Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

Note: If you have come here looking for Disease of Conceit, my apologies.  I’m getting it sorted – please click this link to give you what you want.

By Tony Attwood

The song is upbeat, and the organist makes mistakes (playing I-IV at the end of the harmonica solo in the intro before Dylan starts singing instead of holding the tonic, forgetting to play during the “Staring at the butterfly” line)…   Yet he has the simplest of parts to play – so why wasn’t it re-recorded or over dubbed?  (Maybe he just never could get it right).

Dylan’s voice on the other hand is absolutely spot on for the song.  The chords are primarily I, IV, and V, there’s a nice descending bass line at the end, and the bass player is perfection – ok it is not a complex bass line but it requires tenacity and determination to keep going through this length of song, and he delivers.

So, what to make of it all?

The story almost makes sense but no, it doesn’t.  Every time you try to make it mean something it slips through your hands and means something else.

And yet actually it is not that difficult as some of the reviews have suggested.  The notion of interwoven characters who act in ways that we can’t quite understand, as if they are flitting in and out of each other’s lives sometimes touching our lives without our ever quite knowing what they do, why they do it, and who they are, is a theme of Dylan’s.

Indeed we get darker versions of this with the songs of disdain – Like a Rolling Stone, Can you please crawl out your window?, Positively Fourth Street, etc etc.  You know the person in each song, but only in part.  You never quite know why.

What Dylan has done here is stripped away the disdain (the bouncy melody makes the characters actually seem quite nice even though one of them is a hanging judge, one is a bank robber…) and given us multiple comic book characters rather than the one central person of Rolling Stone, 4th Street etc.

But this is not new.  The song that developed this theme first time around was Visions of Johanna in which the essence of Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost is never resolved.  Indeed it is a noticeable parallel between Johanna and Lily, Rosemary that not only are there three characters, but also two of the three have names while the third is known by a title (Jack of Hearts / Little Boy Lost).

In both cases the existence of some sort of story line tempts us to assume that there is a sense that moves naturally through time, but it never works.   There is a sequence, but…

No, as a total song you have to stretch the imagination to make it make sense, and in fact that is the brilliance of the song; it is a song that gives hints which send the mind spinning without actually giving us explanations.

But we also need to consider the context of the album on which it appears.  Remember also the lack of logical sequence in Tangled up in blue which starts the album, and the sudden confusion between “he” and “I” in Simple Twist of Fate   Or the sudden use of a very non-blues lyric in “Meet me in the Morning” after a totally blues approach up to that point.

Indeed the whole album reeks of confusion disguised as straightforwardness.   We think we are getting the hang of things, and then Dylan throws in something that knocks us off balance.

The Jack of Hearts is a bank robber recently come into town, Lily and Rosemary have parts to play in the unfolding drama, and unlike Johanna we get some other characters, Big Jim owning a diamond mine etc.

But that brings up another issue.  Let us pause for a moment to consider diamond mines.   I’ve always placed the song in the Wild West – the whole lawlessness of the story makes me feel this is so.  But where are the diamond mines in the wild west – or come to that anywhere else in the US?

In fact there have only ever been two diamond mines in the US.  A small mine that operated between 1996 and 2002 (Kelsey Lake Diamond Mine near Fort Collins, Colorado) and Crater of Diamonds near Murfreesboro, Arkansas which was worked at the start of the 20th century but is now a tourist attraction where you can pay a fee to dig and see what you can find.

Dylan would not have known of Kelsey Lake mine but might have known about the Arkansas mine.  Duluth, Minnesota where Dylan was born, is 1000 miles away, so it is not a local reference.  The chances are it is not a reference to any diamond mine in real life  – just a story line.

Indeed this reference to the non-existent mine should tell us all that the story does not make sense in terms of the real world – for if the mine is not there, then why should the characters or the story be considered in a real-world form either?

What we get in the first verse tells us that this is a shimmering half representation of life, just like Visions.

The festival was over, the boys were all planning for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts

Just consider, “Anyone with any sense had already left town” – put another way “you are not going to find any sense here.”

