“Jokerman” from the 1983 album Infidels is one of Dylan’s most enigmatic songs. It is perhaps a culmination of all the grand themes Dylan was wrestling with at the time – labelled his post-evangelical period by some commentators. Intentionally or unintentionally, Dylan perpetuated the confusion with the image of the Joker.
The Joker is a special card found in most modern decks of playing cards that has its origins in the court jester of the middle ages and the Fool of the Tarot card deck. Its use is greatly varied. Many games omit the card from use entirely, but often the Joker is a wild card and thereby allowed to represent other existing cards. The Joker can be extremely beneficial or extremely harmful and brings an unpredictable feature to games. Dylan’s “Jokerman” is thus a deeply ambiguous figure.
Jesters, Clowns and Fools
The choice by Dylan to employ the imagery of a Joker should be of no surprise. He has always used jokers, clowns and jesters in his songs, beginning with “A Hard Rain’s A-Ganna Fall” in 1962:Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
The clown, of course, is a descendant of the court jester. He rose to prominence in the Venetian Commedia dell’arte in characters such as Harlequin who later directly influenced the English pantomime.
The clown of the pantomime typically wore baggy clothes, whiteface and had a little tuft of black hair. He is probably a relic of the devil as he appeared in medieval miracle plays, but masked characters appear in all lands and cultures and can be linked to the deepest roots of humanity (the word mask is derived from the Latin world maska which means ‘soul of the dead’). Dylan has always toyed with the idea of wearing a mask. “I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask,” he declared from the stage in 1964.
Dylan’s clowns appear frequently in those early songs. In “Mr. Tambourine Man” the ragged clown is the devotee of the Tambourine Man, though curiously he is chasing a shadow. Surely the clown is Dylan in pursuit of his muse:And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind…
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing
In “It’s Alright Ma” the fool is blowing a golden horn. He has a profound message:From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
In that memorable line from “Like a Rolling Stone” the frowning clowns are neglected:You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
Elsewhere, Shakespeare is described as a jester-like character:Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells (Stuck Inside of Mobile)
How could the most acclaimed figure in Western Literature be likened to a jester? It is not meant to be an insult. From medieval times until the 17th century licensed jesters were kept at the courts of European monarchs and wealthy nobles. They wore bright-coloured clothes, caps with bells and carried mock sceptres. They were employed to tell jokes and provide entertainment. They are recurring characters in Shakespeare’s plays, often speaking nonsense, and using puns, yet telling the truth where those who mean to be truthful cannot. The distorted world of the jester turns out to be reality; it is everyone else who lives in a distortion e.g. in King Lear as the King descends into madness, it is as if he and his jester have changed places; it is Lear who has been a fool, while his jester has told him nothing but sense.
In this fabled mid-60s period Dylan did not just stop at the mention of fools, clowns and jesters in his songs. When the circus is in town we see tight-rope walkers, sword-swallowers, judges who walk on stilts, fortune-telling ladies, one-eyed midgets, grey-flannel dwarves and fifteen jugglers.
Dylan’s has recently remarked that his attraction to the circus stems from youth:
Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the travelling performers passing through. The side-show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas The Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself.
Dylan has also described his early masterpiece “Desolation Row” as a “minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up, and it had an effect on me…”
You can feel the carnival sound, the circus, the merry-go-round in the music of such songs as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and even “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, a song of which Dylan remarked upon listening to a take, “Just listen to that! That’s old-time religious carnival music!”
The influence of the New Orleans Mardi Gras can be sensed in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, while earlier songs such as “Dusty Old Fairgrounds” and “Long Time Gone” talk about travelling with carnival trains – perhaps to validate some of the tall tales Dylan had been spinning to his new friends in New York. Of course much later this self-labelled Trapeze Artist and Song and Dance Man would create his own music-carnival-circus and call it The Rolling Thunder Revue.
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. (Oscar Wilde)
Joker or Thief?
