Love, sex, money in a “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”
Here are adapted extracts from Understanding Bob Dylan about one of literature’s and Dylan’s favourite themes – love and money, with some sex thrown in, and with a focus on that not so simple but very fateful song “Simple Twist of Fate”, drawing on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” notebook where he wrote the album’s original lyrics; and with reference as well to “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Boots of Spanish Leather”.
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We sat together in the park/As the evening sky grew dark
So begins the lyrical, mysterious, brilliantly concise and seemingly innocuous song “Simple Twist of Fate” from “Blood on the Tracks”. The twist of fate may have been simple, but the song is anything but – like many of the songs on “Blood on the Tracks” it draws on literary themes that have been around for hundreds of years and that structure modern western literature through common poetic denominators that listeners to the song may recognize, but have difficulty understanding or placing in context.
The tension between love and money is played out in tens of thousands of songs, novels, poems, and movies, and is central to much of “Blood on the Tracks” and a “Simple Twist of Fate”, a point I will get back to soon. It is one of the most consistent themes in modern western literature, with a distinct preference among writers for true love over false money. And it’s a theme that has fascinated Dylan from the start of his career to the present.
What do we know about love and money in literature? In his study of literature, money and the market, Paul Delany comments on the “market for women”:
Richardson inaugurates, and Trollope concludes, the high era of the “marriage novel” that takes as its matter the interaction between love, family and economic interest, within the constraints set by the marriage system of upper-class English society. Richardson shows the system leading to tragedy; Thackeray sees in it “the grim workings of marital capitalism”; Austen and Trollope are much more inclined to grant, for their heroes and heroines at least, a happier balance between self-expression and the observance of social and economic norms…..As Byron put it: “Money is the magnet; as to Women, one is as well as another.”
As 17th century English poet Samuel Butler put it in his ironic poem “Hudibras”: “For money has a power above/The stars, and fate, to manage love.”
Women being forced to forsake a loved one at the command of their father, or men choosing money over love, are common motifs in many folk ballads, a literary theme that has influenced many of Dylan’s love songs. For example, there is “Auchanachie Gordon”, one of the Child Ballads – covered by Lorrena McKennit among many others – here’s one verse:
Auchanachie Gordon is bonny and braw,
He would tempt any woman that ever he saw;
He would tempt any woman, so has he tempted me,
And I’ll die if i getna my love Auchanachie.’
In came her father, tripping on the floor,
Says, Jeanie, ye’re trying the tricks o a whore;
Ye’re caring for them that cares little for thee;
Ye must marry Salton, leave Auchanachie.
‘Auchanachie Gordon, he is but a man;
Altho he be pretty, where lies his free land?
Salton’s lands they lie broad, his towers they stand hie,
Ye must marry Salton, leave Auchanachie
Where are Auchanachie’s lands indeed? Not only that, but Salton is a Lord, whereas all we know about Auchanachie is that he has been away at sea. There’s a clever twist here as Jeannie’s father calls her a whore, whereas she is motivated by love and her father by money.
“As I Roved Out”, another traditional folk ballad, deals with the same theme, the young man choosing wealth over love – a cautionary tale for others who might do the same as he will regret this until the day he dies:
As I roved out one bright May morning
To view the purple heather and flowers gay
Who should I spy but my own true lover
As she sat under yon willow tree
I took off my hat and I did salute her
I did salute her most courageously
When she turned around
And the tears fell from her eyes
Saying ‘False young man, you have deluded me
Three diamond rings for love I gave you
Three diamond rings to wear on your right hand
But the vows you made, love
You went and broke them
And married the lassie that had the land.’
‘If I married the lassie that had the land, my love
‘Tis that I’ll rue until the day I die
But when fortune calls few men can shun it
I was a blind fool was I’
Now at night when I go to my bed of slumber
The thoughts of my true love run in my mind
When I turned around to embrace my darling
Instead of gold ’tis brass I find
The ballad “The Gypsy Laddie”, from which Dylan drew for “Boots of Spanish Leather”, and which he recorded as “Black Jack Davy” in 1992 on “Good As I Been To You”, is another example, as is the “The Butcher Boy”:
There is an inn in that same town,/And there my love he sits him down;/He takes a strange girl on his knee/And tells her what he wouldn’t tell me.
