by John Henry
Let’s face it, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” seems to be completely out of place on Dylan’s famous “break-up” album, Blood on the Tracks. All the other tracks (including even the lightweight “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Buckets of Rain”) relate in some way to love, the fleetingness of love, or lost love, and they are all sung in the first person—that is to say, the singer always refers to himself as “I” (although, in “Simple Twist of Fate” the first person is only brought in for the last verse). But in “Lily” we have a complex third-person narrative of several characters. What’s more it is a “Western” ballad, obviously set in the days of the American Wild West, which also sets it completely apart from any of the other songs on the album. It is worth asking ourselves, therefore, what it is doing on an album which otherwise is made up of songs with as tight a focus on love affairs and their endings as anything Dylan has ever done before, or since.
It cannot be said that Dylan had to include it to fill out the running time. He could easily have chosen to leave it off, and to include instead “Up to Me”. Here is a brilliant song, about lost love (“I know you’re long gone”), sung in the first person, which would surely have enhanced the album, and would not have seemed in the least bit out of place.
So, perhaps he included “Lily” as another example of the “no sense of time” technique of song-writing that Dylan claimed was a feature of some of the songs on Blood on the Tracks?
In an interview with Matt Damsker, in September 1978 (Bob Dylan – On This Day – September 15 | All Dylan – A Bob Dylan blog), Dylan explained the new way of writing songs he developed for Blood on the Tracks:
Blood On The Tracks did consciously what I used to do unconsciously. I didn’t perform it well. I didn’t have the power to perform it well. But I did write the songs… the ones that have the break-up of time, where there is no time, trying to make the focus as strong as a magnifying glass under the sun. To do that consciously is a trick, and I did it on Blood On The Tracks for the first time. I knew how to do it because of the technique I learned — I actually had a teacher for it…
The teacher was Norman Raeben, who actually taught Dylan painting, but whose influence clearly impacted on Dylan’s writing too (for more on this see The Mysterious Norman Raeben (archive.org) by Bert Cartwright). Writing in the Biograph booklet about Blood on the Tracks, Cameron Crowe hinted at this:
“Reportedly inspired by the breakup of his marriage, the album derived more of its style from Dylan’s interest in painting. The songs cut deep, and their sense of perspective and reality was always changing.”
The songs that fit the bill here, though, are “Tangled up in Blue”, “Up to Me”, “Shelter from the Storm”, and perhaps “Simple Twist of Fate”. These all have that disjointed, flash-back style of narration, and play tricks with the characters in the songs, so you are never sure who is who. These are the songs where the “sense of perspective and reality” keep changing, and there is “no sense of time”. Although the story in “Simple Twist” is developed in a straightforwardly chronological way, the introduction of the first person narration in the final verse makes us wonder if the man in the earlier verses was in fact the narrator, hiding his identity by referring to himself as “he”.
In “Shelter”, the first verse refers to a woman helping the singer in the past (“It was in another life time…”), but the second verse suggests we are back in the present (“And If I pass this way again…”). Two verses about the woman in the past follow, but then we are thrown by the next verse when Dylan sings “Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there”—as though he had not met her before. In the final verse we are back in the present: “I’m livin’ in a foreign country…” But we get the final disruption of chronology in the breath-taking line: “If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.” What a fantastic line that is. It is easily as powerful as W. B Yeats’s lines in “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” There is more of this kind of thing in both “Tangled” and “Up to Me”, especially with regard to introducing new people, or are they the same people in different characterisations? So, these two songs also fit in with what Dylan said about his new “no sense of time” way of writing songs.
But “Lily” doesn’t fit into this same category for the simple reason that the story is told perfectly straight, without flashback. The story is told entirely chronologically, and it is told without any mysterious changes in the personnel. We are introduced to the main characters in the story, and they maintain their identities throughout. Indeed, one of the strengths of the song is the way Dylan very deftly and succinctly sketches each one’s character for us.
The action takes place in a cabaret, where we are first introduced to a stranger in town, the Jack of Hearts. We then meet Lily, who is backstage before performing. Big Jim, who practically owns the town, walks into the cabaret, and is joined there shortly after by his wife, Rosemary. We learn that Jim has noticed the Jack and thinks he’s seen him somewhere before: possibly in “a picture upon somebody’s shelf”. We soon learn that Lily and the Jack used to be intimate, and so it is easy to surmise that she has a picture of the Jack on her shelf, and this is what Jim is remembering.
