Bob Dylan's 'Jokerman' - an analysis - Part 1 - Introduction
The album ‘Infidels’ – of which ‘Jokerman’ is the opening song –is usually not regarded as part of Dylan’s legacy of specific Christian albums. Although the album is littered with numerous Biblical allusions, it is, unlike its predecessors ‘Slow Train Coming’, ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’, which are generally labeled as Dylan’s Christian trilogy, not seen as outspoken Christian. By some the album is seen as some sort of departure from confessed Christianity and even a tentative rapprochement to Judaism. In my opinion this is not the case .One may argue that Dylan – when he wrote these songs for this album sometime in 1983- had gone through a mental process of change which started ever since he converted to Christianity in 1978. The process of conversion to Christianity is marked by various stages which may be regarded as natural stages and all these phases constitute an integral part of Christian conversion.
Actually, the first stage on this road was the album ‘Street Legal’ (1978 which) may well be regarded as a prelude to his upcoming conversion to Christianity which became evident later on that year. The next stage was the album ‘Slow Train Coming’ (1979) which already showed on the cover of the album that Dylan had a works under construction and that it was now time to exactly pinpoint where he stood at that stage of his conversion. The album represents the phase of dogmatism and antitheses Dylan was going through: “Ya either got faith, or ye got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground” (Precious Angel) or “He who is not for Me is against me” (Gonna change my way of thinking’). ‘Slow Train Coming’ was followed by the album ‘Saved’ (1980). ‘Saved’ representing the next phase in Dylan’s conversion process, expresses joy and gratitude for Dylan’s personal salvation: ‘I’m so glad, I want to thank you Lord, I just want to thank you. ‘You have given me everything’’ ‘What can I do for You?.
‘Saved’ was followed by ‘Shot of Love’ (1981). ‘Shot of Love’ marks an entirely new phase. First of all, Dylan returned to what one may describe as a more secular way of writing songs. Secular themes often touched upon - like disaffected love - returned and were integrated in notions of apocalyptic deceit and formed a sort of synthesis with it. Although Dylan’s new songs written for the album ‘Shot of Love’ were no longer overtly Christian gospel songs or even blue grassy, yet the message was undoubted still the same but one had to make an effort to read between the lines to find it. In the first phase of conversion to the Christian faith there is certainty and this is expressed in overtly Christian lyrics but in the next stages there is also room for the expression of vulnerability, weakness, disappointment and self-doubt. In abundance we find this on ‘Shot of Love’, particularly in one of the greatest songs Dylan ever wrote: ‘Every Grain of Sand’.
The next phase, which at the same time is the most critical part in the process of conversion, is best described by the word ‘deception’. Seen from a religious point of view, conversion to Jesus evokes a spiritual war – as Dylan wrote in ‘Solid Rock’: ‘It is the ways of the flesh to war against the spirit, twenty-four hours a day you can feel it and you can hear it, using all devices under the sun. And He never gives up till the battle is lost or won’. Like in so many real wars it is deceit and deception that turns the balance. The devil is skilled in deception and addicted to deceit. The devil deploys these deceptive weapons in an ultimate attempt to turn the balance in his favor of those converts who ‘are hanging in the balance of the reality of man’.
It seems obvious that the album ‘Infidels’ is marked by this concept of deception and ambiguity. One of the best example of this is the lyrics of ‘Man of Peace’: ‘You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace’ which is quite clearly inspired by 2 Corinthians 11:14:‘and no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light’. We find the same phenomenon in ‘Jokerman’. Sometimes it is as if the Jokerman is Jesus or Moses speaking, the next time it is as if the devil himself is speaking. To recognize the devil, you have to read carefully and you must know exactly what the Scriptures tell you, otherwise you will be deceived and you will end up joking like the Jokerman. It was W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) the famous British dramatist and librettist who wrote: “Everything is a source of fun. Nobody's safe, for we care for none! Life is a joke that's just begun! That is exactly what the Jokerman wants to achieve through his deceit. In our next article we will take a closer look at some of the lyrics of this enigmatic song.