Episode 59 
“Jokerman.” 
Blockhouse. 
Infidels
#2 of Music Video Month 2018.
Recorded July 1, 2018. 

It isn’t a sermon or a pop song but a real creation, a work you can wander inside, explore, breathe in, pass through, wrap around you. It looks different in different lights. It’s always shifting, but this is because it’s alive, not because it’s nebulous (though it may be that too). Its complexity isn’t off-putting, nor distancing. On the contrary, Dylan sings you through the complexity with almost as much generosity of expression, almost as much bestowing of concentrated warmth, as he gives out on, say, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, a nebulous and complicated song from another lifetime.

Michael Gray

Context (5:00)

Recorded at Power Station Studios in New York City on April 13, 1983 (in 5 takes) and April 14, 1983 (in 1 take, on Infidels). Instead of leaving it be, he’d experiment for the first time with vocal overdubs. Later he’d say, “[‘Jokerman’] was a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album got away from me … They hung around too long. They were better before they were tampered with.” Dylan has performed this 157 times from May 1984 to November 2003, including beginning his Woodstock 1994 setlist with it.

Song Itself (11:30)

So what’s the song about? Jesus? Himself? YOU?!?!

From Blood on the Tracks onwards, we are given parallel after parallel between Dylan and Christ: both charismatic leaders, both message-bringers to their people, both martyrs because both get betrayed. In retrospect, it is as if Dylan eventually converts to Christianity because of the way he has identified with Christ and understood His struggles through his own. (In the period after his outburst of evangelism is over, in the early 1980s, he looks back at his Christ-Dylan parallels with an admirable rigour: one that avoids simplistic revisionist declarations. In particular he looks at these issues in the great 1984 song ‘Jokerman’, on Infidels.)

Michael Gray

Or is it, as Ian Bell wrote, “a very strange concatenation of beliefs, ideas, images and emotions” that “could result in a song that is as powerful as any Dylan ever recorded.” It’s that combination of literalness of the Bible, reincarnation, island myths (see “Caribbean Wind”) and lore (jumbees) which makes this song pop. Daniel and Kelly go down that path on the podcast.

This is strong, complex, intelligent writing—in some ways quite beyond what he could have handled in the 1960s. It comes from the Dylan who is unafraid to stand inside the chaos of passion and vulnerability, unafraid of risk and contradiction, prepared to acknowledge the fragility of each individual’s hold on sanity and strength. It is, despite the difficult themes and the scriptural foundations, a fluid and imaginative, humane work.

Michael Gray

Mixed Up Confusion

In addition to this week’s episode, we did a Mixed Up Confusion for the “Jokerman” music video and his live performance on The Late Show With David Letterman from 1984. In addition to talking about the music videos, we also talk music videos prior to MTV and what Dylan was aiming at with this, his first video for the network.

Recommendations (30:30)

Kelly finished Season 3 of Unreal and listened to Scorpion by Drake. 

Daniel finished his rewatch of Season 1 of Mad Men and read Patrick Phillips’ eye-opening Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

Endings (34:00)

Just when you thought we couldn’t continue, Music Video Month goes on! We jump ahead only a few more years but it feels like a lifetime: “Tight Connection to My Heart” off 1985’s Empire Burlesque, our first.

Published by Daniel

Occasional writer, persistent nomad; restless, moving, changing. Currently in Portland, Oregon.

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