Album: Infidels (1983)
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  • 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 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.
  • Dylan makes reference to the Greek hero Hercules in the line, "You were born with a snake in both of your fists."

    According to myth, Hercules was the son of Zeus, but not by his wife Hera - he was born to a mortal woman named Alcmene. Jealous, Hera sent snakes to kill the infant in his crib, but Hercules killed them and was found holding the dead serpents in his hands.
  • The lyrics "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" originated in the 1709 poem "An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope. It's also the title of a popular 1940 song written by Johnny Mercer.

Comments: 19

  • Ajweberman from New YorkWell, the rifleman’s [KGB] stalking the sick and the lame

    Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain

    Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks [gulags]

    Molotov [Russian Communist] cocktails and rocks behind every [iron] curtain

    False-hearted judges dying in the webs [show trials] that they spin

    Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in
  • Donna from WvLove the song & video
  • Lani Elizabeth Makholm from Ellicott CityThis song is a description of the New Jerusalem and the Triune God with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit
  • Dana from SeattleJokerman is Jesus. Dylan wrote this song after he rejected born again Christianity and reverted back to Judaism. Listen to the song with this in mind and it all makes sense.
  • Henry M Landemare from MexicoJokerman was the name of his sailing sloop
  • Tom from Perth, Western Australia"Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, bird fly high by the light of the moon"...
    Read Oscar Wilde's 'The Nightingale and the rose'
  • Bobby B. from San FranciscoOne of the many (too many) interpretations of this song is that Dylan in time came to understand that one may be "wrongfully convicted" of a crime for which one is factually guilty. Hurricane Carter, hello and good riddance.
  • Bob from United StatesI'm mostly just dropping this comment in just to see where it goes.
    The song Jokerman is mostly a critique of Ronald Reagan. The album came out in 1983 at the height of Reagan's popularity, when he was seen by a majority of the US christian population as a 'savior' of moral reasoning. As a christian, but also in disagreement with this assessment of Reagan as a 'savior', Dylan likely wanted a song that highlighted the religious overtones of Reagan's morality, a morality that 'seemed' (I put this in quotes to attempt staying objective) based on Darwinism and Old Testament reasoning.
    "Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, law of the jungle..." (suggests a 'only the strongest survive' mentality).

    Dylan likely wanted to highlight and critique the methods and policies of the incoming authority figures (especially pointed toward Reagan):
    1. They distance themselves from the effects of their policies
    "Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space, Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face."
    2. They do all sorts of objectionable things to enforce those policies and Dylan describes the scenes on the streets
    "rifleman's stalking the sick and the lame...Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks"

    And then Dylan likely tried to show:
    *Note:The {} are meant to clarify the sub-context
    1. How those policies fail in a modern setting
    "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery gray, A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet"
    {The modern world is complicated and has a growing population of unwanted children} *1 More on 'dressed in scarlet'
    2. That while the powers that be concern themselves more with winning elections and foreign politics (i.e. the Cold War), the biggest problems for the US are happening on its own streets
    "He'll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat" {Reagan promised morality domestically and military strength abroad}
    "Take the motherless children off the street" {This guy seems to care about the children and their families}
    "And place them at the feet of a harlot" {Not really, he just wants to get the 'problem' out of his way so he can care even less in the future about it}.
    3. What Reagan's reaction will be, given his 'high morality', in the face of these allegations and results when confronted by it
    "Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants" {What would that child want? A home with his family? Stability?...}
    "Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response" {The response to those questions from this person who could do something for that child is essentially 'Who Cares?'}
    *1 This child dressed in scarlet will learn to hate the world he lives in, be full of hatred and be tormented by personal demons, and he will eventually attack and/or hate the world he lives in; whether as a criminal, a depressed man, or in another negative fashion.

    Other references seem indicative of Dylan describing a man who sees HIMSELF as a savior and as a strong, almost mythical man. They also seem to describe a man who is a lying 'serpent', who portrays himself as everyone's friend, and as a purveyor of truth, while in fact being ignorant of the fact that the source of his 'wisdom' (the Bible) actually also holds (Dylan's vision of) true wisdom in the next 'corner' (i.e. in the next Testament).
    From there it would seem debatable, to me, whether Dylan is portraying Reagan as THE Anti-christ, or as someone who IS anti-christ. My opinion is that Dylan solely wanted to be somewhat complimentary to Reagan's religious beliefs, while also calling him an ignorant, stubborn old A-hole
  • Chris from South Surrey, BcFunny 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.
  • Steve from Plainfield, IlThe 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).
  • Charlie from Champaign, IlOh, 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 from Champaign, IlHmm...

    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.
  • Greg from Sauk Rapids, MnI 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 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.....
  • Andy from Shoreham-by-sea, United KingdomThe Jokerman is Bob Dylan himself.
  • Kitty from Allentown, PaI 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.
  • Steve from Binghamton, NyInteresting 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.
  • Joe from Dayton, OhI 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.
  • Kevin from Reading , PaInfidels 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.
  • Peter from Stockholm, SwedenI´ve heard that he wrote "jokerman" looking out over Stockholm from his hotelroom. One of my favourites.
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