Meet Me In Montauk

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

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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

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