Peter Case

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About Jokerman by Bob Dylan. I wrote this 15 years ago…

Let’s see, it was October 1983 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but we had come in from the road, and had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a tiny pad up in Laurel Canyon (in the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split). I  was writing songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon, ’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams & musical ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or for anything, it was woodshed time.

It was a good time, I was 29 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot of things that had been bugging me.

So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back home, and threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”

The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike anything I’d heard before: it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new, very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that very clearly.

On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of NOW. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world, call it the Modern World, is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt upon hearing it, EVEN THOUGH I HAD NO REASONABLE IDEA WHAT HE WAS ON ABOUT, gave me a rush of Companionship. So that’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before you understand it.

I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song “Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on the radio, and had to pull the car over. And it’s a hugely exciting thing.

I’m not sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it really moving.

The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes, all were like kindling and I went up in flames when he hit “freedom just around the corner for you — but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”

That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive, instead of the party line, which would be something like,  ‘”Gotta get free!” or ‘”I’m free — but with freedom comes responsiblility.” You know, “freedom good!”

I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then PRESTO! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt though on that first listen.

“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky…” yeah especially if like me you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day, “You rise up and say goodbye to no one.” Check.

“Shedding off one more layer of skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again with this one, shedding off skin, sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do, reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading my mind, I’d been guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo, though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those lines hit me too, and grilled me. As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still THIS TIME, by the way. The struggle of freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness that we all experience.

It’s a good song; there’s just so much in it. It seems alive, almost.

The chorus is so stripped down, it’s more tricky. “Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody, the Fool, jokers, trying to get serious, by that I mean, living with their eyes open, not “asleep neath the stars with a small dog licking your face” an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in a way, hmm. The nightingale’s tune, it’s been pointed out that that’s like Keat’s Nightingale, the muse, or Imagination, flying high by the moon, that is, almost in the dark, moony, lunar, almost lunatic inspiration, like the subconscious, or unconscious (I mix them up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always used to insist the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”

Is that clear at all? It does seem like he is singing, at least in part about himself. And it’s relevant to you and me, to the degree you want to apply it.

There’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff. “Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of the early work, and the best of the ’70s. “Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good, maybe someone else could have written it, he merely covers the subject. Another song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from O Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what it’s like to be alive at that moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror, or a trick window, you almost feel as if you’re looking through reality, getting a glimpse “behind the screen” and that’s what makes it so valuable.

So some of it is cold, detached, etc. but people need to hear his great stuff. His Greatest Hits, Vol 3 is pretty powerful, for that reason.

If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not really a matter of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder for younger people to get in on. But it’s worth trying to find the door in, a whole universe opens up.

A lot of it is down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in language. Beyond the either/ors of binary choice. Dem or Republican? Hot/Not? Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that.

Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got that “bullshit- detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be real or forget about it.

I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just coming out, and the records were comstantly being played on our record player, and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were attempting to play the music,too, on piano and other instruments. And that ’50s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I experienced as a three year old. And he had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I just soaked it up, but also the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first HEAVY guitar) Richie Valens, Fats Domino, the great Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV shows like Bandstand, and all of that is blues.

Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and first heard Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly.  I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc.  I just loved it and listened endlessly. And kept TRYING to play and sing it, and I HATED what I sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was EMBARRASSING.

The story of all this is in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, which I’ve been posting bit by bit for the last few months.

Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of humor, and the bulllshit detector trained on yourself, so look out!

And then you gotta work to be YOURSELF,  to sing through the influences.

I think I need to write a part two of this!

12 comments

  1. Peter,
    I’m really enjoying the travelogue. Hopefully there will be a recollection of the Bug Music showcase at Summerlights in Nashville back in 1987.

  2. Enjoyed the read and all along I was thinking of how I really dug that first PC solo album with Small Town Spree, Icewater, and Pair of Brown Eyes. I recognized that McGuinn guitar right away. No session man can duplicate that.

  3. A Portuguese friend (at Utah State, of all places) introduced me to Bob Dylan about 1963 . That said, “Jokerman,” turns out is one of my absolute favorites! Peter Case nailed it with his comments—in every respect! I have been an amateur musician for forty some years. And, no one, I mean, no one writes and composes like Dylan. Thanks so much for this fantastic commentary.

  4. Peter… your description mirrors my experience with Jokerman. I also liked the somewhat poorly lip-synced video he made fro that song. Thanks for articulating it so clearly.

  5. …I was a VERY casual Dylan fan (& mainly knew he was somehow important due to his Beatles connection) until I saw the music video for “Jokerman”…WOW!!! There was no looking back after that – I was full speed ahead Bob Dylan fan which will continue up through my departure of this life…

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