Perhaps Dylan’s most famous joker appears in “All Along the Watchtower”:“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
Some have speculated the joker is Christ on the cross, crucified between two thieves. In verse two Dylan has the thief replying to the joker’s words – this could be attributed to the thief who is sympathetic to Christ’s plight. While it is undeniable that John Wesley Harding is an album saturated with biblical imagery, it is also plausible that Dylan is referring to himself in “All Along the Watchtower”: the disillusioned joker whose work has been plundered and misunderstood by businessmen and ploughmen alike. The joker is confused. He is in a dark place. Interestingly, elsewhere in “Wedding Song” the residence of the jester is described as a dark place:To the courtyard of the jester which is hidden from the sun
He now bids farewell to this jester-persona, which he concedes in “Abandoned Love” has deceived him:I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Perhaps Dylan sees his art as nothing more than the produce of a jester. Some will dismiss it. But that is part of the riddle. This clown we are neglecting might actually have a profound message. In many cases Dylan’s jesters and clowns are Holy Fools. The English painter Cecil Collins, in his book The Vision of the Fool, argued that “The Saint, the artist, the poet and the Fool are one. The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the sight which they have lost.”
Is Dylan a Joker, Jester or Fool? He has always rejected labels, but I suspect he would be more comfortable with such descriptions than that of Prophet, Spokesman or Voice of a Generation. There is a chaplinesque quality to his stage persona that provokes reaction from fans and critics alike. He is forever performing in the theatre of divine comedy. It is always a fascinating experience leaving a Dylan concert and keeping an ear out for disgruntled spectators: there will always be some who are acutely disappointed with what they have just witnessed. Their disillusionment usually relates to Dylan’s indistinct time-worn voice, and/or his narrow song-selection on the night in question (“he didn’t play Tambourine Man!”). Such people are perplexed as to how this poet has performed before presidents and popes.
Post “Jokerman” he has continued to baffle his audience with tricks, riddles and perhaps even hoaxes. Songs from Empire Burlesque (1985) contain numerous allusions to Hollywood’s golden age of films, while Under the Red Sky (1990) is littered with phrases from nursery rhymes. Lyrics from Time Out of Mind (1997), “Love & Theft” (2001) and Modern Times (2006) seem to be derived from a collage of literary sources, including American Civil War poet Henry Timrod, Roman poet Ovid, Mark Twain, contemporary singer-songwriter Henry Rollins, and perhaps most surprisingly, the Japanese novel “Confessions of a Yakuza” by Junichi Saga. Furthermore his acclaimed memoir Chronicles: Volume One has lines lifted from amongst others, Proust, London, Stevenson, Hemingway, Wells and Wolfe not to mention the drama behind his Nobel lecture which hilariously sources SparkNotes (the online equivalent of CliffNotes).
Predictably, when these allusions are first discovered, there are many who are outraged and waste no time in labelling Dylan a plagiarist. Ironically, the thief is a recurring character in the Dylan landscape as well. Dylan, who even once referred to himself as a ‘Thief of Thoughts’, makes references to thieves, gamblers, gangsters, gypsies, drifters, mystery tramps, outlaws, gunfighters, hobos, Judases, Cains, men in long black coats, not to mention those two curious troublemakers, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
But while some have been quick to accuse Dylan of thievery, my inclination is that all of this is simply Dylan revelling in the role of the Joker once more. And if we look closely at his songs, he has indeed always been a joker….
Talkin’ Bob Dylan Humourous Blues
Dylan’s mastery of phrasing, timing and deadpan are clearly evident in his early talking blues songs such as “Talkin’ New York”, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues”; the latter in which Dylan remarks that a Cadillac is a good car to drive after a war. We also can’t help but smile when we hear him say: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”. Such humour is further exhibited in “I Shall Be Free” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10” where each verse tends to end with a punchline. All these songs of course are styled after Woody Guthrie.