So there is no point in trying to understand what, “Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts” means in reality.  It is not reality,  it is just an image.   Playing cards and life reflecting each other, somehow, although we can’t quite get how, it is a shimmering film.

Indeed in this non-world, when we come to the third verse, it is interesting that Big Jim owned not just the USA’s only diamond mine, he “owned the town’s only diamond mine”.  As if there might be two!

But in saying that we cannot take sense from the story, we should not ignore the character of the Jack of Hearts – the sort of mythological man who can see off everyone.  A Harlequin, a joker, a man who moves from the playing cards into real life and back, so that even Jim can’t handle him.    The central character moves off the cards and into the room and out again.  It doesn’t make sense, it is not meant to make sense.

The existence of the line, “But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts” reinforces the fact – he’s not real, he’s just an image, a wandering man, the drifter, the Mysterious Stranger – a commonplace device in contemporary literature and media.  And so it has always been, for in mediaeval literature, we had the Wandering Jew.  The point is not to answer the question, “who is this man?”; the point is to ask the question.

It is an approach that is reinforced by the fact that the Jack of Hearts ambiguously turns up at the end of lines…

No, nothing ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts

She was gazing to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts

Down the hallway footsteps were coming for the Jack of Hearts

There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts

And from the missing verse (missing from Blood on the Tracks that is)

Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts

and as we approach the end…

The only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts

In many senses the issue of confused identities, confused time, and the stranger who comes in and out of our lives is the theme of Blood on the Tracks.  Tangled up in Blues and Simple Twist of Fate both echo this totally.  Just think how close in terms of being outside of the touchable world, the woman is in Twist of Fate:

A saxophone some place far off played
As she was walking by the arcade
As the light burst through a beat-up shade where he was waking up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

And then again consider Tangled up in Blue.  If you want a contemporary Drifter who comes in and out of our lives and who is endlessly enigmatic consider:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century

In the real, real world who does that?

Thus we see Dylan’s techniques for giving us half-images of the world which he uses on Blood on the Tracks.  He confuses people, he mixes up the story, characters come and go, and the sequence of events through time is not adhered to.  In short it is a picture drawn in words and music, but always, always, we have the mysterious outsider who comes into our life and turns the whole thing upside down.

That’s just how it goes.

Index of Songs

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20 Responses to Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

  1. Kevin MacLean says:

    I had never considered the parallels between Visions and this piece, very interesting.
    What do you make of the fact that there are two different studio recordings of Blood on the Tracks (“unreleased” NYC version/officially released Minneapolis version)? Along with the sparse instrumentation and less rehearsed sound of the earlier New York recordings, the lyrics to this song in particular are among starkest differences between the two. Significant, or just happenstance? As with most of his work, clearly defined answers are probably inaccurate answers, but I’d be interested in hearing your take.

  2. Pingback: A whole lot of love – a musical journey | leo rust

  3. andrea from italy says:

    what do you thing about dylan’s approach to tarots?
    the jack of hearts become the sad lover with the face down, see the tarots of Marseille.
    it is the missing card because he gives sense to the action of the song: love, betrayal, murder…
    good bye

  4. Adrian says:

    It’s obviously a diamond mine because of the card game motif. Owning the diamond mine is akin to cheating at cards with the suit of diamonds. As for “In the real, real world who does that?” – lots of people.

  5. Bryan Schneider says:

    Ok, I’m going to break this down for you, since I’m not sure you are picking up on the plot here. True, there are many non-sequitur songs in the Dylan canon. And the vast majority of the songs on Blood on the Tracks fall into these more “atmospheric” tunes, which is why I believe a lot of people mis-interperate this song. But I think, without much doubt, that this is a story ballad with a strong, definitive, and very deliberate narrative, perhaps more easily interpreted in the context of his subsequent, much more plot driven album, Desire.

