Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Jokerman





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

..or down in the Caribbean. 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, seem to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis.–Bob Dylan (Kurt Loder Interview, New York City – March 1984

TOC

  1. Facts
  2. Quotes
  3. Lyrics
  4. Live versions
  5. Cover versions

@#26 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

Facts

Jokerman was released on “Infidels” – October 27, 1983 by Columbia Records.

Known studio recordings:

Power Station Studios, NYC
  • April 13, 1983 – 5 takes
  • April 14 – 1 take
  • June 1983 [vocal overdubs]
Musicians:
  • Bob Dylan (vocal, harmonica, keyboards & guitar)
  • Mark Knopfler (guitar)
  • Mick Taylor (guitar)
  • Alan Clark (keyboards)
  • Robbie Shakespeare (bass)
  • Sly Dunbar (drums)

Technical Team:

  • Producers: Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler
  • Sound Engineer: Neil Dorfsman

The April 14 version was used on “Infidels”, but there is also another version circulating. This “alt. version” (with different lyrics) is probably from April 13.

April 13 version:

Live:

  • First known live performance: ‘Late Night with David Letterman’, NYC, March 22, 1984 (included in the “Live” section in this post)
  • First concert performance: Arena di Verona, Verona, Italy – May 28, 1984 (included in the “Live” section in this post)
  • It has been performed 157 times live
  • Last performance: Brixton Academy, London, England – 25 November 2003
  • Top year was 1994 with 103 performances

Quotes

4 April 1991
Paul Zollo (SongTalk) Interview, Beverly Hills, California

ST: That’s from Jokerman.
Dylan: That’s a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album [Infidels] got away from me. They just did.
ST: You mean in the writing?
Dylan: Yeah. They hung around too long. They were better before they were tampered with. Of course, it was me tampering with them [Laughs]. Yeah. That could have been a good song. It could have been.
ST: I think it’s tremendous.
BD: Oh you do? It probably didn’t hold up for me because in my mind it had been written and rewritten and written again. One of those kind of things.
——

Bob Dylan always do songs in different keys, like he’ll change three, four different keys in a song, and he will change the lyrics on the fly, so when we cut Jokerman, we recorded it and then we had a break overnight. He came in the morning and said, ‘Oh, gentlemen, could you just run Jokerman for me again?’ Nobody know the tape was spinning; we were just running down the music and he said, ‘OK, that’s it’ – it was the take we didn’t know we were taking that he used. It was a surprise; I think we were playing the run-down a bit looser, ‘cos it was just a run- through, but he probably liked something about it.
– Sly Dunbar (drums on the studio version)

‘Jokerman’ is the magnum opus of the Infidels album: a song you can inhabit, as you can so much of Bob Dylan’s earlier work. It isn’t a sermon or a pop song but a real creation, a work you can wander inside, explore, breathe in, pass through, wrap around you. It looks different in different lights. It’s always shifting, but this is because it’s alive, not because it’s nebulous (though it may be that too). Its complexity isn’t off-putting, nor distancing. On the contrary, Dylan sings you through the complexity with almost as much generosity of expression, almost as much bestowing of concentrated warmth, as he gives out on, say, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, a nebulous and complicated song from an- other lifetime. .. It is as much the warmth as the substance of ‘Jokerman’ that makes it such a welcome item in Dylan’s corpus. The two qualities cohere in Dylan’s openness towards the listener in confessing his fondness for the song itself, and in his palpable desire to communicate it (a desire often absent in 1980s Dylan).
Michael Gray – The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

The rhythm, provided by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, two giants of Jamaican music and stars of reggae, is inimitable and irresistible. Their characteristic rhythmic pulse in this ballad curiously gives it a pop feeling, which is reinforced by Mark Knopfler on his Stratocaster (Schecter). Supported by Alan Clark’s ethereal organ, Dylan delivers an excellent vocal in this sublime ballad with a rich and, for Dylan, unusual harmony. After Knopfler’s first impressive solo, Dylan plays harmonica (in E-flat). The sound is very curious, very equalized, and probably treated with a sound effect, but the result fits the tune perfectly. Finally, after the fourth verse (around 3: 29), Mick Taylor enters, probably on his Gibson Les Paul with a saturated tone.
– Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon – Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track

..I don’t always like this song, and I suspect those who do like it of not always listening past the surface. And yet I acknowledge it as a powerful and probably very accurate expression of the singer’s inner turmoil. His efforts at oversimplifying his identity beautifully betray and reveal the true complexity of his situation.
Paul WilliamsBob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986

