BY Walter Raubicheck, Pace University
Infidels (1983) remains one of Bob Dylan’s strongest post-60s albums. The album was Dylan’s first since the “Born Again” trio from his explicitly Christian period. Artistically, fans and critics considered the album as an advance over its predecessor, Shot of Love (1981), though they still scrutinized the album for evidence that Dylan was either still evangelizing or else had returned to making secular music. Fairly quickly a third thesis about the record arose due to the number of references to the Hebrew Scriptures and because “Neighborhood Bully” was clearly a song about Israel: Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism. With the passage of time it became clear that, on Infidels and beyond, Dylan had not renounced his Christian identity at all but had integrated many of the apocalyptic elements within Judaism into his worldview. Infidels is particularly remarkable for its opening track, “Jokerman,” which uses biblical imagery along with Dylan’s own brand of symbolic language. Dylan also, in “Jokerman,” addresses the persona that he adopted at the height of his mid-60s fame, making the song unique in Dylan’s canon.
Dylan has not often performed the song in the past two decades, but he did so earlier on several memorable occasions: on the David Letterman show on March 22, 1984, not long after Infidels was released, and at Woodstock 94 as part of a summer tour during which “Jokerman” served as the opening number. Meanwhile an earlier version of the song, with a number of alternative lyrics, appears on the recent release The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980-1985.
The very ambivalence that the imagery exhibits towards its subject has made this song subject to “almost endless interpretations” (Williamson 195). Terry Gans, in his authoritative account of the recording of Infidels, Surviving in a Ruthless World (Dylan’s original title for the album), says “the song practically sits up and begs to be taken as autobiographical” before acknowledging that the Jokerman could also be Christ or the Antichrist (80). Is it about his return to Judaism? Clinton Heylin calls it “the self-portrait of a gnostic” (556). Daniel Mark Epstein observes that “[t]he singer addresses a character central to his iconography, the Joker, the trickster who creates illusion and is himself a victim of his own trickery.…One might say that the song [is] deconstructing the myth of the hero; the joker is a figure for all men and gods, embodying good and evil, darkness and light” (270). Seth Rogovoy, in his study of the Jewish influence on Dylan’s work, after commenting on the difficulty of giving the song “a unified, coherent reading,” suggests that the figure strongly resembles the biblical King David:
Dylan overtly refers to David in the lines ‘Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features,’ and various other phrases suit David – and Dylan – to a t. ‘Shedding off one more layer of skin / Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within,’ he sings, with great insight into both his and David’s ever-changing personality and evasive maneuvers in their (mostly failed attempts) to avoid temptation in the form of the yetzer hara, the evil urge (237).
In “Jokerman” the composer/poet assesses the moral attitudes of the Bob Dylan who created the masterpieces of 1965-1966, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. Looked at from this perspective, the imagery of “Jokerman” is patterned and consistent, not ambiguous or contradictory. The key line is the last one of the first verse: “Freedom just around the corner for you / But with the truth so far off, what good would it do?” These lines can be seen as a devout Christian’s challenge to his younger self, whose most famous songs celebrated various kinds of freedoms, particularly from society’s expectations and commandments. But the Dylan of 1983 proposes that these freedoms are ineffectual if they are not backed up by the Truth – which for Dylan is now the biblical heritage that all people in the western world do have access to. In other words, freedom untethered from the truth of religion is ultimately unproductive, even fraudulent. As Christian thought has always insisted, truth assures authenticity; freedom and truth are meant to be synthesized, not regarded as a dichotomy. So much for existentialism – one of the –isms often applied to Dylan in the 60s, the most popular brand of which boasted that freedom in and of itself is the guarantor of an authentic life. “Jokerman” insists that freedom without truth leads to moral indifference (“Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame”) and an obliviousness to evil (“You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah/ But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister.”) Satan, the prince of this world in the biblical view, has free reign in such a world of ethical relativism (“He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat/ Take the motherless children of the street and place them at the feet of a harlot.”)
The mid-60s Dylan, the one that still has its hold on the popular conception of “Dylan,” is the Beat poet who don’t look back, the anarchist who wants another cigarette, the finger-pointer who would expel Mr. Jones from the room. The refrain “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune” recalls John Keats’s famous “Ode” and links the Jokerman to the British Romantic tradition that produced the earlier poet, a clear indication that Dylan himself regarded his mid-60s persona as a Romantic poet, just as the Beats conceived of themselves as the inheritors of the Whitmanic tradition. But the Dylan of the 80s, unlike his Jokerman self, does look back, and he sees his earlier Romantic attitude towards life and art as constricted.
