Song of the Day #692: ‘Jokerman’ – Bob Dylan

After four years of the “Christian thing” (which is a long time in music years), Bob Dylan released the (mostly) secular Infidels in 1983 and it was celebrated as a return to form.

And indeed it is his best album from that mid-70s to late-80s period when he was at his shakiest. As I’ve discovered through these blog entries, that period wasn’t quite as shaky as I’d been led to believe but it was shaky.

Infidels is another album that I purchased expressly for the purposes of this blog and I’m really glad I did. I’m not sure why I never got around to buying it in the past, because I’ve always heard it’s a good album, so it was nice to have the excuse.

Mark Knopfler, who brought his fabulous guitar skills to Slow Train Coming, signed on as producer of Infidels, and he gives the album a nice blues rock vibe that at times calls to mind his work with Dire Straits.

Though Infidels was Dylan’s first secular album after three straight Christian-themed records, Dylan doesn’t have his head completely out of the Heavens. Biblical allusions are scattered throughout the songs, and at least one (‘Man of Peace’) could have easily fit alongside the tracks on his previous three albums.

Elsewhere, Dylan gets political, as on ‘Neighborhood Bully,’ a song defending Israel, and ‘Union Showdown,’ about outsourcing labor to foreign countries (and importing goods rather than buying American).

Opening track ‘Jokerman’ is another with multiple Biblical references, including Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But it’s a much grittier track than those Dylan had been writing over the previous several years. References to “nightsticks and water cannons” and “Molotov cocktails” give the song an aura of danger, as do the references to snakes.

Who is this Jokerman, this “dream twister” and “manipulator of crowds?” I don’t pretend to know, though I hope some of the commenters will help shed some light on the subject.

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
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing
Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

So swiftly the sun sets in the sky
You rise up and say goodbye to no one
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Both of their futures, so full of dread, you don’t show one
Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

It’s a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey
A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet
He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat
Take the motherless children off the street
And place them at the feet of a harlot
Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants
Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Bird fly high by the light of the moon
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

10 thoughts on “Song of the Day #692: ‘Jokerman’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    Wow–I really like this song. It seems to be the transition for Dylan to the sound he has largely settled into over the past decade, yet he still had his vocal range that has more recently vanished. The production quality is quite nice–smoothing out some of Dylan’s rough edges, but leaving enough to remain quintessential Dylan.

    Me likey a lot.

  2. Amy says:

    Fascinating… just fascinating.

    First, I love Mark Knopfler, and I can completely “get” how he produced this song, which is one of the first from these Dylan weekends I can say I liked as much as I do on first listen. If the rest of the album sounds anything like this, I would be happy to own this one to represent the “shaky” period of Dylan’s career.

    As for the “Jokerman” – in a post Lost finale world, I have to admit the first verse made me think of Jacob and the man in black, so I started wondering about the source material that could have inspired both Dylan and Carlton Cuse. By the second and third verses, I started to think the jokerman was a symbol for the entertainer – comedian, singer, actor. By the time we got to Molotov cocktails and nightsticks, I had no idea what the hell the song was about.

    Still, I love it.

  3. Dustin says:

    I remember Dylan saying in an interview in the late 60s or early 70s that he always thought that when he said “you” in his songs that he was talking about other people (for example, “Once upon a time YOU dressed so fine…etc.), but that at one point he realized that he was always talking to himself. So, I think that he may be calling himself the Jokerman, maybe in reference to his (over?)indulgence in Christianity.

    Maybe irrelevant, but Don McLean called him “The Joker” in “American Pie.” So I have Don McLean on my side.

  4. bill says:

    As has been pointed out by multiple dylanogists this could have been a great album, ranking with BD’s best. Fer instance, had he included Blind Willie Mctell and Foot of Pride instead of Union Sundown and Neighborhood Bully – then every song woulda been an A lister. Like a lotta great artists Bob doesn’t always know what his best work is.
    Rumor had it Knopfler and BD had a huge falling out during the production of this record…maybe perhaps over song selection?

  5. Danny B says:

    Bob Dylan rocks, but I lost some respect when he put out that Christmas Album last year.

  6. Nick says:

    Hey, the Christmas album was a) for charity and b) fun. It’s not meant to be some kind of serious artistic statement, and thus should not be treated in the same way as his other albums.

  7. Jamie says:

    Christmas album is genius

  8. Andy says:

    lyrically this is simply one of Dylan’s best. i sometimes think its better just to read the lyrics, they really are like good poetry. the chorus is a little (ok, alot) rough the first few times you hear it but i think you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll start humming it. great song

  9. Barry says:

    Nice article and you’re right! it’s certainly a tough song to understand literally, but that doesn’t prevent one from enjoying it. I was just reading a great article about this very song which seemed to shed light on the issue and also examined Dylan’s used of jokers, jesters and clowns in great detail

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