Bob Dylan's 'Jokerman' - an analysis - Part 2.
Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” – an analysis- Part 2- by Kees de Graaf.
In the first article on Jokerman we wrote some introductory remarks on this song. In this article we will deal with the lyrics of the first stanza and the chorus.
‘Standing on the water, casting your bread’ combines two Biblical notions .First of all, one would expect the lyrics to read ‘standing at the water, casting your bread’ but the lyrics deliberately say: ‘standing on the water.’ By saying ‘on’ the water, the poet immediately draws attention to Jesus of whom the Scriptures say that he walked ‘on’ the sea. (Matthew 14:25, 26). At the same time, by saying ‘standing on the water, casting your bread Dylan connects Jesus’s walking on the water with the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (11:1) where it says: ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days’. Later on in 2003, Dylan has the actor John Goodman say in the movie “Masked and Anonymous”: ‘Does Jesus have to walk on water twice to make a point?". By walking on the water Jesus wanted to make a point, a statement. The same point as in Ecclesiastes 11:1 The point Jesus wants to make is: have faith in God, trust in God and anything is possible, even walking on water. As long as Peter trusted in God and Jesus, he too could walk on water. But when his faith started to waver, Peter began to sink (Matthew 14:30) and he cried out to the Lord to save him. The same idea is expressed in Ecclesiastes 11:1.The New Living Translation translates Ecclesiastes 11:1 as follows: ‘Send your grain across the seas, and in time, profits will flow back to you’. The idea is the same as in Matthew 14: trust in God, have trust in the future and invest in other people by helping them out and sharing and casting them your bread and in due course the Lord will bless you for your attitude. But no matter how faithful and sincere one may be in doing this, Dylan warns that idolatry may be near and is always more on the lurk than you realize. Things are often not what they seem and that is why he adds: ‘While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing’. Jesus could do miracles and walk on water but likewise Pharaoh’s magicians could do miracles by turning a rod into a serpent (Exodus 7:11, 12). And what about the idol, the Beast coming out of the earth as pictured in the book of Revelation 13:11? We read that this beast ‘had two horns like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon’. He looks like a ‘lamb’ – like Jesus – but speaks like the devil. Things are not what they seem. This beast ‘does great wonders, so that he makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and he deceives them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles’. When miracles do no glorify God, miracles turn into jugglery and self-glorifying idolatry. Likewise, when you are casting your bread with the purpose not to help your neighbor but to get richer and more prosperous than you already are, you are entering the territory of and paying tribute to ‘idol with the iron head’. The idol has an ‘iron’ head. ‘Iron’ in the Bible stands for brutal strength: the idol ‘will crush you with wealth and power’ (as Dylan wrote in ‘Ain’t Talking).
’The eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing’ means that the eyes of the idol are on fire, the idol is ready to lash out, there is just no escaping once the idol has seen you and once you have felt the ‘tender touch of the beast’ . Once the idol has grasped you it will ‘bury you from your head to your feet, from the disease of conceit’ which it will inflict on you.
‘Distant ships sailing into the mist’ might have been inspired by the fact that this song was written on a boat down in the Caribbean. Dylan said in 1984: ‘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 the shadows, seem to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis’. In the song ‘Caribbean Wind’ Dylan also deals with distant ships and writes: ‘And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free, bringing everything that’s near to me nearer to the fire’ where he seems to suggest that these distant ships carry everything that is near to him, what is of great moral value to him, to the fire of judgment.
‘You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’. This is an ancient mythological image. The ‘You’ obviously is the Jokerman which is portrayed later on in the chorus of the song. The image reminds us of the little baby Hercules. Hercules strangled two snakes which were sent to kill him by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus. ’While a hurricane was blowing’ may draw our attention to the Greek God Poseidon who could not only create hurricanes and thunderstorms, but he could also calm the seas to glass-like placidity. He could also raise islands out of the sea as he pleased. In Greek mythology the Hekatonkheires were three giant gods of violent storms and hurricanes. They had a hundred hands and fifty heads, for handling the destructive power of storm.
