Monday, June 4, 2018

Master Blueprints # 21: “Oh, Jokerman, You Know What He Wants, Oh, Jokerman, You Don’t Show Any Response”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Jokerman”
Album: Infidels
Release Date: Date: October 1983

One subject I’ve yet to focus much attention on in this series is Bob Dylan’s early 60s protest music, which was creatively portrayed as a persona (by Christian Bale) in the highly recommended and aptly-named movie I’m Not There (one of six Dylan personas in the film, each played by a different actor).  Virtually every documentary of Bob Dylan I’ve ever read or watched includes at least one chapter or segment centered on this persona.  Most of these documentaries put a bow on that period at about the time Dylan went all rock & roll electric on everyone near the middle of the decade, presumably abandoning protest music in the process. To be more specific, political protest – which is how Joan Baez once explained it.  This distinction is important, because if defining ‘protest’ as “a solemn declaration” (which is at the nexus of the origin of the word) one could argue that Dylan would go on to protest all sorts of things as the 60s played out, from a bad work environment (“Maggie’s Farm”) to getting jilted (“She’s Your Lover Now”) to urban chaos (“Desolation Row”) to a prodigal daughter (“Tears of Rage”) to the consequences of apathy (“Too Much of Nothing”).

As the 70s rolled in, Bob Dylan did manage to weave back in the political-protest narrative here and there, including in his songs “Hurricane” and “Lenny Bruce”.  All the while, his other forms of protest continued, which was made clear in a classic moment on the Bob Dylan Live, 1975 disc, (see the last three Master Blueprint entries centered on the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Review Tour), where Dylan responds to a heckler in the crowd who yells “play a protest song!” by stating “here’s one for ya”.  He then goes on to play “Oh, Sister” – a lament on family discord from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks and a song which at first glance one would not equate to protestation.  As the decade concluded, Bob Dylan’s Gospel years kicked in, which included songs that were not only full of strong Faith, but that also include solemn declarations, often in the form of dire warning about the implications of turning a blind eye to God: Protests in their own right.

I get it though: For 20 years or so, there was nary the same level of commitment from Bob Dylan to the political-protest spark that he ignited in the early -60s.  However, Dylanologists should think of this more as a long hiatus rather than an abandonment, because in 1983, the man came back to this type of protest music with a vengeance, with his album Infidels.  The title fits the mold, does it not?  After all, Infidels was the first release on the tail end of that Gospel phase in Dylan’s career, and so considering these circumstances, what term would be more fitting to solemnly rail against someone or something? 

I cannot recall how or when I got into Infidels, but it was relatively early in my fascination with all things Dylan.  Most everyone has at least a mild curiosity in Bob Dylan, especially after his recent Nobel Prize recognition.  However, if that mild curiosity is to blossom, as mine did, then it’s likely a keen interest in his early protest music helped spur that on.  And yet, the thought that Dylan would truly abandon such strong convictions can be deflating to anyone trying to make these inroads.  I mean, who abandons their principles other than the foolhardy?  Alas, for me, it was Infidels that came to the rescue (although I would later figure there’s a lot more to it than that). 

I view Infidels as an end-side bookend album.  The beginning side of the bookend being 1978’s Street Legal.  In between are Bob Dylan’s three Gospel albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love.  I’ve recently contemplated these bookend albums as each having a cornerstone song. On Street Legal, it’s “Señor” and on Infidels it’s “Jokerman”, which is this entry’s focus tune ( ).  These songs are two of the most intense in Dylan’s vast catalog.  “Jokerman” is both an appeal to and a condemnation of a soul gone astray.  It’s from the viewpoint of a man who has experienced deep Christian Faith, and is articulated in a way that can only come from a someone who yearns to one day see the Promised Land.  As for “Señor”, which was written just prior to Bob Dylan’s Gospel-album journey, well, I’ve already written about this in Master Blueprints # 5, but here is an excerpt from that entry that is most relevant to this one:

“The very beginning and ending of Señor” is identical; a slow methodical series of guitar notes, which has me pondering that nothing has changed – despite the supernatural sojourn.  Dylan was stuck in a sort of purgatory at that stage in his life, but soon he would be ready to break that mold.” 

This week, I researched the setlist for a Bob Dylan concert that I witnessed from the 2nd row at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston in 1994.  I did this tracking because I wanted to verify my recollection that Dylan opened the show with “Jokerman” (he did).  I was already at least five years into my own journey with Infidels by the time so hearing this song live was a bit of a “Wow” moment for me.  However, what really caught my eye after I retrieved the setlist was the second song Dylan played that evening; Señor (see Master Blueprint # 5).  I was not yet familiar with this song at that time, so unfortunately, it did not reverberate.  Now I see this back-to-back performance of these two relatively deep tracks (at least in terms of performance) and I think…. hmmm, maybe I’m on to something here.

Ok, so in terms of protestations on Infidels, I’d like to work my way up to “Jokerman”.  Let me start with “Union Sundown”, a song about the erosion of hands-on American ingenuity, and one of two overtly political protest songs on the album (I try to refrain from political discourse in this blog series, but, I feel I’ve got no choice here).  This being 1983, it’s clear Bob Dylan threw his hat in the ring early on in expressing disappointment about how “made in America” was going the way of the Dodo. 

Ahh yes, the Reagan 80s.  It’s all coming back now.  Today, the rattling of cages on this issue is coming from staunch conservative circles, but “Union Sundown” hints at that mindset being what got us in this predicament in the first place, with populist lyrics like “you know, Capitalism is above the law”, and “the unions are big business friend, and their goin’ out like a dinosaur” and the refrain “sure was a good idea, ‘till greed got in the way”.  Regardless, Bob Dylan was showing a concern for his Country in a way that any true blue American -  no matter their political persuasion - could relate to. 

