Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan performing a mid-career high point in 1978’s “Changing of the Guards”, a song which evokes the spirit of his best epics, although with a decidedly late-70s production sheen.
The Street Legal album was looked upon by critics and by many fans as a step downward from the highly praised Blood on the Tracks and Desire albums. These previous records were accepted as new heights in Dylan’s discography, on par with his legendary 60s output in the minds of many. As such, Street Legal had a lot working against it; expectations were running high. And while in the middle of a divorce settlement and a number of personnel problems in getting a band together for a tour, Dylan was stressed out even before recording began. Further to this, times were changing and Dylan was looked upon as being very much a part of the old guard – which may or may not account for the song’s title. Yet Dylan being Dylan, he chose a path which was more in line with the musical heroes of his past despite any pressure on him to be more in line with younger artists. Specifically, he formed a sound around his hero Elvis Presley who had built up a similar approach to building large scale backing groups during his Las Vegas years. Elvis’ death on August 16, 1977 affected Dylan deeply, apparently. Perhaps this was his way of paying homage. I wonder what a slap-back echo, rockabilly record from Dylan would have sounded like…
To many, this album is all gloss with a level of slickness which undercuts the depth of the songs. But, I really like this tune in particular; this is classic Dylan in the role of the aging prophet, with spiritual imagery presented on a Biblical scale. The song’s lyrics are firmly in Dylan’s own world of watchtowers and wicked messengers. I actually think the lush arrangement and call-and-response backing vocals helps this effect. This is big music, even if it’s a little bit of its time.
Speaking of spiritual imagery on a Biblical scale, in 1978, Dylan had begun his flirtation with Christianity, which would evolve (devolve?) into full immersion by the following year. His subsequent albums until 1981 would pursue his interest in gospel-rock to its most logical conclusion, with much of his trademark lyrical obfuscation traded for overt Christian messaging. It’s been argued pretty convincingly that Dylan’s foray into the gospel world started much earlier at least where his lyrical approach is concerned, if not in its blatant content. His love of gospel music early in his career is pretty well documented. In this light, the music giving way to deeper personal exploration wasn’t out of nowhere, even if it seemed that way to many fans. And you can see the first sprouts of those seeds here on Street Legal, even before his official “Gospel Bob” phase began the next year. ‘Changing of the Guards’ is a great example of Dylan’s continuing interest in spiritual imagery, just before he plunged himself headlong into lyrical sloganeering. In this the Street Legal album was the end of one era, with hints at the beginnings of the next.