The lead-off track from an album heralded as a return from born-again proselytizing, “Jokerman” found Bob Dylan using themes both Biblical and secular to tear down political charlatans.
Or was it a dark reflection on Judaism? A rumination on false messiahs? A cutting indictment of his own career missteps? Such are the enduring mysteries of classic Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter’s wild card — making this the earliest indication of long-hoped-for return to form.
In manner and tone, “Jokerman” felt like a return to the promise of his mid-1970s work. And the song, as with all of Infidels, had a sleek approach that updated Dylan’s sound without dismantling its foundational wit. (Credit there goes to producer Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame, and an all-star cast that included Mick Taylor, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar — the latter of whom give this cut a bouncy island feel.) A video — which Dylan apparently hated — was issued, and Dylan even made a rare appearance on TV, all to little notice. “Jokerman” went nowhere on the charts in 1984, and MTV buried the clip in the overnight rotation because of the song’s length — or maybe because its apocolyptic ending was something of a downer.
Or was it? Strict interpretation has never been the easiest (or even the most worthwhile) path into Dylan’s genius. And Dylan himself claimed that he spent so much time writing and re-writing this one that it ended up getting away from him. In the end, there’s a labyrinthine quality to the track that makes it endlessly fascinating, whatever becomes of our hero’s quest for meaning in dangerous times.