Numerous reference books suggest that Jokerman is one of Dylan’s masterpieces. A great poetic adventure that encapsulates everyone and everything from Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (1884) to… well, anything you like. All mixed with a mature and detailed reflection on Judaism, and the books of laws in the Old Testament.
Such approaches tend to ignore the fact that Dylan himself doesn’t like the piece much (see http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/1991zollo.htm for one such interview), and the fact that when he has sung it live he has often chopped out verses seemingly at random and just thrown it in “cos the kids like it.”
Dylan’s view seems to be that it is a failed song, a song the lyrics of which he changed too often for it to work any more. As for the music, it is more complex than the old 12 bars tunes but not exactly the first movement of a string quartet.
And one thing is for sure (and is missed out in most commentaries) the music and the lyrics have nothing in common.
The music is simple, bouncy, fun, but not especially exciting or unusual but still a good tune that works, it serves as a basis for a stream of words, but not much more. For the song to work, the lyrics have to be both electrified and at one with the music, meaning they have to be bouncy and fun.
Consider for a moment the great work which apparently was recorded in time for Infidels but didn’t make the cut – “Blind Willie McTell”. Here the brooding melody and chord changes fit perfectly with the brooding lyrics, even if neither have anything to do with Blind Willie McTell. That’s fine because the man of the title has nothing to do with the song.
But in Jokerman we seem to have a bit of a muddle – a bouncy tune that has nothing to add to the feeling – except that the Jokerman is a Jokerman. Which would work if there was something jokey in the lyrics, but even from line two, “While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing” we have nothing funny. Are you going to make a joke out of “a snake in both of your fists”? I suspect not.
OK, comes the answer, he’s not that kind of Jokerman – he’s more the kind that plays a joke on the whole universe – a nasty twisted joke – a devil with an evil laugh.
Right – so where does that leave, “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, Bird fly high by the light of the moon”?
It is all so confusing, that we look for some sort of way out. This is not surrealism, or the musical version of a Jackson Pollock, it is something quite different.
When we hear, with that same bouncy 2/4 tune which mutates into 4/4 at the chorus, that suddenly Dylan is talking about Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the books of laws in the Old Testament, we think, maybe this is going to sort it out. Dylan is laughing at the old laws – that’s what the bouncy song is about.
And here there certainly needs to be comment and a half. Leviticus is the book of the Bible that tells us to stone to death married women who have sex with another man, who tell us not to approach the house of the Lord if wearing clothes made of two or more cloths, and not to approach if our eyesight is not sound (which cuts out anyone wearing glasses). There is a lot of stuff about killing goats too.
But there is nothing on this. Not even with the wildest imagination is there anything there that offers us any insight. I am not searching for meaning any more than I am searching for meaning in Jackson Pollock, to take the example that came into my head earlier. All I am doing is looking for an insight. A way of saying yes, this is why the melody is like it is, why we have a 2/4 verse and a 4/4 chorus. Why we have a Jokerman.
I think Dylan was right in that interview – there is nothing but nothing here apart from a set of lines along a vaguely messianic theme to inappropriate music.
And that is not to remove the one great track from the album, as some would have it. Rather it is to let us look elsewhere, where the issue is entirely Israel. Neighbourhood Bully, for example, is a song that I, with my political views, am extremely unhappy with, unless I twist the meaning so much I think I leave behind anything Dylan meant. But as a work of art, it is something far more than Jokerman ever became.
I really want to understand this song, so ultimately of course the failing is mine, not Dylan’s because I can’t get to grips with it at all. I just so wish I could.