The reason is, I’ll tell you why,/Because she’s got more gold than I./But gold will melt and silver fly,/And in time of need be as poor as I.
The tensions between love and money are mainstreamed into the English language. Blake’s fragment “Never seek to tell thy love”, which I use throughout “Understanding Bob Dylan”, encapsulates this tension in a line that revolves around the dual meaning of “tell”:
Never seek to tell thy love,/Love that never told can be;/For the gentle wind does move,/Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love,/I told her all my heart;/Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,/Ah! she doth depart.
For Blake, “tell” means to speak and to count or weigh. Thus the origins of the phrase “teller”, as in “bank teller” – someone who counts money. So the first line of the fragment means both ”don’t tell your love that you love her”, and “don’t try to count your love like you would count money.” Because counting your love like money means that she will certainly depart (maybe even in ghastly fears). “Account” has a similar dual meaning in English, to count something or to give an account in the sense of recounting.
The English language is peculiarly mercantile in its terms of endearment. Words that are used every day by millions of loved ones reveal this – precious (used by Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” to describe the gold ring that eventually destroys him); dear (which used to start every letter, and still starts millions of emails every day – chere has the same dual meaning in French); value, as in “I really value our relationship”; prized, treasured, and so on. The term “interest” as in “to be interested in someone” also has another meaning of “to pay interest”.
The contrast between love and money takes writers to one of the most deep-seated of human dilemmas – should we choose material possessions before passion, and is it really possible to have both? No surprise given its predominance in western literature as well as folk and Blues songs, that Dylan uses the tension between love and money to structure some of his love songs. One of my favorite Dylan songs, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, a song I always think of as Dylan’s perfect folk song – and which Dylan sings these days as if it is a folk song rather than his own creation – draws on this same tradition. The first two verses set up the contrast between material possessions and the love professed in the song:
Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love,
I’m sailin’ away in the morning.
Is there something I can send you from across the sea,
From the place that I’ll be landing?
No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love,
There’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin’.
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled,
From across that lonesome ocean
And so on throughout the song, as the material objects are piled up:
I just thought you might want something fine/Made of silver or of golden
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
And, finally, the Spanish boots of Spanish leather are the gift desired when love is lost.
The beautiful and beautifully complex love song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, released in 1965 on “Bringing it All Back Home”, a song about which I write extensively in “Understanding Bob Dylan”, introduces the love/money tension in a more hidden fashion. First there is the title – an equation between love and numbers (you can’t minus zero from love, and even if you did, it would still be love, because anything minus zero is itself; and what do you get when you divide love by no limit?) that is played out in the song:
People carry roses,
Make promises by the hours,
My love she laughs like the flowers,
Valentines can’t buy her.
Of course valentines can’t buy her, she’s not for sale, unlike those people who carry roses. So the reference in the next stanza to “dime stores” takes us back to this same contrast between love and money:
In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations
And Dylan returns to the theme a final time in the last stanza:
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection,
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
It could have been anyone’s nieces, but “bankers” and “gifts” reminds us that this is a song about the valueless of money when compared to love.
In Dylan’s reworking of the theme on the jokey “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”, from “Blonde on Blonde”, the relationship is so shallow the “loves you for yourself/loves you for your money” theme goes one step backwards in a way that reveals Dylan’s brilliant sense of humor:
Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Love and money on “Blood on the Tracks”
As with most of the other themes in this book, it’s that album of love lost, “Blood on the Tracks”, which offers the most intense and consistent reflection of the tensions between love and money. As he reworked the album’s lyrics Dylan tried to determine how he wanted to express the relationship between the two, in particular in different endings for “Idiot Wind” in the notebook in which he wrote the album’s lyrics. As with most themes on the album, Dylan started with the first track, “Tangled up in Blue”….