I discovered Infidels after I saw the video for “Jokerman.” It had Italian paintings and religious imagery. I’d thought I was a massive Dylan fan, but “Jokerman” was a shock: “How can this guy have a song that comes from this other world, and it’s still so brilliant?” Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitars. And Sly and Robbie brought that reggae vibe. The song feels 87 minutes long, like dinner finally came around and they stopped rolling tape. I spend eight weeks writing two lines. … I don’t think about who this Jokerman is – whether it’s God, Satan or Dylan himself. The beauty is in the mystery. I love the lines “The book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy/The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” And the chorus, with that “oh-oh-oh” chant out of tune – the only other person who can get away with singing like that is Jay Z, on “D.O.A.” It sounds effortless in the best possible way.
– Chris Martin (Coldplay)

Lyrics

<original>

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

The Lyrics Of The Outtake Version:

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 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.
No store-bought shirt for you on your back
One of the women must sit in the shack and sew 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.
Scratching the world with a fine-tooth comb
You're a king among nations, you're a stranger at home
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.
No crystal ball do you need on your shelf
Michelangelo himself could have carved out your features.
So drunk, standing in the middle of the street
Directing traffic with a small dog at your feet.
Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Bird fly high by the light of the moon,
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman.
Well, the Preacherman talkin' 'bout the deaf and the dumb
and a world to come that's already been predetermined.
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks,
Molotov cocktails and rocks can't drown out your sermon.
You let the wicked walk right into a trap.
You give away all the good things that fall in your lap.
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 gray,
A woman just gave birth to a prince today and she's dressed in scarlet.
He'll turn priests into pimps that make old men bark
Take a woman who could have been Joan of Arc
And turn her into 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.




Live versions

And though he never doubted that the new ‘Jokerman’ lyric was better – sticking stoically to it in concert throughout the years when it enjoyed a general favour, i.e. 1984 and 1994 – he has tried hard to get back to the original spirit in performance. If the results have been mixed – the 1984 arrangement is particularly stodgy and lugubrious – the song has occasionally risen to former heights: notably the truncated David Letterman performance in March 1984, when he found the heart and soul of the song in a form that was closer to ‘London Calling’ than his studio recording. And at Woodstock 1994, having reintroduced the song six months earlier in Japan, he dared to open the biggest show of the whole Never Ending Tour, to a sea of muddy Green Day fans, with a song whose meaning lay entirely in the words, which he enunciated that night with a rare precision, still aiming to keep ‘one step ahead of the persecutor within’.
-Heylin, Clinton. Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2 1974-2008 (pp. 239-240).

Rockefeller Center
New York City, New York
22 March 1984
Late Night with David Letterman

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Justin Poskin (guitar)
  • Tony Marsico (bass)
  • Chalo Quintana (drums)

Arena di Verona
Verona, Italy
28 May 1984

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Mick Taylor (guitar)
  • Ian McLagan (keyboards)
  • Greg Sutton (bass)
  • Colin Allen (drums)

St. James’ Park
Newcastle, England
5 July 1984

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Mick Taylor (guitar)
  • Ian McLagan (keyboards)
  • Greg Sutton (bass)
  • Colin Allen (drums)

Yokohama Bunka Taiikukan
Yokohama, Japan
7 February 1994

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • John Jackson (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Winston Watson (drums & percussion)


Hiroshima Koseinenkin Kaikan
Hiroshima, Japan
16 February 1994

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • John Jackson (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Winston Watson (drums & percussion)


Woodstock ‘94
Saugerties, New York
14 August 1994

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • John Jackson (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Winston Watson (drums & percussion)

Martinihal
Groningen, Holland
18 March 1995

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • John Jackson (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Winston Watson (drums & percussion)

Aston Villa Leisure Centre
Birmingham, England
2 April 1995

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar)
  • Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • John Jackson (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Winston Watson (drums & percussion)

Hammersmith Apollo
London, England
24 November 2003

  • Bob Dylan (vocal & piano)
  • Freddie Koella (guitar)
  • Larry Campbell (guitar, mandolin, pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • George Recile (drums & percussion)


Cover Versions

Ron Sexsmith:

Built to Spill – from ‘Bob Dylan in the 80’s: Volume 1’:

Sources

-Egil

One thought on “Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Jokerman”

  1. If only Bob had decided to record a whole album with The Plugz…The whole narrative of his mid-to-late ’80’s output might have been entirely different…

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