    If taken as a strait-forward narrative, the song actually makes perfect sense, and utilizes very common literary devices such as foreshadowing, character development, symbolism, and a plot line with rising action that culminates in a climax which ultimately resolves the tension between the protagonist and the antagonist. High-school literature stuff. Of course there is literary symbolism, and of course this is not a story song rooted in the “real” world, such as Hurricane, or Hattie Carrol, but there is a very clear narrative. I’m going to break it down for you here, verse for verse.

    “The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
    The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
    The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
    Anyone with any sense had already left town
    He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts”

    First verse sets the stage. In the context of the song, there was “literally” a festival. Meaning, there was some kind of communal gathering that brought a bunch of people to town. The “boys planning for the fall” are the Jack of Heart’s crew, who are planning to break, or “fall” the wall to the bank safe. The “drilling in the wall” is more evidence of this foreshadowing. All the regular folks had already left town (since the festival was over) and all that is left are the trouble makers, rabble rousers, ect. Hence, enter the JOH.

    “He moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
    Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
    Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin
    “Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”
    Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts”

    Here’s something I didn’t know till I started researching this song. “Set it up for everyone” means the JOH bought everyone a round of drinks. The rest of this verse is pretty strait forward. The JOH buys everyone a round, asks what time the show starts, then moves unassumingly into a corner to presumably watch the show.

    “Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs
    Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair
    Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide
    A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside
    Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts”

    Perspecitive Change: now we are back stage and introduced to Lily, one of the performers in the show, who is “literally” playing cards backstage. There is some symbolic foreshadowing here. She has has two queens, but she needs a third to not lose the hand (that queen “figuratively” being Rosemary). She draws the JOH instead (of course more symbolic foreshadowing) but she still needs Rosemary (who will ultimately save her)

    “Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
    He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
    With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
    He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste
    But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts”

    Enter: Big Jim, the “The King of Diamonds”. Here we have our antagonist. The diamond mine thing throws alot of people off here, since the plot borrows themes from the Spaghetti Western genre popular in the 60’s and 70’s, but of course there are no diamond mines in the west. But, metaphorically, lets just say Big Jim owns the town. He controls all the wealth. And, of course again, diamonds are the opposite suit of the protagonist’s suit, hearts. More symbolism in there that I don’t have to point out.

    “Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
    She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown
    She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear
    “Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” but he didn’t seem to hear
    He was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts”

    Enter Rosemary, who is “literally” Big Jim’s wife. She’s late to the show, so she slips in the back so as to not make a scene. Here we get a gimpse of their dysfuctional relationship. Rosemary tries to please Jim, but Jim is always preoccupied, as he his here with the JOH.

    “I know I’ve seen that face before,” Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself
    “Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody’s shelf”
    But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the houselights did dim
    And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
    Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts

    Big Jim thinks he notices the JOH. In the context of the song, he has probably seen him on a wanted poster, though he cant seem to place it. Anyway, meanwhile, the house lights dim and the show starts, and Lily (who just “literally” drew the Jack of Hearts in her card game) starts her risque, burlesque type show, which draws the simultaneous attention of Jim and the JOH.

    “Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child
    She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled
    She’d come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
    With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere
    But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts”

    Just some pretty strait forward character development on Lily. Also alludes to the romantic relationship between her and the JOH.

    “The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
    The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
    It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring
    And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
    No, nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts”

    More plot development. The hanging judge is introduced because he will serve a role later in the hanging of Rosemary. Also, presumably, I think it’s safe to say that the JOH is the one wining and dining him, again part of the ruse to distract everyone from the “drilling in the wall/bank robery” which is the real goal of the JOH. Also, it is revealed that Lily is widely known to be Jim’s mistress. Giving Rosemary cause to contemplate murder, as we see in the next verse:

    “Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
    She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
    She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
    Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
    She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts”

    Pure foreshadowing here. We are introduced to the murder weapon, and the motivation for Rosemary to commit murder on her unfaithful husband.

