Jokerman by Bob Dylan. The one that got away.

by Jochen Markhorst

Dylan himself is not too flattered when he is compared to a clown or a joker. In 2015 the manuscript of “American Pie” is auctioned (for $1.2 million), and author Don McLean finally, after 44 years of stubborn silence, elaborates on the meaning of the lyrics. Not in detail, but still…

McLean is interviewed in the catalog, he talks about inspiration, genesis, message and morality of the legendary song, but tacitly leaves the deciphering of cryptic metaphors to the catalog’s author. The King means Elvis, obviously, Helter Skelter refers to the murderous maniac Charles Manson and yes, the jester on the sidelines in a cast is Bob Dylan.

Two years later, interviewer Bill Flanagan confronts the elderly bard:

In Don McLean’s American Pie, you’re supposed to be the jester.

Yeah, Don McLean, “American Pie”, what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, “It’s Alright, Ma” – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.

Flanagan lets the subject rest, but he could also have mentioned Lennon, who in 1980 called his old Beatles song “I’m A Loser” a song from his ‘Dylan period’ because the word ‘clown’ appears in it. If Dylan rejects a comparison with a jester, he has in any case made the use of the words joker, jester and clown salonfähig; according to Lennon, it was rather artsy-farty before Dylan used it in lyrics.

Lennon has a point. In Hard Rain there is already one sobbing in an alley, who later, in “Stuck Inside Of Mobile” turns out to be Shakespeare (with his pointed shoes and bells), in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “All Along The Watchtower”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Wedding Song”, “Abandoned Love”… clowns, jokers and harlequins indeed are popular supporting actors in Dylan’s songs.

And of course the climax is that enigmatic, wonderful, directionless song from the early 80s, “Jokerman”.

It is an intriguing role, the elusive, romping around court jester.  Especially for an elusive, self-proclaimed apolitical song and dance man. The court jester does not belong anywhere, seems to be somewhere at the bottom of the social ladder, but on the other hand he is the only one who, with impunity, can mock, criticize and contradict the highest authorities, up to and including the king. The poet Dylan who, certainly in the early 80s, is quite obsessed with right or wrong, faith or disbelief, all or nothing (as Pope Francis says), a poet who seems to posit with inner conviction: there is no neutral ground… that poet will be fascinated by such a social aberration. But it seems to go wrong if he promotes the outsider, that attention junk on the sidelines, to leading actor.

The poet recognizes this, in the SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo in 1991:

Dylan: That’s a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album [Infidels] got away from me. They just did.
ST: You mean in the writing?
Dylan: Yeah. They hung around too long. They were better before they were tampered with. Of course, it was me tampering with them. [Laughs] Yeah. That could have been a good song. It could’ve been.
ST: I think it’s tremendous.
Dylan: Oh, you do? It probably didn’t hold up for me because in my mind it had been written and rewritten and written again. One of those kinds of things.

So Dylan himself writes the song off, and that is a bit too radical. The opening, for example, is truly beautiful, and still holds:

Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing
Distant ships sailing into the mist

Words that evoke a poetic scene and the promise of an autumnal story. Perhaps about an abandoned lover who is feeding the seagulls on the beach, it is foggy, the lighthouse is burning, at sea the ships disappear out of sight. Word choice provides the misty, ambiguous Dylanesque connotation; Jesus stood on the water and brake the bread, the poet paraphrases Ecclesiastes 11:1 (‘cast thy bread upon the waters’), the lighthouse is an ‘idol with an iron head and glowing eyes‘, the disappearing ships suggest that the protagonist has had to bid a definitive farewell.

Likewise, the lines after that are from a Dylan in his usual, unusual form, a sample of the cherry-picking thief of thoughts whom a Nobel Prize will be awarded. Born with a snake in both fists refers to Heracles (not entirely correct, the snakes attack Heracles in his cradle, not at birth) and thus elaborates on that image of Jesus in the opening line, who after all also has a God as father and an earthly woman as a mother.

Born while a hurricane was blowing, oddly enough evokes “Jumping Jack Flash” (‘I was born in a cross-fire hurricane’) – here it is starting to get surprising. And freedom is just around the corner has the same aphoristic power as the other, antique one-liners scattered over Infidels (Samuel Johnson’s They say that patriotism is the last refuge / To which a scoundrel clings from “Sweetheart Like You”, for example) and which we will encounter more in this particular song.