“Simple Twist of Fate” is an interesting song on love and money because it appears from Dylan’s original recounting of this song in his notebook for “Blood on the Tracks” that the meeting wasn’t one of chance, but a client who falls in love with a prostitute. It was originally called “4th Street Affair”; presumably this refers to 4th Street in Greenwich Village New York, which has a history of prostitution:
After 1880, Bleeker Street from the Bowery to Broadway was full of “numerous dives and other vile resorts in full blast.” Describing East Fourth Street between Broadway and the Bowery, one irate resident said, “[G]ood citizens cannot return from the theatre late at night without having things snatched from their persons and being insulted by brazen faced street walkers!…[T]his street is a den of brazen women and pickpockets.”…..Well into the twentieth century, residents complained about the many hotel and furnished-room house prostitutes who traversed Second and Third avenues.”
The “canal” in the first line of the second verse then may refer to Canal Street, originally an old canal, and about a 15 minute walk from 4th Street.
Dylan had second thoughts about this and revised the song to take it closer to the theme of lost love that haunts the album. In an original version in his notebook he wrote:
They stopped into a cheap motel/With a broken (buzzing) light
Subsequently changed to:
And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright.
The revision from “cheap” to “strange” is key; the former emphasizes money, while the latter emphasizes the confusion which is central to the released version of the song. The third verse is an interesting one too. In his notebook Dylan wrote:
A flute upon the corner played/As she was walkin’ by the arcade.
As the light bust through a cut-up shade where he was wakin’ up,/She raised her weary head and couldn’t help but hate/Cashing in on a simple twist of fate
We learn a little bit about the woman here – she has taken advantage of the man by “cashing in”, presumably payment for sex. But in the released version we hear:
A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade.
As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
The meaning is completely different – she simply, while dropping a coin into a cup, forgets about last night. But remnants of the idea of the women being a prostitute remain with the reference to the “coin”.
In Dylan’s notebook for “Blood on the Tracks”, the penultimate verse reads:
Like an acrobat he does his stunt/Then [illegible] he’ll hunt/Hunt her down by the waterfront/Where the merchant ships all come in/Maybe she’ll pick him up again/How long must he wait once more for a simple twist of fate.
“Pick him up” in the sense of picking someone up in a bar is changed in the released version to “pick him out”. Pick him out again? From where? Grand Master of the Preposition, Dylan would not have made such a change unthinkingly. Here is the released version:
He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks,
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in.
Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait
Once more for a simple twist of fate.
The other interesting change in this verse is from “merchant ships” to “sailors”. While merchant ships reminds us about the mercantile nature of the relationship, sailors remind us of the high levels of prostitution in dock areas to service ships stopping for a day or two. So, originally “Simple Twist of Fate” was a song about sex, love and money, and despite his revisions Dylan maintained the key theme of “Blood on the Tracks”.
If you’d like to read more about Dylan’s use of this theme, or his fascination with time, death, travelling, and writing – all also key themes in modern western literature on which Dylan draws in his own idiosyncratic fashion – buy Understanding Bob Dylan at:
 Delany, P. (2002) Literature, Money and the Market: From Trollope to Amis. New York: Palgrave, pp 32-3.
 English literature is full of ballads and poems with young men roving out and meeting a fair maid. Dylan wasn’t adverse to the theme himself, for example in “As I went out one morning” from the 1968 album “John Wesley Harding”: “As I went out one morning/To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s/I spied the fairest damsel/That ever did walk in chains.”
 Gilfoyle, T. (1992): City of Eros. New York City, Prostitution and the Commercialization of Sex 1790-1920. W.W. Norton, 212-3. Dylan of course composed a song called “Positively 4th Street 10 years before “Simple Twist of Fate”.
 Dylan’s handwriting isn’t always easy to read, and there are many emendations in his notebook, giving lie to the idea that he composed spontaneously. For those interested, the notebook contains variations on several of the released songs, and lyrics for several songs which have perhaps never been recorded.
 As opposed to the “Master of the bluff and master of the proposition” on “Slow Train Coming”. There’s a similar change of preposition in the next song on the album, so that the words take on a completely different meaning, from:
I know that I can find you
In somebody’s room
I know where I can find you
In somebody’s room.
But such changes are commonplace in Dylan’s songs. My all-time favorite is from “Just Like a Women” where Dylan uses “as” rather than “by” when friends are being introduced.