Meanwhile, Rosemary has noticed Jim’s interest in the Jack across the room. Having realised that Lily must still love the Jack if she still keeps his picture, Big Jim is now jealous and even fearful of the Jack (we are told a little later that the Jack “just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear”—this is the jealousy and fear of Big Jim, who is about to burst the door open). Rosemary evidently notices this, and also realises that Jim now has a murderous intent. This gives her an idea: Rosemary now sees a way of simultaneously escaping her marriage and doing “just one good deed before she died”.
We then learn that, after the show, the Jack has gone backstage with Lily. Clearly, Jim had seen this and he burst open Lily’s dressing room door while cocking his pistol in his hand (“The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked”). As Jim suspected (“Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised”), Lily had her arms around the Jack in a loving embrace. At this point, we might suppose that Jim will shoot the Jack out of jealousy. But, we soon learn that in fact Rosemary, who was by Jim’s side in the doorway of Lily’s dressing room, stabbed her husband before he could shoot—her one good deed was to save the Jack. But she is hanged for the murder the following day.
Finally, we are told that Lily finds herself alone again, because the Jack was only there with his gang who, we have learned by incidental remarks throughout the song (“The cabaret was quiet, except for the drillin’ in the wall”, “The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind”), were drilling into a bank vault two doors down from the cabaret, and eventually “got off with quite a haul”. Once the gang had succeeded in their robbery, the Jack re-joined them, after his brief meeting with Lily, and the Jack and his gang escaped.
This is chronologically perfectly straightforward; the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they are presented in that order. The characters, once introduced, remain consistent to what we’ve been told about them. Big Jim “took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste”; Lily “did whatever she had to do”; Rosemary was “tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife”. Dylan brilliantly conveys to us that Rosemary was a fundamentally good person—the only example we are given of a bad thing she’s done is that she “once tried suicide.”
Only the Jack remains mysterious—his character is not described. But there is no point in the song where we have to ask ourselves who is who, the way we do in “Tangled”. In that brilliant opening song on the album, we have to ask ourselves whether the “she” working in the topless place is the same person as the “she” who “was married when we first met”, and what about the one who “had to sell everything she owned”? There are no mysteries like that in “Lily”.
So, if “Lily” does not fit in with Dylan’s new “no sense of time” way of writing songs, but is in fact, just a good old fashioned Western ballad, we come back to the question: why was it included on Blood on the Tracks? Before going any further, it is worth saying that it is a superb song, a brilliant example of how to tell a story in a song. It is much better than most story songs, and can certainly hold its own against even the best. So, I am not saying that the song is unworthy of being included on Blood on the Tracks, I am simply pointing out that, no matter how good it is, it seems out of place on an album where all the other songs are intensely concerned with broken love affairs, and fit perfectly well into what we would expect from a “break-up” album.
The first thing to say, in trying to answer the question as to why “Lily” is on the album, is that not all of the songs on the album are about the break-up of his marriage. In fact, the only songs that are directly about the break-up are “Idiot Wind”, and “Call Letter Blues”. The blues song didn’t make it onto the album at all, and the intensely personal “Idiot Wind” recorded in New York was replaced by the much less personal Minneapolis version (where, for example, New York’s “I figured I’d lost you anyway, why go on, what’s the use?” was replaced by “Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy”). But, what Dylan did want to include, evidently, were songs about past loves—songs where Dylan, or at least the narrator of the song, is thinking back to “ones that got away”. This is the theme of some of the best songs on the album, “Simple Twist”, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”, and of course, “Tangled up in Blue”. It’s easy to see how Dylan, or anyone facing the break-up of their marriage, might look back to previous lovers, and think about what might have been, if they’d married them instead.
It’s not so easy, however, to see why Dylan should turn to fantasies of the old West, as an escape from his disintegrating marriage. All we can say is that the presence of “Lily” on Blood on the Tracks makes it clear that he must have found some solace in such fantasies.
We can say this with some confidence, because fantasies about being in a “cowboy” story did not end with “Lily”. There are three of them on Desire, an album that was also put together during the protracted collapse of Dylan’s marriage. “Isis”, “Romance in Durango”, and “One More Cup of Coffee”, are all songs where the narrator seems to be a character in a tale of the old West. There are no similar Western-style ballads in Dylan’s output after Desire, so Dylan’s fascination with Western stories really does seem to have been a feature of this time of his life—while his marriage was breaking up.