Dylan songs from the surreal 1965-66 period are littered with outrageous images which surely cannot be taken seriously, whether it be the description of the sun as a chicken (Tombstone Blues) or the assertion that jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule (Visions of Johanna). We then get to the sheer madness of The Basement Tapes. Amongst the nonsense lyrics we get the deadpan humour of “Clothes Line Saga”. Has there ever been a better exponent of the talking song than Dylan? It resurfaces again in “Brownsville Girl” (1986), “Highlands” (1997) and “Long and Wasted Years” (2012). Apart from these obvious cases of deadpan delivered in the laconic talking style, there are numerous examples of humour in Dylan songs over the years. We are tickled when we hear lines such as:
They asked me for some collateral / And I pulled down my pants (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream)
Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles (Visions of Johanna)
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk (Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts)
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter (Brownsville Girl)
I met Prince Phillip at the home of the blues (Dignity)
Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet (Million Miles)
Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet
Puttin’ her in a wheelbarrow and wheelin’ her down the street (Things Have Changed)
Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months.
Don’t know how it looked to other people, I never slept with her even once (Lonesome Day Blues)
Other humourous highlights include the verses in “Highlands” that tell of Dylan’s encounter with a waitress in a Boston restaurant; the unambitious grandparents described in “Floater”; the knock knock joke from “Po Boy”; and the perplexing reference to Alicia Keys in “Thunder on the Mountain”.
In 1971 Dylan was famously depicted as a jester in Don McLean’s classic song ‘American Pie’. Recently, Dylan seemed quite amused at this description when prompted by Bill Flanagan during an interview to promote the album Triplicate:
Flanagan: In Don McLean’s “American Pie,” you’re supposed to be the jester.
Dylan: 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.
which is just the sort of facetious response you would come to expect from a jester.
With all this in mind, let us delve into the period that immediately precedes “Jokerman”.
Prelude to a Joke
After the overtly gospel themes of 1979-80 there is a subtle shift in subject matter on Shot of Love. There are still strong Christian messages in songs such as “Property of Jesus” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” but overall the album is thematically uneven. “Every Grain of Sand” and some of the outtakes from Shot of Love seem to signal a departure from their evangelical predecessors. In particular “Every Grain of Sand” reveals a man toiling in the “morals of despair” and wrestling with the “flowers of indulgence”:
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way, I always hear my name
Other tracks such as “Caribbean Wind”, “Angelina” and “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” are richly symbolic songs that appear to be secular in nature, yet are still iridescent with biblical imagery. Two years later with the release of Infidels, Israel is explicitly referred to in “Neighbourhood Bully” and Dylan is pictured in Jerusalem on the inside sleeve of the album.
In addition to “Neighbourhood Bully” a quick run through the songs on Infidels reveal many references to Israel and/or the Hebrew Scriptures. “I and I” has references to King David, Exodus and Ecclesiastes. The outtakes from this fertile period continue the theme: “Blind Willie McTell” speaks about Jerusalem in its opening verse; “Tell Me” mentions Zion and quotes from Ecclesiastes; “Foot of Pride” has links to the Pentateuch, Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah.(1)
All this fuelled speculation of a return to Judaism.
This brings us to “Jokerman”.
Dylan is once again wearing his emperor of rhyme crown, employing the intricate rhyme scheme of AABCCBDD:
A Standing on the waters casting your bread
A While the eyes of the idol with the iron head
B are glowing
C Distant ships sailing into the mist
C You were born with a snake in both of your fists
B while a hurricane was blowing
D Freedom just around the corner for you
D But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?
As often is the case with Dylan, the metre is shot to pieces. On the page the lines appear overly long and even clumsy. It is the music, and, of course, Dylan’s mastery of timing and phrasing, which elevate these lyrics to poetry. His vocal is effortless. The song needs to be heard, not read, to be fully experienced.
Dylan has put together a star-studded band with the acclaimed Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare providing a bouncy, light-reggae infused canvas for Dylan to paint on.
