One of the most heartbreaking songs from one of the most heartbreaking collections of songs this side of Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, from Bob Dylan's famous relationship postmortem Blood on the Tracks (1975), "Simple Twist of Fate" is the songwriter at his most personal. And that's the distinction that makes this album even more resonant than even the poignant collection of Sinatra's interpretations; "Simple Twist of Fate" has the singer performing his own material. In 1978, on the album Live at Budokan, Dylan even introduces the song as "a love song," adding, "It happened to me" (after he had attempted to distance the singer from the songwriter in interviews). In the album's Grammy-winning liner notes, Pete Hamill was moved to quote W.B. Yeats: "We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Upon listening to the poetry of "Simple Twist of Fate," it almost seems as if, through all of those years of masterful songwriting, Dylan was merely making rhetoric. On this song, as on most of the album, he lets down any number of his masks. In fact, you can hear the singer letting the mask down within "Simple Twist of Fate" alone, shifting from the third person to the first within one verse.
Dylan begins the first verse with a cinematic image of a couple: "They sat together in the park/As the evening sky grew dark/She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones/'Twas then he felt alone and wished that he'd gone straight/And watched out for a simple twist of fate." In the second verse, Dylan shifts from the detached narrator to the first person for a line, but quickly reverts back to the third person, as if he slipped and betrayed himself, getting caught in the act: "They walked along by the old canal/A little confused, I remember well/And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin' bright/He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train." He remains true to the third person for the next three verses, only to abandon the mask altogether for the song's stunning final verse: "People tell me it's a sin/To know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring/She was born in spring, but I was born too late/Blame it on a simple twist of fate." It is not so much that the singer is actively trying to distance himself from the protagonist; his defenses have kicked in to the point where he has trouble seeing this guy in the drama as himself -- admitting to it all.
While most discussions of Dylan rightfully focus on his lyrics, the music of "Simple Twist of Fate" alone tugs at the heart; playing a common pop/folk descending chord progression in an open-D tuning, Dylan suspends the same melody for most of the three first lines of each verse, howling long mournful accents on the words near the end of each fourth line, breaking the serene resignation of each verse, as if the pain boils back up to the top each time he analyzes what went wrong. Dylan accompanies himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, with only Tony Brown's bass as further support. The record marked a return to Dylan's troubadour roots and the sparse instrumentation provided stark relief for the raw display of emotion. The song cuts deep. In the hands of the genius Dylan, the well-worn genre of the end-of-relationship pop song aspires to the ranks of the classic romance poets. On Jerry Garcia Band (1991), the Jerry Garcia Band tastefully interpreted the song with a slightly swinging jazzy country feel, though still slow and melancholy, Garcia making beautiful solo guitar runs like a jazz pianist. The worn timbre of Garcia's voice added his own emotional resonance and he changed the line "but I lost the ring" to "but I broke the ring," perhaps adding a personal dimension to the piece. Garcia and his band -- unfortunate bass solo and slightly roller-rinky organ notwithstanding -- demonstrated the power of the song and its possible future as a standard.