    “Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away
    “Has your luck run out?” she laughed at him, “Well, I guess you must
    have known it would someday
    Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint
    I’m glad to see you’re still alive, you’re lookin’ like a saint”
    Down the hallway footsteps were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts”

    Change in perspective. Now we are backstage again, in Lily’s dressing room after her performance. The JOH is with her, and they have a little romantic exchange. Take note of the line “you’re looking like a saint” as that is foreshadowing for an important event in the next verse. Perhaps the one line that I don’t feel is clear in the whole song is the “brand new coat of paint” line. That one is a bit ambiguous, and not sure it functions toward the plot.

    “The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair
    “There’s something funny going on,” he said, “I can just feel it in the air”
    He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk
    As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk
    There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts”

    Ok, so more foreshadowing and the final rise of action. The backstage manager senses some shit is about to go down. I think it’s pretty clear here that the JOH is the one in the Monk costume, slipping out of Lily’s room before the climax. He is, after all, the protagonist, or the “leading actor”. Also, remember Lily said just momements ago that he looked” like a saint”, which seemed at the time like a sly remark, but was foreshadowing at it’s best.

    “No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
    The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked
    And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
    Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
    She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts”

    This verse is where the “climax” happens, the big scene where Big Jim is murdered by his wife Rosemary. Actually, quite brilliantly and intentionally, the details of the climax are left a bit murky, but they become clear during the next few verses. Big Jim busts into Lily’s room out of Jealosy, as he suspects the JOH is in there with his mistress (although the JOH already escaped, but Jim doesn’t know. He pulls a “cold revolver” on Lily meaning an unloaded revolver, which just clicks when he pulls the trigger instead of firing. So someone took the bullets out of his gun (Rosemary is the only one who would have that kind of access to him). Then, Rosemary comes up beside Jim and stabs Jim in the back with her pen knife (the same one she saw her reflection in verses previously)

    “Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
    And cleaned out the bank safe, it’s said that they got off with quite a haul
    In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
    For one more member who had business back in town
    But they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts”

    In typical literary fashion, multiple scenes are happening at the same time during the climax. So as it turns out, at the very moment that Big Jim was murdered, the JOH’s crew broke through the wall and stole all of the money. (Jim’s money presumably, since he did in fact own the town.) You can see this happening a Godfather III esque style scene, where at the exact moment Rosemary drives the pen into Jim’s back, the JOH’s crew finally break through the wall to the safe.

    “The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
    Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
    And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
    The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
    The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts”

    If it wasn’t clear enough yet, Dylan does us the favor of clarifying any obscurity. Rosemary killed Jim with her knife, and Jack disappeared to catch up with his boys and run away with all of Jim’s cash.

    “The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”
    Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
    She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
    Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law
    But most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts”

    Conclusion: Lily is seen alone, vulnerable, without the typical disguises of the stage, contemplating the tumultuous events of the previous night. Whether she was just a pawn in the JOH’s game, or wether the JOH did actually care for her is unclear and unimportant. He’s gone, and she feels the tragedy of the events.

  6. Tim Sisk says:

    loved your interpretation of this great Dylan song. However, you are slightly off in one of the later verses. It’s not “cold revolver click”, it’s “Colt revolver click”. As in the brand of single action revolver used in the old west. A single action revolver requires the user to manually thumb back the hammer in order to ready it for shooting. This causes an audible click but does mean the gun was fired. This makes sense since the target of his attack. (jOH) was no longer in the room.

  7. Tim Sisk says:

    Correction to above :
    “does not mean the gun was fired”.

  8. bryan hughes says:

    The verse “be careful not to touch the wall there’s a brand new coat of paint” is easily explained, the song explains it really “two doors down the boys finally made it thru the wall”. I think access to the bank safe started in Lily’s dressing room, as in they would’ve smashed down the wall, repaired the wall and then repainted it.

  9. bryan hughes says:

    even the very start says “the cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall”

  10. Piff says:

    See the Sgt. Pepper references, then you can start to put the rest of it together.