At first this refreshing musical landscape seems to compliment the ocean setting implied in the first line, but it soon becomes apparent that the lyrics are incredibly heavy and complex, in direct contrast to the light play of the music. Perhaps Dylan fully intended this strange juxtaposition of music and lyrics to perpetuate the joker theme of the song.
Each verse is concluded with a sublime change of chord that leads to a couplet i.e. the DD of the AABCCBDD rhyme scheme. In the first verse, the word “freedom” coincidences with this lovely chord change (from A to Bm) instantly reminding us why Dylan is such a great songmaker (not just a lyricist). The enunciation of the word “freedom” occurs simultaneously with the chord change, and the listener is momentarily transported (only to be told in the next line that truth is far off). The concluding couplets to each of the six verses in “Jokerman” are brilliantly executed, in much the same fashion that Byron crafted his witty couplet punchlines to his “ottava rima” stanzas in Don Juan. Dylan seems to be revealing a lot about the Jokerman in these couplets.
We find an elusive, enigmatic character being described in the first 4 verses. He is standing on the water casting bread (an image from Ecclesiastes that is linked, along with Micah 7:19, to the Jewish Tashlich ritual) while surrounded by pagan idols. He has powers – he was born with snakes in his fists (this recalls the baby Hercules who strangled two snakes who were sent to kill him by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, or perhaps even the divine trickster Hermes who carried a staff with two entwined snakes). Freedom is within reach, but what does it matter if truth is so far off? Is Dylan referring to a false messiah? A political entity? Himself? The final line of verse 2 implies the character is constantly engaged in an inward struggle with “the persecutor within”. Is Dylan referring to Satan? Satan in Hebrew means adversary or enemy.
The Jokerman is a man of the mountains, who walks on clouds, manipulates people and twists dreams. Thus he has powers not only to do the supernatural but to deceive. The Sodom and Gomorrah line is comical. If no-one from such a defiled place would want to marry his sister then he must be a despised man indeed.
He is a friend to both the martyr and the woman of shame. This could be either Jesus, Dylan or a political entity. Christ was merciful to many women of shame e.g. the adulterer in John 8 and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He was obviously a friend to the martyr as well, as he was the one they were prepared to die for. But is Dylan implying a political entity with this line i.e. a country that has liaised with both good and bad nations for personal gain? Or some sort of charlatan?
The Jokerman looks into the fiery furnace and sees a rich man without a name. This is an allusion to Luke 16:19-31 where Christ tells the story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus. They both die and the rich man goes to hell (i.e. the “fiery furnace”), while the poor man is carried by angels to heaven. Jokerman it would seem is closer to the fiery furnace than to heaven.
The next verse gives some more clues as to the Jokerman’s identity:Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
These two books are the third and fifth books of the Pentateuch. They are concerned primarily with the Law. However the law of the jungle “kill or be killed” seems to be the opposite of such. This is deliberately confusing. The next line we have a figure riding on a milk-white steed; a figure worthy of a Michelangelo sculpture. In Revelation 19:11-13 Christ rides a white horse, although there is also a white horse mentioned in Revelation 6:2 that represents conquest. But the mention of Michelangelo changes the tone, as one of his most famous works is his statue of David – Israel’s most revered king. The next line:Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face.
is harder to pinpoint, but David was on the run on a few occasions when pursued by Saul. Thus verse 4, along with the opening line in verse 1, have a very strong Jewish theme. Perhaps the Jokerman is Israel? (But why all the negative attributes then? Particularly on the same album that “Neighbourhood Bully” appears). Perhaps the Jokerman is Dylan the Jew. Confused and unsure of his powers? Returning to the faith of his youth after dabbling with Christianity? Or perhaps it is an allusion to the Fool of the Tarot card who is usually accompanied by a dog, and is utterly adrift from the ways of the world.