Listening to “Union Sundown” this week, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “We…will build your car” 2014 Super Bowl commercial, promoting American made automobiles: ( ).  If you don’t recall (or even if you do), give it a watch.  It’s worth the 2 minutes.

The other overtly political protest on the album is “Neighborhood Bully”, which goes to bat for the unique geopolitical situation of the Jewish State.  This is another position that seems to have been hijacked in recent years by staunch conservatism (while at the same time, conceivably abandoned by the liberal left).  One could easily argue this was the case in 1983 as well, but that would be an over generalization.  “Neighborhood Bully” was written only several years after the Iran hostage crisis, which was the first time America really felt it got burned by a Middle East country.  Back then, there was a general mindset of having been the victim.  Those were relatively innocent times to be an American.  Today, after much retaliation, we are in a lot deeper with the Middle East, and we continue to ally ourselves with an assortment of strange bedfellows.  Indeed, it’s a far more complex situation now, and yet, somehow, “Neighborhood Bully” does not sound dated in the least. However, the historical context must be factored in when listening. 

“License to Kill” is right up there as another example of a powerful solemn declaration, taking Type A personalities to task by shining a light on the often-tragic failure of aggressive impatient behavior.  To Bob Dylan’s courageous credit, the Type A personalities are represented in “License to Kill” as masculine, and the counterpoint rebuke - the Type B propensity for patience in other words - is represented as feminine.  For a little more detail, I also wrote about this one in Master Blueprints # 8, which included a review of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers amazing performance of “License to Kill” at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992.

The same masculine/feminine element plays out in “Sweetheart Like You”, the sweetheart in this case presumably being Mother Nature.  Again, there’s populist protest playing out here, best articulated in the line:

“They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot on they make you king”

One key and somewhat unique aspect of Infidels is that it ties Bob Dylan’s secular-leaning concerns to his faith-focused ones.  “I and I’, “Man of Peace” and “Jokerman” all lean closer to the faith vest.  As with so many of Dylan’s works, these songs are packed with multi-layered spiritual meaning.  All three have similar powerful messages, but “Jokerman” stands out.  One way it stands out is in Bob Dylan’s vocals on the studio version.  This song would only be interpreted as an indictment if just reading the lyrics, but the vocal delivery makes it also sound empathetic and hopeful, despite the depths of depravity that the singer is observing in the Jokerman character.  This gives “Jokerman” more of a cathartic feel.  It also raises the song to a truly Christian approach to protest.  And finally, it brings to the fore why I love listening to Bob Dylan:  He’s oh, so heavy, even dreadful here, but at the same time he’s oh so good for the soul.  If you can negotiate this duality, you have yourself a treasure trove of musical chestnuts at your disposal throughout the depth and breadth of Dylan’s catalog.

I’m going to wrap with the following.  I caught an interesting homily at Mass a month or so ago (yes, I am Catholic if you have not figured that already), where the priest, Father Jeremy, was reflecting on a reading he had just delivered from Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:33-35).  The passage is about the advice given by a well-respected Pharisee of the time named Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin (tribunals in the ancient land of Israel), who want to have the Apostles killed for speaking to crowds in Jesus name and for blaming these same Jewish leaders for His death.  Gamaliel's Advice: So in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone. Let them go! For if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. But if from God, you will not be able to stop them.  You may even find yourself fighting against God”. 

The interesting take Father Jeremy had on this passage was that he was putting a positive spin on the fact that these leaders were engaging the Apostles, despite the engagement being of a seriously confrontational nature.  His point being that by being so engaged, many of these Sanhedrin were showing passion, however misguided, which still gave them a fighting chance at finding truth.  Father Jeremy then contrasted both the converted and those persecuting them, with others who remained unengaged and uninterested despite all this passion surrounding them in Jerusalem in those, the earliest days of Christianity.  These were the ones, he stated, who were truly devoid of spirituality. These were the ones who had far less hope for redemption than even the nastiest of the Sanhedrin who were engaged.

This was what quickly came to mind after slipping Bob Dylan’s Infidels into my car’s cd player early this week and listening to that glorious opening salvo, “Jokerman”.  Bob Dylan is basically singing about the same type of apathy that Father Jeremy was sermonizing on (for the record, the most political-protest lyric from my perspective being the evil-despot line “manipulator of crowds. You’re a dream twister”).  There’s a lot of back and forth in “Jokerman”; a toggle from the holy to the unholy (a contrast that ends up driving home the lyrics at the end of the song, which I am unashamedly using for the title of this entry: “Oh, Jokerman, you know what He wants. Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response”).  This, along with other elements, such as a need for a deep understanding of Biblical theology, can make the song confusing.  But if you stick with the sentiment alone out of the gate, it will propel you forward with this incredible tune, as well as this very underrated album.

Well I never did tackle that early protest period.  Soon enough I’m sure. However, after drafting this entry, I hope I’ve made the case that Bob Dylan has never really abandoned protest, and I don’t believe he thinks so either.



  1. I love this whole album but Man of Peace is one of my all time faves.

  2. Back in the early 80s Dylan was reportedly hanging out with Lubbavitch Jews. Indeed, when asked about it he replied snidely, "yeah,tell 'em I'm writing all my songs for them now." Low and behold 'Neighbourhood Bully' turns up on Infidels. No doubting it's message or position on Israel!

  3. I listened to Infidels daily while writing my doctoral dissertation on perception of heart sounds by physicians using a stethoscope. The music inspired me.

  4. Thanks in favor of sharing such a good opinion, paragraph is good, thats
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