A second eyebrow raising, after Jumping Jack, then is caused by that seemingly completely random inserted antique one-liner in the second verse, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Originally from Alexander Pope (from the poem An Essay on Criticism, 1711), a writer whose influence is identifiable more than once in Dylan’s oeuvre.

More popular is the quote as a song title – in 1940 Johnny Mercer writes “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)” and Dylan is undoubtedly familiar with the versions by Ricky Nelson (who scored a big hit in 1963), by Elvis and of course Sinatra’s hit single from 1940. In between, artists like Tony Martin, Glenn Miller, Etta James and Brook Benton also hit the charts with their versions, so it is most likely that the daring fools and the fearful angels crept under his skin through all that airplay.

It is an elegant, somewhat old-fashioned but beautifully packaged aphorism, no doubt about it, but any correlation with the rest of this verse, or with the lyrics at all, is hard to find. And with that, Dylan’s own observation, that’s a song that got away from me, is illustrated.

The lyrics are full of granite verse lines (‘the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame‘), poetic pearls (‘So swiftly the sun sets in the sky, / You rise up and say goodbye to no one‘) and dark, apocalyptic, Hard Rain-like imagery (‘False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin, / Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in‘), but unlike in Dylan’s Great Masterpieces it does not come together, there is no coherence.

Songs like Hard Rain,” or a “Shelter From The Storm”, or a “Things Have Changed”, to name just three random examples, also consist of an accumulation of seemingly unrelated images, one-liners and aphorisms, but from that a comprehensive picture rises, which has a coherence that keeps the listener captive.

Inadvertently, this lack of direction is illustrated by the many, many attempts of interpretation, discussions and polemics among both the fans and the professionals: no common thread is detectable.

The mere mention of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah‘, for example, leads to derailing discussions about whether the poet can be accused of homophobia. The multitude of biblical references is a godsend to the stubborn faction Christian Dylanologists who pertinently want to prove in every verse that Dylan is a God-sent evangelist, that Dylan the Poet is actually Apostle Robertus, an edifying manipulator of crowds.

And of course the title ‘Jokerman’ also opens floodgates. The desperate exegetes argue that “Jokerman” is a work closed within itself; the title then reveals that the entire lyric is a prank from that joker, who fools us by suggesting that a completely meaningless text has a deeper meaning. Others who also see the key in the nature of the fool produce diluted interpretations of that view. The joker represents Man, who can be both a saint and a sinner, just like the joker in the card game can take on any colour. Or Dylan paints a self-portrait: after all, he too is a manipulator of crowds, takes on many forms (‘shedding off one more layer of skin’) and believes in the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Oh well. It is indeed a song that slips through the fingers. The music is beautiful enough – the live debut of the song, on television in David Letterman’s show with remarkable accompaniment by members of the unknown Latino punk band The Plugz, the outtakes of Infidels or the final album version; all equally compelling.

Still, there are hardly any covers. Apparently the colleagues do not get a grip on it either. The contribution of the obscure Built To Spill from Idaho to the sympathetic tribute project Bob Dylan In The 80s: Volume One (2014) is based on that Letterman version and is very nice.

Curious is the ‘cover’ by an Indian club of musicians, Divana from Rajasthan, on the equally curious project From Another World: A Tribute To Bob Dylan (2013). On that album, world musicians from different corners of the planet (Cuba, Egypt, Romania, Iraq) play Dylan’s oeuvre on traditional instruments, with at least intriguing results. The Dylan songs are usually unrecognizable, sometimes hilarious (“I Want You” by the Burma Orchestra Saing Waing from Myanmar, for example), but still, yes … intriguing is the best description.

The only really pleasant, recognizable and above all successful cover is from an old friend: Eliza Gilkyson on her partly in the Netherlands, partly in the US recorded live album Your Town Tonight (2017). Gilkyson turns it into a pleasant swinging country ballad, and surprisingly, that fits the song perfectly.

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Jokerman: the meaning of the music and the lyrics


  1. Yes, indeed, an author intending to mock interpreters of lyrics of a poem or song can try to produce one with little or no meaning – going so far as to throwing pieces of printed paper into the air and letting the words fall where they may – but language patterns persist in the human mind and uncovered by listeners or readers thereof will be some kind of ‘immanent’ meaning regardless of the author’s intent.

    The poetry of EE Cummings comes to mind.

  2. Yes this may be true but it may also leave a blank canvas to be used by a prophetic spirit. The same can be true for a fiction writer.

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