Verse 5 switches from the character of the Jokerman to a climate of war. Could this be the Middle East? End times? Nightsticks, cannons and Molotov cocktails are mentioned amidst riflemen, preachers and false-hearted judges. This brings us to the final verse: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
This points to Revelation 12:6 where a woman gives birth to a male-child (Christ) who we are told will rule the nations with an iron rod. However, here Dylan has the child wearing scarlet which is confusing, as this child now appears to have more in common with the scarlet beast of Revelation 17 – a beast that carries the Whore of Babylon i.e. the harlot. Is Dylan referring to this satanic creature from Revelation 17 rather than the Christ-like figure from Revelation 12? Or he is deliberately intertwining the two images to illustrate how the antichrist will deceive many? Or perhaps to illustrate his own inner-confusion?
Champions of the Reformation such as Martin Luther believed that the Whore of Babylon was the Roman Catholic Church. In this verse, Dylan refers to the priest being put in the pocket of the prince, while in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” (the final song on Infidels) he sings “it ain’t even safe no more in the palace of the Pope.” Is Dylan aligning the Whore of Babylon and this scarlet prince with the Catholic Church? If so, it makes his performance for the Pope in 1997 even more ironic.
It has been well-documented that Dylan closely studied Hal Lindsey’s book on end times, The Late Great Planet Earth: one of the themes of the book was a link between the Roman Catholic Church and the antichrist.
But back to the song’s finale: this scarlet prince is wreaking havoc and the Jokerman is not doing anything about it – “you don’t show any response”. In fact all the while the Jokerman dances to the nightingale’s song. Traditionally a nightingale is a symbol for the poet/singer. It seems the Jokerman is more interested in the bird’s song than the havoc created by the prince. Is Dylan stating that he is merely a Jokerman who dances to the tune of the nightingale and there is nothing he can do to stop the prince? Or is the Jokerman a false Messiah who has paved the way for this scarlet prince?
Dylan and the Apocalypse
Applying an apocalyptic interpretation to the final verse of “Jokerman” is not without foundation. Dylan is well-versed in the Book of Revelation and commonly cites its more frightening sequences in his songs. He refers to the great battle of Armageddon in “Senor” and more explicitly in “Are You Ready?” as well as conjuring up the beast from Revelation 13:1 in “Cross the Green Mountain”:
Heaven blazin’ in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Somethin’ came up out of the sea
Furthermore the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17 is alluded to in songs such as “No Time to Think” and “Foot of Pride”.
In Revelation 9, after the sounding of the 5th trumpet, giant locusts with the stings of scorpions torture those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. “During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them” (Revelation 9:6). Dylan refers directly to this in “Precious Angel”:Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?
The last verse of the stunning “Angelina” is also sprinkled with images from Revelation:I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
this is an allusion to Revelation 6:2-8. The pale and white horses are two of the four horses of the apocalypse. The rider of the pale horse represents death. The rider of the white horse represents conquest. There is also a white horse mentioned in Revelation 19 that Christ rides upon. Perhaps the narrator is unsure which is which, indicating some kind of personal crisis.
So what does all this tell us? And how does it relate to the Jokerman? Firstly, it illustrates that Dylan has read and studied Revelation closely. With regard to “Jokerman” it adds weight to the theory that the scarlet prince mentioned in the final verse is an apocalyptic figure, an antichrist. In numerous songs from this period Dylan is aware of the presence of a deceiver, a beast, an antichrist. Satan is usually portrayed as the great deceiver, the man of peace masquerading as an angel of light:But the enemy I see / Wears a cloak of decency (Slow Train) The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived (Precious Angel) Well, the devil’s shining light, it can be most blinding (Saving Grace) I was blinded by the devil (Saved)
The theme comes to fruition in “Man of Peace”, the opening song from Side 2 on the Infidels album:You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace
This entire song is based on 2 Corinthians 11:14 and Satan’s ability to deceive with his “sweet gift of the gab” and “harmonious tongue”, etc. This Man of Peace could very well be the same character as the “Jokerman”.