It might be objected that there are a couple of outliers which suggest Dylan has always been fascinated with cowboy ballads: “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, and “Brownsville Girl”. But the sub-title of “Señor” suggests it is not so much a Western story as a war story—a tale that quickly moves on, in the first couple of lines, from the Lincoln County War to a much more universal Armageddon. Admittedly, “Brownsville Girl” discusses the movie of “The Gunfighter” in some detail, but that very long song isn’t really about the old West. Although, it is worth noting that Dylan does suggest at one point that he sees himself playing a part in the Gregory Peck movie:
Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head; But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play.
Certainly, it isn’t hard to imagine Dylan playing the part of the Jack of Hearts, in “Lily”. It was in the following year (1976) that the great American beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti included in his Who are We Now? a poem called “Jack of Hearts (for Bob Dylan)”. He surely gets Dylan dead right when he writes:
The one who bears the great tradition and breaks it The Mysterious Stranger who comes & goes The Jack of Hearts who speaks out
And, in the western ballads on Desire, Dylan, as the singer, is identified as the husband who leaves Isis to look for treasure in the frozen Northern hills; and the man who must leave the woman whose loyalty is not to him, but to the stars above; and as the lover of Magdalena who is shot by a rifleman hiding somewhere up in the hills.
Let’s not forget that there are also a number of scenes in Renaldo and Clara, which was also made at this time, that similarly suggest Dylan wanted to play out scenes that might have been borrowed from a Western movie. The most prominent of these are the scenes where Dylan seems to trade Joan Baez for Harry Dean Stanton’s horse. Or does he persuade Baez to distract Harry Dean Stanton by seducing him, so that he can steal the horse? We see Dylan performing “Romance in Durango” just after Baez tells Stanton that she could never make Renaldo happy.
It seems, then, that from “Lily” to “One More Cup of Coffee”, and through to the making of Renaldo and Clara, the period during which his marriage was breaking up, that Dylan was captivated by Western stories and perhaps fantasised about being a character in one of these stories. If this was so, then it is no longer surprising that “Lily” was included on his magnificent beak-up album. Indeed, as the most accomplished and dazzling of his Western fantasies, it is a very fitting and revealing addition to the songs on Blood on the Tracks.
Unless Dylan himself tells us, we cannot know why Dylan sought escape from his marital difficulties in stories of the old West. It may simply have been because Westerns had always featured largely in his imagination. In his biography of Dylan, Robert Shelton tells us that as a young boy, Dylan’s favourite TV programmes were “western adventure series”, and that “He could imagine himself as Wyatt Earp.” And it’s well-known that Dylan’s chosen name as an artist, owes as much to U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon, the noble hero of the highly successful series Gunsmoke, as it does to the poet Dylan Thomas.
Alternatively, perhaps it was the experience of working on Sam Peckinpah’s film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—first as composer of the music for the film, and then as an incidental character in the film. Dylan moved the family down to Durango during the making of the movie, and Sara was, by all accounts, very unhappy there. Maybe it was during this period that Dylan began to think of Western themes and stories as a way of escaping his real life, especially his life with an unhappy wife.
We can only speculate about the reasons for the connection in Dylan’s mind between Western ballads and the break-up of his marriage. But, as we’ve now seen, there is sufficient evidence in his out-put from those years to indicate that for him, they were definitely linked.
Famously, Dylan once introduced “Isis” on stage as “a song about marriage”, but perhaps the same could be said about “Lily”—it does not seem so obviously about marriage to us, but it is very clear that Dylan wanted to include it in his “break-up” album. It is, after all, the very first song in the little red notebook of the lyrics of the songs for Blood on the Tracks, which is reproduced in the Stories in the Press book, included with More Blood, More Tracks. So, all of this makes it clearer as to why Dylan included “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” on Blood on the Tracks. Although it seems incongruous to us, standing apart from the other songs on the album, for Dylan it seems to have been a song that was as close to his heart as any of the others, and had to be included among his responses to the disintegration of his marriage.
Note: The image at the top of the page comes from Long and Wasted Year
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- Bob Dylan and Damon Runyon: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts and Other Songs (Part II)
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