Certain Songs #101: Bob Dylan – “Jokerman”

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Album: Infidels.
Year: 1983.

As the first new album that Bob Dylan released that I could actually play for other people as a DJ on the radio, Infidels holds a special place in my heart, even though it’s not as great as it could have been. When it – and to a lesser extent, Empire Burlesque – came out, I felt like I was part of a great continuum of college students going back for two decades who were totally thrilled to pour over the latest offering from Dylan.

Which I did, and really only one song totally stood out as worthy that scrutiny. But that one song – “Jokerman” – is as as worthy of scrutiny as any song the man has ever written. 

After years of lists and cants, it was great to be reminded that the man could still pour out a surreal torrent of non-linear images in his lyrics. And after so many years of saying what he meant, it was even more fun to figure out if they were personal: 

Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within

Or religious (but with a joke!):

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister

Or maybe political:

Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in

But, of course, in another way, it didn’t matter, because of the music of “Jokerman.”. With Sly and Robbie playing a reggae-inspired groove that never falls into the trap of being straight reggae, and Mark Knopfler doing that guitar thing that he does, Dylan returns again and again to what might be his most beautiful chorus:

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

By the time he gets to the last iteration of that chorus, just before the last harmonica solo, there is so much joy in his voice, like singing this song has lifted the weight of the past – well, decade – right from his shoulders.  

Definitely a Top 5 Dylan song for me. And the video only solidified it for me.

Oh man. That video. I first encountered it on Night Flight, the all-night music show on USA that Kirk and/or Rob and I used to watch in the wee hours of the weekend mornings. You know, when the evenings had played out but it didn’t feel quite time to crash either because you were suddenly old enough to stay up late and young enough not to have any reason not to.

So Night Flight was a pretty big deal around our apartment, cos you never knew what kinda crazy shit they were going to show.. Sometimes, it might be a new Miles Davis video, other times they’d show Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains in its entirety.  

Probably a year after Infidels came out, maybe longer, there it was, this amazing video. “Bob Dylan’s ‘Jokerman’ explodes with mixed imagery” said the Night Flight lady on the version one of us taped on Kirk’s ever-handy beta machine that sat on the floor under the TV. Clearly, they must have given advance warning, or maybe one of us (that would probably be me) fucking DOVE for the “record” button when it came up.

The insanely great video for “Jokerman”

BONUS “Jokerman” video.

This is an absolutely terrible, tossed-off version of “Jokerman” Dylan performed on Late Night With David Letterman with a band he seemingly recruited from the audience waiting in line to see the show.  Worth it for the the moment at 3:03 when Dylan tosses off his guitar, grabs a harmonica, and starts to play, only to realize it’s in the wrong key. Or something. What happens next won’t particularly surprise you.

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