The references to Satan abound elsewhere in Dylan songs, particularly “Trouble in Mind” where Dylan describes Satan as the “prince of the power of the air”; precisely the way Satan is described by Paul in Ephesians 2:2.
We also hear of the devil or Satan in such songs as “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”, “Pressing On”, “Dead Man, Dead Man”, “You Changed My Life”, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and we think about him at the sudden conclusion of “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”. (For more devil references in Dylan’s song see the following article).
In a 1991 interview when asked about “Jokerman” Dylan stated:
That’s a song that got away from me. It probably didn’t hold up for me because in my mind it had been written and rewritten and written again
I find it curious that Dylan is dismissive of the song given that he made it the opening track of Infidels and then allowed it to be the subject of an elaborate music video. Furthermore, he has performed it 157 times in concert, including the infamous punk version on Letterman, as well as a stirring rendition that opened his Woodstock set in 1994. The history books tell us that he performed the song nightly on the 1984 tour, before abandoning it for almost a decade. He then picked it up again in 1994, choosing “Jokerman” to open almost 100 concerts. Between 1995 and 2003 the song became somewhat of a rarity, before disappearing altogether from the set. He has not played it since November 25, 2003.
Given Dylan’s concession that the song “had been written and rewritten and written again” it is fascinating to listen to an unreleased outtake of the song that contains some different lyrics. Beginning with this masterful couplet that concludes verse 3:
Scratching the world with a fine-tooth comb
You’re a king among nations, you’re a stranger at home
Who is a king among nations but a stranger at home? It could refer to Israel as a stranger in the Middle East, having only returned there in 1948 and being surrounded by Arab nations. It could refer to Jesus: Christianity is the major religion in the Western world, yet is a minority religion in Israel, the land of its origin. Of course, it could refer to Dylan too e.g. a) as a stranger in Israel the land of his forefathers, or b) in the sense that artists always like to see themselves as outsiders (Dylan may have felt this way after his fervent gospel period of the preceding few years).
So drunk, standing in the middle of the street
Directing traffic with a small dog at your feet
This is a lovely couplet indicating the Jokerman’s unsuitability for whatever position it is that he holds. It is grossly inappropriate for someone who is intoxicated to be directing traffic. The second line is a clever invocation of the Fool from the Tarot. In some Tarot decks the Fool is portrayed with a small dog nipping at his leg. The Fool is standing perilously close to a cliff and the small dog is attempting to alert him to where he is headed. The origin of the Fool remains a mystery. Some label the card “The Idiot”. Others label it “Troubadour”. Hence, the Fool is the perfect symbol for the deeply ambiguous figure of Dylan’s Jokerman.
Perhaps Dylan thought this allusion was too obvious and thus revised it out of the song, eventually replacing it with “a small dog licking your face”. Nevertheless it does give the indication that Dylan at least partly had the Fool in mind while composing this song. Reference to Tarot cards appear elsewhere in Dylan songs: Clinton Heylin points out that the Jack of Hearts from “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” shares attributes with the Magician of the Tarot deck, a juggler, trickster and a subtle deceiver. In the Waite Tarot Pack, the Magician is depicted with two flowers at his feet, the lily and the rose (this, of course, could be pure coincidence).
Also the rear sleeve of the Desire album features a picture of the Empress Tarot card (the Empress is associated with Isis, and said to be the Object of Desire) and there are allusions to the King and Queen of Swords, and possibly other Tarot cards, in the impenetrable “Changing of the Guards” from Street Legal.
If anything, this tells us that Dylan was increasingly interested in the Tarot just prior to his conversion. Cartomancy (the practice of fortune-telling using cards) is considered a tool of the devil in Christianity, so perhaps Dylan set aside his interest of such during the 1979-81 gospel period. But the clever insertion of the Fool from the Tarot in “Jokerman” is a subtle indication that Dylan had loosened up a bit on the subject by 1983.
