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Jokerman by Bob Dylan

Album: InfidelsReleased: 1983
  • There are multiple interpretations of this song. Some believe the "Jokerman" is referring to Jesus. This is backed up by the song's multiple Biblical references: "Standing on the water, casting your bread/While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing." Others assert that the "Jokerman" is, in fact, Dylan himself.
  • The Jamaican musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare both played in the rhythm section on this song. Their contributions helped to give the song a Caribbean feel.
  • The official video for "Jokerman" features footage of Dylan playing the track, interspersed with shots of legendary artworks. All the while, the lyrics to the song are overlaid across the screen. Dylan reportedly hated the video, which was directed by George Lois and Larry Sloman. Sloman told Mitchell Blank: "The whole idea of the video, I mean there were a few ideas. One, was this guy is one of the greatest poets that we have working in contemporary music, so we were going to take his words and put them in your face. The second thing was we would use great artworks to illuminate his art. And third, we would shoot Bob and make him look as heroic as these artworks...so he would look as heroic as Moses. So, we put him in a white tee shirt and sport jacket and the whole time Bob was lip-synching the chorus, 'Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune...' For the whole shoot he kept his eyes closed. After every take George would plead with him, 'Bob, please open your eyes,' Bob would say, 'I'm trying.' Finally, on the last take, and to me this is the ultimate Dylan video, we got him to open his eyes and he looks cagily at the camera. We had captured that Dylan mystique, I think." Sloman went on: "Columbia flips out, they think it's the greatest video ever done, and it's about to go on the air and Bob wants to kill it. Well...not kill it, he likes everything except what was shot of him. He wants to go to Malibu and to take an 8mm handheld thing and do some shots of him on the beach instead. George says, 'F--k him, I know better, I don't want him to do that.' Columbia, who had paid for the video, said they agreed with Lois. So we finished the video over Bob's objections."
  • Bob Dylan is not a big fan of this song, or the Infidels album in general. Dylan told Song Talk: "That's a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album got away from me. They just did." Dylan added: "They were better before they were tampered with. Of course, it was me tampering with them. Yeah. That could have been a good song. It could've been."
  • Infidels is Bob Dylan's 22nd album. Many consider it Dylan's return to secular music, after his previous three albums all dealt with his conversion to Christianity. The album was co-produced by Dire Straits frontman, Mark Knopfler.
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Comments: 11

Funny that Bob would regard this as somehow compromised. I've never heard a better tune by him. Maybe he didn't like how Mark's tasteful guitar pops in now and again? I sure hope that's not the issue. f--kin' fantastic song I reckon.Chris - South Surrey, Bc
The best explaination I've heard about this song is that it is about the history of from a Biblical perspective. The Jokerman is Jesus. The song starts at Jesus' berth and death. Then to the state of the world after his death (Well, the rifleman's stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who'll get there first is uncertain).
And finally to the furture and the antichrist (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).
Steve - Plainfield, Il
Oh, and Steve, I'd like to see those alternate versions, if you have a link- they don't seem to be googleable. The US argument isn't convincing me the way the lyrics stand now.Charlie - Champaign, Il
Hmm...

I always thought that Jokerman was Satan or the Antichrist. He's much too trickster-hero to be Jesus; even the dancing imagery is way more Satanic than Messianic. You might posit that he's too admired or respected for this to be the case, but that can be chalked up to a Miltonian approach. Dylan himself is a convincing option as well, but I think the answer might very well be all of the above. I'm not saying that everyone should interpret the song their own way, or that all interpretations are equally valid, but Dylan may not have written the song with a specific entity or idea in mind- maybe he made the persona of Jokerman one-size-fits-all for a reason.

Or maybe the mouth organ was only ever a mouth organ. I think it totally possible that Jokerman is just a creation of Dylan's.
Charlie - Champaign, Il
I question Joe of Dayton OH, interpretation "'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief." which is a reference to Jesus being crucified next to two thieves, as a reference to Christ... Actually it was one of the two thieves who sought a way out of the crusifiction through Christ....so if accurate the lyric would have to go ,"said the theif to the Joker"....According to the Gospels, Christ only questioned of the heavenly Father as to whether "this cup may pass"...But followed with an acknowledgement that not His will (Christ's) but Thine (the Father)be done. So I would have to conclude that either either Joe or Bob must be confused.....Greg - Sauk Rapids, Mn
The Jokerman is Bob Dylan himself.Andy - Shoreham-by-sea, United Kingdom
I heard that he wrote this about himself, although it does parallel the life of Christ.