By 1983 there was little of the Beat poet remaining in Dylan: That figure had given way to the biblical prophet. Infidels, and “Jokerman” in particular, initiates and contains all the themes that Dylan will explore over the next eight years, through Under the Red Sky (1990): The world as it stands is subject to the power of Satanic forces, and thus ongoing strife and war are inevitable; redemption will come only with the arrival of the Messiah. (The cover photo of Under the Red Sky beautifully conveys the artist’s position in his unredeemed world: Dylan is crouching in a wasteland observing the aridity of the desert landscape.) What distinctly marks the speaker’s description of the Jokerman is that the images are alternately positive and negative in their depiction of his behavior and attitudes. His artistic function in society is admirable (“Standing on the waters casting your bread”) but spiritually bankrupt (“While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.”) Carrying a satanic snake in both fists, the Jokerman is doomed to a futile existence: Both “fools” and “angels” dread their futures, but the Jokerman is without one. It’s “only a matter of time ‘til night comes steppin’ in” the speaker tells us, but the Jokerman, for all his charm and power, is evidently too preoccupied with the “nightingale tune” to come to this awareness.
Yet the chorus constantly reminds us that his earlier self, despite his spiritual sterility, does have the essence of a true poet. He dances to the “nightingale tune” as the bird flies into the heavens by moonlight, a traditional symbol of beauty, like both Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s “Skylark.” He also does manage to keep “one step ahead of the persecutor within,” presumably because he is familiar with the laws and the rituals of Judaism contained in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and because through experience he has learned how to survive in the jungle and on the sea. Yet he has had no other teachers, so he has not learned about the Messianic truth.
Several images in the song refer to the influence of 60s Dylan on his followers. He’s a “man of the mountains” who can “walk on the clouds”; he’s a “manipulator of crowds” and a “dream twister.” The speaker is aware of the reverence with which the pre-conversion Dylan was treated: “Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.” But the speaker also knows that morally the Jokerman has always been insensitive to evil: he knows what the prince in scarlet wants, but he doesn’t “show any response.”
With the release of Springtime in New York, we now have access to an alternate set of lyrics for “Jokerman,” some of them remarkable indeed, and all supporting the Messianic theme. Once again they present an ambivalent view of the title character as he vacillates between virtue and vice. On the one hand he lets “the wicked walk right into a trap,” but on the other hand “You give away all the good things that fall in your lap.” And then there is the contradiction between the Jokerman’s world fame and the emptiness in his personal life: “You’re a king among nations, you’re a stranger at home.” The song consistently implies that this state of contradiction will persist if the Jokerman goes on living with freedom but without truth.
Perhaps the most interesting lyrical change concerns the list of weapons of destruction. In the Infidels version, these weapons are waiting “behind every curtain.” In the Springtime version they are unable to drown out the sermon of the preacherman: a sermon about the “deaf and the dumb/ And a world to come that’s already been pre-determined.” “The World to Come” (HaOlam HaBa) is the Judaic term for the paradise God intends to establish with the coming of the Messiah. But before that paradise exists, and until the Messiah arrives, Satan will ensure that violence and war rule the day, culminating in the battle of Armageddon. One of scripture’s recurring symbols for evil is the wolf (i.e., “in sheep’s clothing”), and in unused lyrics for the song that Gans highlights, the wolf figures prominently: “a friend to the wolf”; “the secrets of the wolf”; the wolf will “divide your house”; and the woman in the final verse gives birth to a “wolf” today (81). In “the shadowy world” that “Jokerman” envisions, the wolf reigns, though after the coming of the Messiah, the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah) in the kingdom that the Messiah will establish.
The Dylan of the 80s, though, never ceased to be a poet as well as a prophet. Beginning with two songs he cut for the Shot of Love album but did not release at the time – “Angelina” and “Caribbean Wind” – Dylan began to move beyond biblical paraphrase to incorporate his own distinct lyrical gift. “Jokerman” continues this trend. “Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space/ Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face” shows Dylan has retained his ability to convey an indelible mood – here the mood of respite from turmoil – with just a few wellchosen images. And his list of violent perpetrators and weapons is reminiscent of his streams of language such as those in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Here we have “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.” Of course, the idea he is implying is not that we need peace but that we will never have peace until the end of this world and the start of the new one, the Messianic age, his continual message between 1983 and 1990. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984, a few months after the release of Infidels, when asked if he hoped for peace in the world: “There’s not going to be any peace…It’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.” In other words, until Armageddon (which in the same interview Dylan expects to arrive in a few hundred years), there will be “Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.”
