Jokerman

Let’s start with the sidemen: Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels featured Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare playing bass. Both are from Kingston, Jamaica and make up the duo Sly & Robbie. The pair have recorded many solo records, released records as a duo, produced albums by other artists, and have played on countless records together and separately. They have played with such artists as Black Uhuru, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bunny Lee, Grace Jones, Peter Tosh, Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger, Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, and more. There’s an argument to be made that they are the Kingston sound. As Brian Eno told Downbeat in 1979:

“So when you buy a reggae record, there’s a 90 percent chance the drummer is Sly Dunbar. You get the impression that Sly Dunbar is chained to a studio seat somewhere in Jamaica, but in fact what happens is that his drum tracks are so interesting, they get used again and again.”

Here are Sly & Robbie backing up Black Uhuru with Keith Richards on guitar on the song “Shine Eye Gal” off of 1979’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:

“Shine Eye Gal” is a good example of Sly & Robbie providing musical support for what is primarily a vocal performance. To get another sense of their mastery, here’s an instrumental track which demonstrates Sly & Robbie’s bass and drums as the primary musical ingredient of the song:

That is “Dirty Harry” off of a solo Sly Dunbar record called Sly, Wicked And Slick. A ghostly organ, slinky guitar (that may also be played by Keith Richards), and the always perfect rhythm section all provide what is needed to create a soundtrack to a movie that was never made, but should be made. It is called “Dirty Harry” after all, but the song doesn’t sound like a Dirty Harry movie, but rather an unmade adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel.

Back to Dylan: he had written a batch of songs in the Caribbean in the early 80s and wanted a reggae/Caribbean feel. Since they are the Kingston sound, Dylan turned to Sly & Robbie. The lead track on Infidels is “Jokerman”:

Sly’s drums are the first things that we hear in “Jokerman” establishing the sound for the song. The mixture of Sly’s complex drumming and Robbie’s intricate bassline provide the foundational platform for Mark Knopfler’s tasteful early 80s licks and, especially, for Dylan’s floating lyrical images.

In an interview in June 1984 for Rolling Stone a few months after the release of Infidels, Kurt Loder asked Dylan where he lives. Dylan said:

“I’m usually either [in New York] or on the West Coast 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.”

According to Wikipedia, “‘jumbis’ is another name for a jumbee, jumbie, mendo or chongo is a type of mythological spirit or demon in the folklore of some Caribbean countries… Guyana, and various islands—including Antigua and Barbuda in the east, The Bahamas in the north and as far south as Trinidad—have long held a tradition of folklore that includes the jumbee.”

In Montserrat, this entity is called the “jumbie,” which “is a ghost, or spirit of the dead. Jumbies are said to possess people during ceremonies called jumbie dances, which are accompanied by jumbie drums…Jumbies are believed to have the ability to shape-shift, usually taking the form of a dog, pig, or more likely, a cat.”

Dylan is a rich white guy from the United States who is drawing inspiration from another culture not his own to create art. Call it cultural appropriation or cultural imperialism because that is what Dylan is doing. In addition to the trickster figure “jumbis,” there’s another character embedded in Dylan’s portrayal of Jokerman. The first line of the song is: “Standing on the waters casting your bread.”

“Casting your bread” is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 11:1, which says: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Divide your portion among seven, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may befall the land.” The Jokerman is casting his bread while standing on the waters. The one most known for walking on water is Jesus, as seen in Matthew 14:22-33.

With these references, we can see that the idea of Jesus is at the forefront of Dylan’s creative impulse. This is despite the fact that the name of the album is Infidels. The first definition of infidel is: “One who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity.” The second definition is “an unbeliever with respect to a particular religion.” As explored in the Recliner Notes post about “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” Dylan said farewell to the “born again” period of his music with that song. 

Yet the song “Jokerman” shows us that Dylan hasn’t entirely left Jesus behind and that the second definition of infidel is the creative space that Dylan encompasses. He is an unbeliever, but still attracted to the impulses, images, and ideas behind various religions and beliefs, including Christianity. In the song, Jokerman is now a trickster combination of Jumbis and Jesus, a series of figures starting with the letter “J.”

