Changing Of The Guards: A Quantum Song

Peter Higginson

 “Quantum mechanics is magic.” Daniel Greenberger

For my money, Changing of the Guards (COTG) is the jewel in the crown of Bob Dylan’s work. It went on my old blue Dansette record player in the Summer of 1978 (I was 16), and I’ve played it virtually every day since. People say the album Street-Legal is badly produced- but I disagree. I think it is a rough diamond- but the imperfections are fascinating. I find every musical phrase in it to be right on the money. Above all, I think Billy Cross’s guitar is the key sound- the spiritual jingle-jangle of the album and the opening track.  

However, I think the lyrics of COTG have been poorly interpreted. Most people think the song is some kind of Jungian-Christian parable of some kind.  Many bemoan the arcaneness of the Tarotic references. But I think we would do better to consider it as a song of Quantum magic. 

To be brief, a quantum particle such as a quark has six characteristic dynamic structures (called flavours): Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm. Oddly then, a quark is very much like a Tarot card - which can be face up or down, has a top and bottom (which can be reversed) and of course, has a strange charm.  When quantum physicists describe a particle, they are baffled by the way the particle behaves - it spins, and you can never really know where it is. So in a sense the quantum universe is a bit of a Tarotic mystery - a sort of house of flying cards. And whilst commentators have noted the Tarot imagery of Changing of the Guards, they have not really noticed its quantum dynamic - the flavours of the song. 

The song opens with ‘sixteen banners united over the field’. But the desperate men and women stand beneath the falling leaves. In verse 4, the hero ‘follows her down … to where they lifted her veil.’ In verse 7, ‘She wakes him up’ but ‘he’s pulling her down.’ And there are many other references to ups and downs - including ‘my last deal gone down, false idols fall, I stumbled to my feet’ and so on. 

If there is something of an Up/Down theme in the song there is also a Top/Bottom theme: Mountains, cold-blooded moons, suns are very high or ‘top of the world’ structures. Shined shoes, ditches and meadows are ‘bottom’ forms. The top card of the minor arcana of the Tarot is the King of Swords, and the bottom card is the Two of Coins of the ‘merchants and thieves.’ A palace of mirrors is a top esoteric house, but ‘destruction in the ditches’ is as bottomed out as it gets. One is reminded of another song - Idiot Wind, which also had Tarotic tones:

“You’ll find out when you reach the top/you are on the bottom.”  

Dylan has a great interest in Top/Bottom structures (the ‘top of the room’ in Ring them Bells/the bottom that ‘fell out’ in Tangled Up In Blue) and in this song there are many top/bottom signifiers: kings and thieves; angels and dog soldiers. But there is no upper limit: no seventh heaven; and no fireproof floor to hell. The top and bottom of the song’s world is phantasmagorical rather than fixed. 

It doesn’t take much to see both the strange in say, ‘sixteen banners united over the field’ and the charm of ‘she’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born’. A renegade priest is strange; a beloved maid is charming.  And so on. So we have quite a quantum scenario for the song. It has all the flavours (in the technical sense) of a quantum magic. 

But the thing about quantum reality is that it is very difficult to measure because particles keep appearing both all over the place and in two places at once. Quarks don’t behave like classical objects - which occupy stable places in time and space. A particle can be in your body and on the other side of Venus at the same time. We have no idea what time this song is set in (Forty-eight hours ago, previous times or sixteen years hence?) nor do we know where anything actually is - mountains, angels and ditches included. It’s set in a quantum ‘field’ of undecidedness. A magic palace of mirrors. No surprise then that the hero is begged to produce some measures.  Not just actions that is, but some organised proportions of time and space. 

The Captain who ‘waits above the celebration’ is a hero of love, but also a leader of society. And of course the song is about The Guards - so this is a gallant military leader. However, whilst he is ‘above the celebration’, we also hear that he is ‘down but still believing that his love will be repaid.’ Up and Down at the same time - a Quantum hero. 

If we wanted to produce one image from the whole song which captures the classical chaos, it would be: ‘the sun is breaking near broken chains’. That captures the sense of cosmic disruption. And I think it’s no surprise that Dylan turned to the classical son, Jesus Christ in 1979. This song is magical, but its quantum universe must have felt quasi-psychotic. He needed some stable Up, Down, Top, Bottom structures (Heaven and Hell; Christ and Satan). And he wanted to move from the strange charm of that exotic gypsy period (1975-8) to the more certain measures of the golden rule.