weekly Dylan Cover [#25]

"Changing of the Guards" Patti Smith
Original Dylan version found on Street Legal (1978)

Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey. Her dream of attending school derailed for a number of personal and economic reasons, she adopted the bohemian life by moving to New York City in 1967 in order to write poetry and study art.

Patti Smith's early years living in Brooklyn and the lower east side of Manhattan with her closest friend Robert Mapplethorpe and their eventual involvement in the orbit of other noted artists is vividly portrayed in her memoir Just Kids, recently nominated for the National Book Award.

In the book Smith writes of her reverence of Dylan, especially as poet. They both share a particular fondness for the work of Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud, a like-minded restless and rambling soul who influenced music, art and literature in the Europe of the later 1800s.

One of Mapplethorpe's first Polaroid pictures taken in 1970 shows Smith surrounded by three album sleeves: a Lotte Lenya LP of Weill/Brecht songs, as well as Blonde On Blonde and Bringing It All Back Home.

By 1975, she had taken to music and formed the Patti Smith Group. The band was starting to make its mark on the New York City music scene at places like Max's Kansas City and CBGB. But on a summer night that year Smith "merely had to lace up my boots, throw on my jacket and walk to work" at the Other End in Greenwich Village. It would be the group's first performance with a drummer. Smith continues:

The night, as the saying goes, was a jewel in our crown. We played as one, and the pulse and pitch of the band spiraled us into another dimension. Yet with all that swirling around me, I could feel another presence as surely as the rabbit senses the hound. He was there. I suddenly understood the nature of the electric air. Bob Dylan had entered the club. This
knowledge had a strange effect on me. Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth of my band. It seemed for me a night of initiation, where I had to become fully myself in the presence of the one I had modeled myself after.

In just a few months, the Patti Smith Group would record their debut album, Horses, at Electric Lady studios.

And so it should come as no surprise that on the 2007 compilation of covers Twelve, Patti Smith would finally record a nod to one of her chief muses. But the selection of the song was somewhat curious . . .

I only had one friend who would listen to Street Legal with me. She was very intellectual and artistic, and would sit cross-legged on her couch smoking cigarette after cigarette. We both thought that the newest Dylan record (save the horrible "New Pony," for which we would take turns getting up and lifting the phonograph stylus up and over to the next cut) was quite daring from both a musical style and lyrical standpoint; it was what attracted to us about Dylan: his chameleon-like persona, from large arena rock god with The Band to pancake makeup troubadour wandering the countryside in the Rolling Thunder Revue. And now here was Street Legal, drenched with background female call and response singers seemingly influenced by Bob Marley's I-Threes.
And it wasn't just a whim limited to a disc; he took the album on the road and plowed through almost all of it, much to the audience's chagrin . . .

"Changing of the Guards" has been interpreted by many as a thinly veiled history of Dylan's career up to that point (literally, "sixteen years," the opening line of the song). It is the aggressive seven minute opening salvo which opens Street Legal and was oddly chosen as a single (it did not make the Top 100).

Smith's take is much gentler and almost wary, and the lyrics are more pronounced as a result. Why did she choose this song above all others? Who knows. Maybe its apocalyptic nature fit the time in which it was released in 2007, with the country mired in two wars and partisan bickering more intense than usual. Maybe it is the stark imagery in Dylan's poem. Maybe both. Maybe neither. But isn't that the point?

Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "Changing of the Guards" (Street Legal, 1978)

Another Cover: Frank Black, "Changing of the Guards" (All My Ghosts, 1998)


  1. I have never got around to getting 'Twelve'. Now I think I will. Cheers.

  2. This is a gorgeous rendition.
    I'm one of those few who think Street Legal is actually a great album. Recently I picked up the "Lyrics" book and was reading lyrics looking for something to trigger some art journaling. As I began reading this song I was blown away- differently than before. I read all the lyrics for the album, experiencing them more as internal dialogue- one aspect of self to another and then realized that this Street Legal is one of the "Great" Dylan albums. I generally listen to one album of Dylan's over and over for a time, a day, a week- this time Street Legal has been over a month. The archetypal characters are ones we/I can relate to within through the times in my life.
    Each song has powerful lines and images. His singing on this album is incredibly passionate with shadowy nuances.

    Please note that I am not saying that this is how Dylan wrote it or intended it to be heard. That is what makes Dylan Dylan and so atypical. His lyrics can be heard and take on different internal meanings for each listener, and multiple, layered meanings for the same listener over time.

    I never heard that this song was about his career up till that point. That is very interesting and I'll listen to it again with that in mind. I had heard that there were lots of biblical references- maybe on Isaiah if I remember correctly.

    By the way, I kind of agree about New Pony. I do like the song though- kind of sexy and raunchy but never seemed appropriate for this album. I wonder what gems written for SL that were tossed in favor of New Pony.
    Mind boggling.

    I'm curious if any of the critics who trashed the album changed their minds about it later? Have you ever heard/read anything about that?

    OK- thanks for the great cover- I saw Patti Smith at the Bitter End just after Horses came out. She was incredible.
    I think I'll go now and get Twelve. this song alone is worth it.

  3. Diana: I do not think there is too much revisionist history from a critical standpoint on Street Legal. American critics like Jon Pareles, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus either dismissed it or savaged it, and I haven't seen any revised opinions in that regard over the years. In 1999, the record was remastered by producer Don DeVito and many thought that this was long overdue, given the muddiness of the original's sonic quality given the big band Dylan had assembled.

    I highly recommend Patti Smith's "Just Kids" to you and all the readers.

    Thanks for the insightful comments and visiting our little blog.