“The whole world is filled with speculation…”
“The semantic meaning is all in the sounds of the words,” says Bob Dylan in Chronicles. It is a dangerous, possibly futile exercise to try and pin down the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, but surely some of his songs cry out for interpretation and exploration. Paul Williams best articulates this dilemma:
Of course interpretation is not often the best way to penetrate Dylan’s art, but some songs aggressively confront us with riddles. Consciously or unconsciously, Dylan is saying something here [in “Jokerman”], something that is quite important to him…I acknowledge it as a powerful and probably very accurate expression of the singer’s inner turmoil.
So who is the Jokerman? He’s a clown. A hero, a fool, a devil, a saint, a joke, a mockery. He’s me (the person singing) in the pathetic absurdity of my self-idealization. He’s the projection of my own confusion. I don’t know if he’s Christ or an imitation of Christ. If the latter, is he a holy fool, or a foolish infidel, or the Devil incarnate?
Michael Gilmour believes the song “explores ambiguity and the dangerous deceptions possible for those looking to place their faith in something or someone”. He warns against trying to explain the use of biblical imagery at every turn, stating that “if the Jokerman is reduced to a single character, it would impose a sense of logic and order on the song that would be artificial. Ambiguity is the point”.
Daniel Mark Epstein writes that the song deconstructs the myth of the hero, while Michael Gray devotes an entire chapter to “Jokerman” in Song & Dance Man III delighting in the song’s “labyrinthine possibilities”:
Sometimes Dylan seems to be singing about himself and sometimes about Jesus, but the whole is too fluid to need from the listener any analytic effort at separation. The intertwining of the two is, in any case, part of what the song evokes, one theme of “Jokerman” being a recurring self-mockery that laughs at the superficial parallels between Dylan, mythic public figure and Artist-Creator, and Christ, mythic public figure and Son of the Creator.
Michael A. Miller believes that the Jokerman “is the satanic, adversary spirit” which “shows his face through the Joker element in individual human beings”, while Clinton Heylin describes the Jokerman as a “false messiah who stalks the earth, bending people to his will.”
The false prophet hypothesis has merit. At times, the Jokerman character mirrors Christ so well that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. But Dylan gives us some clues i.e. the Jokerman is a manipulator, a dream-twister, a night dweller, who does not oppose the Prince of Darkness who emerges in the last verse. If the Jokerman is a false messiah, why is he called Jokerman? Because he is a trickster who has fooled many. False prophets rear their heads frequently in Dylan songs. The subject of “The Man in the Long Black Coat” can quote from the Bible, yet is a dark, mysterious presence. Preacher men with ulterior motives do not escape Dylan’s attention either: e.g. the preacher consumed with spiritual pride in “Gotta Serve Somebody” or more specifically verse 4 of “Foot of Pride”:
Well, they’ll choose a man for you to meet tonight
You’ll play the fool and learn how to walk through doors
How to enter into the gates of paradise
No, how to carry a burden too heavy to be yours
Yeah, from the stage they’ll be tryin’ to get water outa rocks
A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred grand and say thanks
They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in
Sing “Amazing Grace” all the way to the Swiss banks
Here Dylan seems to be lamenting the “freak show” antics of some churches, who make fools of people, purporting to offer them salvation, only to take their money and use it for improper purposes.
On closer examination it seems implausible that the Jokerman could be Christ. I don’t believe Dylan would paint Jesus as a manipulator who is non-responsive to evil forces, on the same album that he constantly quotes from Revelation and warns about the masquerade of the Man of Peace. It seems incongruous for Dylan to be singing about the apocalypse and yet questioning the authenticity of Jesus at the same time.
If the Jokerman is Israel, then it would seem Dylan is highly critical of the role Israel is playing on the world stage, evidenced by the Jokerman’s manipulative demeanour and his non-response to the antics of the Prince of Darkness in the final verse. Is Dylan lamenting the fact that the Jews have not accepted Jesus? I don’t think so. As stated above, it seems outrageous that Dylan would be painting Israel in a negative light on the very same album that the pro-Israel song “Neighbourhood Bully” appears.