Whereas in the first line ‘standing on the water, casting your bread’ the Jokerman is identified with Jesus, reciting the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, we now see ambiguity for the first time burst upon the scene because the Jokerman is now identified with the territory of the snake, the serpent, behind which we see the devil who is a personification of all evil powers. The next line in the song: ‘Freedom just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off, what good will it do’, shows that this ambiguity of the Jokerman is nothing new. We find this ambiguity in the attitude of some of the Jews towards Jesus as described in the book of John, chapter 8:30-59. I would not be surprised if Dylan had this chapter of the gospel of John in the back of his mind when he wrote this line. In John 8:32 Jesus says that the ‘truth shall make you free’, truth and freedom are inseparably intertwined. Freedom without truth will lead to decadence and truth without freedom will lead to oppression. There was this ambiguous attitude of the Jews when they were confronted with Jesus’s claim on truth. In 8:29 we read: ‘Then many who heard him say these things believed in him’. But others said: Didn’t we say all along that you (Jesus) were possessed by a demon?”(8:48). This whole passage of John 8 is about the question of truth. Jesus had claimed: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life’ (John 14.6) and if in John 8 Jesus had spoken these words ‘Freedom just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off, what good will it do’, it would have fitted in very well, because in other words this is exactly what Jesus is saying there. It is as if Jesus were saying: ‘Freedom, that is me!, I will set you free. I am not far away, in fact I’m standing right in front of you, or haven’t you looked? Freedom is close by, just around the corner for everybody here in this town of Jerusalem. But near as I may be, to find me you have to accept that I speak the truth, that I am the truth, but you are not willing to accept the truth about me and with truth so far off, what good will it do?.
Within the context of the lyrics of the song, it now seems obvious that the ‘Jokerman’ in the chorus: ‘Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, bird fly high by the light of the moon’ is a highly controversial, deceptive, ambiguous personality, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who sometimes looks like a savior, as the Savior, but who in reality belongs to the satanic realm of darkness. The ‘Jokerman’ may have some connotation with the Joker card in card playing. In card playing the Joker card is often some sort of a wild card which may represent other existing cards in the game. The Joker card may be very beneficial or it may be very harmful and one does not know beforehand how it will work out. No wonder that the ‘Jokerman’’ is portrayed here as a very deceptive and ambiguous personality.
Another aspect of the ’Jokerman’ is mockery. It is a main feature of human existence that when times are strenuous, people may do two quite different things. They either start joking, mocking or slandering or they start praying. An example of the first is the joking, mocking thief who was crucified next to Jesus. For more details on this subject please go to my analysis of "All along the Watchtower" . But in times of strain and crisis, people also may act in the opposite way. Instead of mocking and joking they start praying. Dylan gives us an example of this in the song ‘Shooting Star’. Amidst the crisis of the Last Account Dylan writes: ‘As the last fire truck from hell goes rolling by, all good people are praying’.
The attitude of the Jokerman is: the show must go on, just like when the Titanic was going down, the band played on. Likewise the Jokerman keeps on dancing on the ruins of Babylon: “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune”. A nightingale used to be a symbol for a poet or a singer. When the Jokerman dances, it seems the Jokerman is much more focused on the nightingale’s tune, on the poet, the sing and dance man, than on anything else. In times of crisis, when people are crazy, entertainment has always been a way of distracting attention and moving away into the land of oblivion. By seeking entertainment the Jokerman secludes himself from all the serious things, from all the hardships, that go on all around him. At a time when it really matters, the Jokerman is unwilling to take any responsibility and ‘laughs in the face of what sorrow brings’ (as Dylan wrote in “What Good am I?”).
Like a bird that flies high in the sky, the Jokerman tries to get away as far as he can from all crazy sorrow in this world, that is why he now adds:. “Bird fly high by the light of the moon”
High up in the sky the Jokerman shuts himself off. The moon in Dylan’s work – an also in the Bible - is often an omen of approaching apocalyptic disaster, but the Jokerman does not care.
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