Dylan says in the Rolling Stone interview quoted above that “Jokerman” is a mystical song filled with ancient shadows and shapes. Dylan once described Arthur Rimbaud’s free verse as a “chain of flashing images,” which turned out to be Dylan’s goal for his own writing; a mode of expression used during his mid-60s phase of hyper-surreal and symbolic lyrics. In the liner notes for The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, writer John Bauldie says that when Dylan is writing in this fashion, he is offering “fleeting glimpses of not necessarily sequential scenes and actions.” In “Jokerman,” Dylan is utilizing the “chain of flashing images” process in the mash-up of folkloric representations of Jumbis and Jesus. Key images in the song are:

You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing

and

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister

and

In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.

These are certainly a striking series of statements in trying to illustrate the Jokerman/Jumbis/Jesus figure. Dylan is without peer in his ability to create evocative descriptive images. Alongside these details in “Jokerman,” there is a provocative thread on the subject of judgement. Early in the song, Dylan writes: 

Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

Dylan is saying that the concept of freedom is easily attainable as long as it is not divorced from truth. If this is the case, then there is uselessness in our actions. Dylan goes on to say:

Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.

The snake image connects to the shape-shifting nature of Jumbis. Snakes have to shed their skins in order to remove harmful parasites. In this metaphor, shedding one’s skin is an act of renewal and a way to stay alive and vibrant. Concurrently, a central tenet of the Christian faith is the offering up of Jesus as an opportunity for renewal. Dylan is saying that accepting this idea of renewal as key aspects of both Jumbis and Jesus is needed to escape the “persecutor within.” This “persecutor within” is our inherent need to harass or expel others as our own arbiter of justice. We should seek renewal as a way to stay away from our own self righteousness. Dylan goes on to sing:

Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name.

Dylan is saying that the Jokerman is there for all people, but an attainment of wealth or status doesn’t mean anything to Jokerman. His judgement can lead to the rich man being stripped of any celebrity and power if that is the rich man’s fate. These lines seem to be Dylan’s own version of Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The combining of Jesus and Jumbis into the Jokerman figure is made explicit when Dylan writes: “Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” With these lines, Dylan is fusing a union of the Bible with the laws of nature as the absolute standard for judgement. While Dylan is dealing in both a mystical and Biblical world in “Jokerman,” he still ensures that the contemporary world of the early 1980s is very much present as well. He writes:

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.

These descriptions are Dylan’s observations of political and social unrest in Central America, the Middle East, and the United States at the time of the writing of “Jokerman.” These images reflect what was being seen on nightly news television broadcasts at the time. They also connect with lines Dylan wrote a few years earlier in the song “Angelina” (explored here on Recliner Notes). Dylan sings in “Angelina”:

I see pieces of men marching, trying to take heaven by force
I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse
In God’s truth tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course
Just step into the arena.

In this verse from “Angelina,” Dylan is saying that the apocalypse is coming through our own actions as we’re even attempting to “take heaven by force.” The judgement of “God’s truth” will happen at any time, simply “step into the arena” for the ultimate example of both moral and mortal combat. Dylan takes up the same subject in the previously quoted verse in “Jokerman” when he lists the awfulness that we as humans inflict on each other: “Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks / Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.” Dylan ends the verse by saying: “Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in.” Similar to the ending of “Angelina,” the ultimate fate and judgement of mankind’s worst actions against each other are coming. Jokerman/Jumbis/Jesus will impose their sentence on humanity through the laws of the Bible and the laws of nature.

There’s a curious dissonance between the message Dylan is conveying through these lines and when one listens to “Jokerman.” It’s a beautiful song, thanks in no small part to Sly & Robbie, the rest of the band, and Dylan’s singing. The gorgeous melody that Dylan has written to accompany these words lead us into the alluring world of mysticism – both from Christianity and Caribbean folklore –  for one of Dylan’s great compositions and recordings.

Photo by Scott Bunn

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