I think perhaps he drifts in and out of self-analysis here. I love the lyrics. So sweet and pure. It's inspiring.
Kitty - Allentown, Pa
Interesting information, Joe, but the song is clearly about the United States, a companion piece to the same album's "Neighborhood Bully." There are versions around with alternate lyrics that make the identification even clearer than the version that ended up on the album.Steve - Binghamton, Ny
I am a huge Bob Dylan fan and knowing his history, calling him a "Born Again" Christian is somewhat mis-representative. Technically he is a Jewish convert to Christianity. But even that isn't entirely accurate. Without ever getting caught up in organized religion, Dylan is simply emphatically inspired by the life and times of of Jesus Christ. MANY MANY of his songs attest to this (even in his most recent album Modern Times).

First, the title of the song Jokerman, I believe is a reference to Jesus Christ's existence as both the Alpha and the Omega. Told from a worldly perspective Jesus is the very lowest rung of society. No great wealth or fortune but very rich spiritually. Additionally, the punishment of crucifixion was not only intended to torture but also to humiliate. The pharisees wanted to make a joke out of him and discount his rebellious teachings. In the end no worldly punishment ever stopped the Alpha element of Christ's existence.

A better known Dylan song "All Along the Watchtower" also makes reference to this with the line "'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief." which is a reference to Jesus being crucified next to two thieves.

Second the lyrics to Jokerman reinforce the dichotomy of the Alpha and the Omega. Some of the song lyrics are are undeniable references to Jesus while others could be open to interpretation.

Clear references to Jesus include:
1. The song opening with the line "Standing on the water, casting your bread. While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing." - makes reference to Jesus performing miracles (such as walking on water) while the pagan Romans who ruled over Judea worshiped idols.

2. "Freedom just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off, what good would it do?" - Relates to the fact that Jesus knew he could escape persecution if he had simply fled Jerusalem. In fact, there were many opportunities for Jesus to avoid the cross once he was arrested. Fearing an uprising, Pontius Pilot was extremely motived to avoid crucifying Jesus and gave him opportunities to recant his teachings and be set free. Jesus stood by the truth of his message and Pilot washed his hands of responsibility.

3. "Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame." - again hits at the dichotomy of his character. His relationship

with John the Baptist was expected of the Messiah. However, his friendship with prostitutes and adulterous women was unexpected and frustrating to many of his followers.

4. "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." - The two books of Jewish law were well understood by Jesus at a very early age. But he also brought a sense of conventional wisdom and common sense to his teachings. Many of his teachings were new and challenged established Jewish tradition. The Law of the Sea references his role as a fisherman. Michelangelo indeed carved the Pietà as well as many other Christ images during his career.

Debatable references include:
1. "You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing." - I interpret this to reference the similarities of Hercules strangling snakes in his bed to Jesus surviving the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.

2. "You're a man of the mountain, you can walk on the clouds, Manipulator of crowds, you're a dream twister." - possible reference to Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. This is the best known narrative of his addresses given to large crowds and challenging the established moral codes of the time. Walking on the clouds can be seen as a reference of his ascendence into Heaven after the resurrection.

3. "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."

- The Prince here is quite possibly a reference to the book by Machiavelli of the same name. Regardless, the Prince mentioned in the song has no problems using whatever means necessary to gain and maintain worldly power. Putting the priest in his pocket references very common methods of governments to control the masses by controlling and corrupting religious authority. Placing motherless children in harlots is a way of expressing the exploitation of the innocent, disadvantaged and powerless.

However, for all the worldly success achieved by the Machiavellian Prince, he has cut himself off from God and salvation.
Joe - Dayton, Oh
Infidels was definietly a comeback album for Dylan as he re-emerged from his born-again phase. As the lead-off track, with it's propulsing bass and drums courtesy of Sly and Robbie, "Jokerman" sounded like a breath of fresh, Caribbean air. For those who say Dylan can't sing, I dare them to listen to his chops on this song and make that claim. As good as Infidels was -- especially considering the lull Dylan had been in -- it could have been better had Dylan not made some questionable choices on what tracks to include and which ones to leave off. As we learned later, he could have included superior songs like "Foot of Pride" and "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart" in place of so-so fare such as "Union Sundown." Dylan apparently made last-minute changes, somewhat to the chagrin of Mark Knopfler, who produced the sessions.Kevin - Reading , Pa
I´ve heard that he wrote "jokerman" looking out over Stockholm from his hotelroom. One of my favourites.Peter - Stockholm, Sweden