  11. Demel, Marco says:

    Hi, Tony
    so now we can continue and give back these persons their names.
    For me this song is a description of the situation, Bob was in in this time.
    First Lilly and Rosemary are one person, one is still the wife of and the other one as a lover of somebodyof Jack of the hearts. So Big Jim is Dylan, then Sara and the lover of Sara. And that is, what Blood on the tracks is all about.
    Listen to Tin Angel, same story. Long and wasted years . All stories about that year,
    where all the hope to save “his” love was drowning.

  12. Fiona says:

    Re: Brand new coat of paint. I don’t think the wall could have been just broken down and repainted by the bank robbers, as Bryan Hughes suggests, as there wouldn’t be time. I didn’t understand the significance of this line until someone noted in another article that the caberet was undergoing renovations – that’s why no-one paid attention to the sound of drilling. The line also serves to emphasize Lily’s flippant attitude toward JOH in these lines. She seems to be more concerned he’ll mess up the wall than that he might be in any physical danger from her lover. If Lily has deep feelings or not, she doesn’t show them – this is consistent with her character and way of life.

    There are no throwaway lines in Bob’s songs!

  13. Fiona says:

    There may also be some bitterness between Lily and JOH – yes, this is a great line!

  14. dan says:

    This is about Watergate!

    Nixon = Big Jim
    Drillin’ in the wall = Reporters Woodward & Bernstein
    Rosemary = The Repub party (or his top aides)
    Anyone with any sense (had already left town) = Repub Party
    “The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall – The Boys = Big Jim’s staff
    Jack of Hearts = Justice
    Festival = Re-election

    From above: “at the very moment that Big Jim was murdered, the JOH’s crew broke through the wall and stole all of the money” = Big Jim was impeached and JOH’s crew (Justice + driller’s)

    I went through this song more than 30 years ago and can’t quite recall all I had interpreted; but the info above was pretty close to what I had found (in collaboration with a friend)

  15. Debbi says:

    Thank you guys for all the explanations. Been one of my favorite songs for many years, stayed confused about the meaning.

  16. Ray Russ says:

    Not sure why Tony Attwood would remark — concerning the line about handing over a book of poems — that “In the real, real world who does that?” Is there something strange about showing someone a book of poems … that I’m not aware of? If so, I’ve made a fool of myself several times. 🙂

    Anyway, if this poet of the thirteenth century is [most probably] Dante, we have another reference, another source to guide the listener; although, I admit, not an easy source to dissect.

    The interpretations are great. Thanks.

  17. maybe I am says:

    I bought the album just to listen
    to this song,
    which I’d heard on an FM station.

    I recall my Dad’s words
    as he listened along.

    “It sounds like
    a long train ride.”

  18. Wes says:

    I thought the line ‘when the festival was over’… (Isle of Wight/Woodstock or something similar? ) were about the Beatles or his Band planning for the fall – think opposite… Planning to get high.
    someone turned on the TV later and some Western came on. Much like the movie Mighty Quinn was a start off place for that song.
    Maybe people in his entourage would recognize themselves…maybe not. Dylan had the movie, a melody and those characters….. The story? …well… I am sure Dylan is churning out some drama, personal philosophy and sarcastic humor to create his own theme music for the mystery movie. Our job is to find out what movie he was watching.

  19. Steve says:

    I view the “careful not to touch the wall there’s a brand new coat of paint” line as a clear reference to the drilling going on in the wall next door, ie, she’s giving an obvioulsy fake reason not to touch the wall so that the drilling won’t be discovered. So this means that Lily knew what JOH was up to and was signaling to him that she knows by saying coyly, “don’t touch the wall.” And that ties in to her statement just prior about “has your luck run out,” ie, “I know what you’re up to and Big Jim is about to get you, your luck has finally run out.” She has ambivalent feeling for JOH, she loves and is taken by him, but she also relishes the prospect of him getting his comeuppance because he has rejected her or at least is not with her.

  20. Mary Ann says:

    I thought the reference to the “brand new coat of paint” meant that if JoH got paint on himself it would be evidence that he had been there, should he get caught later.

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