If the Jokerman is Dylan, then it is a brutally honest self-appraisal of a man deemed a leader by others, who nonetheless believes deep down that he is a con, a manipulator, a fool, whose inaction in the final verse indicates a sense of guilt. If you look closely at the songs from this period, there are tell-tale signs everywhere that Dylan was hounded by temptation and perhaps struggling to live up to the ideals that he preached from the stage in 1979-81, themes that are explored in songs such as ‘Yonder Comes Sin’, ‘Heart of Mine’ as well as the following:
These themes of sin and temptation are further explored in songs such as “Yonder Comes Sin” and “Heart of Mine” and the following lyric from the Infidels outtake “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” is perhaps a frank admission from Dylan that he wasn’t quite on board with the faith as he was previously:
Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine
Some have argued that the subject of the song is Ronald Reagan (who appears in the video) while others have claimed it is Yasser Arafat. Both of these men, from opposing viewpoints, were towering political figures in 1983. President Reagan the champion of the religious right in the USA; Arafat the Chairman of the PLO. Arafat can be eliminated almost immediately as a potential Jokerman candidate – he doesn’t fit in with the ‘Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy’ line, but Reagan is a possibility in the sense that Dylan may be implying he is two-faced and is leading his country to a fall. Interestingly, the discarded final verse from “Union Sundown” makes reference to ‘a man in a mask in the Whitehouse’.
Another possible interpretation is that the Jokerman is an everyman. He is a metaphor for mankind’s passivity in the face of imminent danger. He is headed for a fall. He is indifferent to the consequences of his actions (or inactions). Paradoxically, the light play of the music is contrasted by the heavy message of the lyrics. This is a tragicomedy and mankind is the main character.
The Moko Jumbie
In a 1984 interview when talking about the Caribbean, Dylan stated:
Me and another guy have a boat down there. “Jokerman,” kinda came to me in the islands. It’s very mystical. The shapes there, and shadows, seen to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis.
Given the song has a light-reggae groove (backed by the legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie) this makes perfect sense. Dylan had been drawn to the music and culture of the Caribbean for some time. Over the preceding few years, he had dabbled with reggae on album tracks “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” and “Dead Man, Dead Man”, as well as live versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (in 1978), “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (in 1978 and 1981), “I and I” (in 1984) and even “Blowin’ In The Wind” (during the Rundown rehearsals). Furthermore the expression “I and I” has a definite Rasta connotation, meaning that God is within all men. Throw in the wild imagery from “Caribbean Wind” (take your pick at which version) and you can see that Dylan was very fond of the islands at this time.
One can just imagine Dylan lying back on his boat, notepad in hand, scribbling the lyrics to “Jokerman”. A “jumbie” is a broad Caribbean term for a spirit or demon. A Caribbean carnival character that resembles a joker is a “moko jumbie”. The moko jumbie is a colourful stilts walker and dancer that performs at carnivals and festivals in the Caribbean. “Moko” being a reference to a West African god. The legend is that the moko survived by living in the hearts of African descendants during slavery to eventually walk the streets of Trinidad in a celebration of freedom during Carnival. Moko jumbie stilt dancing is mesmerizing. Rhythmic sounds of African drums evoke the spirits, while masked stilt dancers in colourful costumes and carnival masks appear from nowhere gliding, almost floating on thin air.
Is this the jumbie that inspired “Jokerman”? It is impossible to say, but perhaps it is a fitting place to end this speculation. So who is Jokerman? To be sure, only one man can answer that question. Who do you see? Christ or antichrist? Fool or Holy Fool? Israel? Infidel? Or Bob Dylan lazing about on a boat in the Caribbean?
(1) For more allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures on Infidels see pages 56-61 of the following pdf file Dylan & the Bible 1962-2012.