The other songs on Infidels convey similar messages about the state of the world. “Sweetheart Like You” describes it as “a dump like this,” and claims that to be here “you have to have done some evil deed.” “Neighborhood Bully” decries the violent hostility permanently directed towards Israel, the original Promised Land. “License to Kill” blames the human egotism (especially of the male variety) that forgets about God in the urge to violence and destruction: “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool/ And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled” (what an amazing couplet!). “Man of Peace” continues the theme that there will BE no peace in this age of the world since it is Satan who often lies behind the mask of the peacemaker. “Union Sundown” decries the oppression caused by globalist economics and the failure of the United States to combat it. (In the same Rolling Stone interview Dylan describes globalism, with its refusal to value local identities, as a symptom of the end according to the Book of Revelation). “I and I” again reasserts the need to acknowledge God as the unseen but all-powerful ruler of the universe, while “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” describes the world as lacking any refuge from evil: “You know, the streets are filled with vipers/ Who’ve lost all ray of hope/ You know it ain’t even safe no more/ In the palace of the Pope,” referencing the then recent attack on John Paul II, the pope Dylan would perform for fourteen years later in 1997. Infidels presents a consistent vision of what human life is like once faith in God and the world to come have disappeared from the modern human consciousness.
“Jokerman,” then, is a key song in the Dylan canon because, if one regards its message as autobiographical, it marks the first time that Dylan the artist directly reflects on his own image, influence, and world view during the first decade of his career, the one when he exerted his greatest influence on the culture. It also signals the beginning of a new phase of his songwriting, one that departs from the explicitly evangelical Christianity of the so-called Born Again period – one partially derived from his fascination with Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth as well as his studies in 1979 at the Christian Vineyard Fellowship and instead stresses a theme that Christianity shares with Judaism, one he labeled “the Messianic complex” in a 1985 interview: the current world in which Satan has free reign will be followed by the period of the rule of the Antichrist, finally leading to the coming of the Messiah, after which the dead will rise and Satan will be destroyed. Both traditional Judaism and Christianity believe the scriptures (Isiah, Daniel, Paul) that insist upon the resurrection of bodies, to be reunited with their souls when the Messiah returns. Thus Dylan sings that he hears “another drum / beating for the dead that rise” in “Dark Eyes” and “In a twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet blows / The dead will arise and burst out of your cloths / And ye shall be changed” in the song of that title. Though both religions, following Plato, have in their popular sermons and hymns stressed the immortality of the soul, the Talmudic traditions of Judaism and the Pauline traditions of Christianity are characterized by the idea that body and soul were intended by God to be reunited in the world to come, a transformed earth, though they are separated in this age by physical death. And before the end times the souls of the righteous dead do exist in a paradise corresponding to the popular conception of heaven. Dylan’s songs show that once again he found common ground between the two religions in their eschatological beliefs.
When Dylan studied with the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn in the early 80s, he presumably came to a deeper understanding of the union of Christianity and Judaism regarding the end times. So it was not that he abandoned Christianity for Judaism; rather, he had come to see that the two religions share the same vision about the meaning and goal of human life. Infidels is the record most deeply informed by this vision. Personally he had not abandoned Christianity, as some believed at the time, as his many Christian references in his later songs attest to. Dylan had used numerous Christian allusions throughout his songwriting career, but now prophetically he saw his religious beliefs within a larger, Messianic vision in which Judaism and Christianity both participate – as “Jokerman” and the entire Infidels album emphasize. Confident in his faith, he can now see that to “dance beneath the diamond sky” – or as he puts it in “Jokerman,” to “dance to the nightingale tune” – might be sufficient for poetic inspiration, but such a dance needs the music of the Lord to lead also to personal salvation.
Dylan, Bob. Interview, Rolling Stone, June 1984.
Dylan, Bob. Interview, Spin, December 1985.
Epstein, Daniel Mark. The Ballad of Bob Dylan. Harper, 2011.
Gans, Terry. Surviving in a Ruthless World. Red Planet, 2020.
Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. William Morrow, 2001.
Lindsay, Hal, with Carole C. Carlson. The Late Great Planet Earth. Zondervan, 1970.
Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. Scribner, 2009.
Williamson, Nigel. The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, 2nd edition. Penguin, 2006.