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Bob Dylan has been known to intelligently use autobiography in his songs, but there are several songs in which Bobcats and Dylanologists have no idea whether Dylan actually put himself into them, or if he was entirely separate. However, I personally believe that there are three modes to which Bob Dylan refers to himself within his songs and each one of these is entirely different to the last. They are:
- He talks about himself, earlier on in his career. This is done by Bob Dylan creating a character and a story for the song, based on an earlier version of himself that he has now "killed off."
- He talks about his own life events with pseudonyms for other people and a symbolic narrative rather than a literal autobiography of events in that particular time.
- He talks to himself. He critiques and ridicules himself either for what he has done during that time in his career or for what choices he has made throughout it. For this, he would use familiar images and stylistic devices to relate the second person usage to himself.
Bob Dylan is incredible at using extended and relative metaphors, either by conceit or by the comparison of a person to another, non-existent person (only the latter of which exists within the narrative). These metaphors tend to cover up the narrative and encompass the autobiography—making it more difficult to decipher what Bob Dylan is actually talking about.
As Aristotle once wrote “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” (The Poetics, 2nd ed. 1996). This is exactly how Bob Dylan uses "character" in the first two modes of autobiography and then the "familiar images" in the third. But, he nearly always has a plot to the story to begin with.
The three songs we will be looking at are:
- "The Wicked Messenger" (John Wesley Harding)
- "Isis" (Desire)
- "Jokerman" (Infidels)
Each of these correlate by number to a mode of autobiography that has been covered in the previous paragraph and, I believe, are three poignant autobiographical songs by Bob Dylan.
"The Wicked Messenger"
"The Wicked Messenger" is an autobiographical song that appears on the album 'John Wesley Harding' and represents the first mode discussed in the introduction. The character of the "Wicked Messenger" is, in fact, Bob Dylan himself.
Bob Dylan introduces his character by stating that he has come from a different place to everyone else and, is therefore an outsider. This is exactly the same as Bob Dylan himself, since he moved from Minnesota to New York in order to start his music career:
"There was a wicked messenger from Eli he did come..."
Introducing the character as an outsider is very important because now the plot is already formed for him. As Aristotle wrote, “The plot is the first principle..." (The Poetics. 2nd ed. 1996) and thus we have a plot formed by the character. The plot is simply that this outsider is going to have to earn the respect of the people who already live there if he wants to stick around.
Again, this correlates to the life of Bob Dylan himself because he would have to earn the respect of the New Yorkers and the company he was recording for if he wanted to stick around.
Bob Dylan goes on to explain the purpose of the messenger's arrival and he states:
"When questioned who had sent for him he answered with his thumb
For his tongue, it could not speak, but only flatter..."
So, we don't really have much of a purpose for the Wicked Messenger, but what we do have is an answer with his thumb—we have no idea what this thumb is doing. What I believe is he means that his hands would talk for him, referencing the playing or strumming, or even holding the chords of a guitar.
His tongue not being able to speak, "but only flatter" means to make wild stories out of historical events. He references his songs: The Death of Emmett Till and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll etc. To "flatter" also meaning to dress something up in words. He is unable to "speak" the narrative of everyone else and therefore must "flatter" or promote the truth in song.
Bob Dylan was known to live here, there and everywhere at the beginning of his career. He was mythically homeless from time to time and even stayed at friends' houses for weeks on end. Again, in the song, the Wicked Messenger seems to do the same thing:
"He stayed behind the assembly hall it was there he made his bed
Oftentimes he could be seen returning..."
The fact that Bob Dylan states that the Wicked Messenger only returns "oftentimes" and not all the time means that this character seems to stay in more than one place. He "makes his bed" in the place behind the assembly hall but moves around nearly all the time, which means that the making of the bed isn't literal.
I have a theory about this line I have been very excited to share with you. The "(making) of (the) bed" is actually the fact that Bob Dylan went to the March on Washington after releasing some of his most famous protest songs. Apparently, he didn't actually want to be there because he believed it was an event for black people and he didn't want to steal their light. But, because Bob Dylan was famous in this field, he had "made his bed" and now had to lie in it—he didn't have much of a choice.
The place "behind the assembly hall" is the South Side of the Lincoln Memorial where the March on Washington took place in 1963, in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. The fact that it's on the South Side, means it's "behind" the "assembly hall" (Lincoln Memorial). He uses pseudonyms for places and therefore again, he is the Wicked Messenger.
The fact that he was often returning means that Bob Dylan would play in the Washington state again sometimes, but not prolifically like he appeared at the March. This means he didn't plan to return off his own accord but something made him come back - possibly to deliver a message of judgement, something not what his crowd were used to. This refers straight on to the next line to the song:
"Until one day he just appeared with a note in his hand which read
The soles of my feet, I swear they're burning..."
I love this line because of the fact it directly references the "burning soles" of a tyre that Bob Dylan suffered at when he crashed his motorcycle. The "note" he appeared with is a reference to the album John Wesley Harding in which he almost comes back from the dead and now, everyone knows about the accident he had and what it did to him.
The fact he just "appeared" shows that the Wicked Messenger has come back from the dead. This is almost a biblical image, referring to the Wicked Messenger as almost a Jesus character with a ton of followers by this time. This is the same image that people had of Bob Dylan from 1962 to 1966 (his crash).
The line "the soles of my feet, I swear they're burning" is the volta of the song. We go from having this image of Jesus Christ, which Bob Dylan was from 1962-1966, to having this detached image that Bob Dylan has more of in 1967, when John Wesley Harding is released. It represents directly the 'turn' in Bob Dylan's own life. This moves straight into the next lines of the song:
"Oh, the leaves began to falling and the seas began to part
And the people that confronted him were many..."
The references to the "leaves falling" is the autumn of 1967 in which the album was recorded and the "seas began to part" is yet another biblical image, something of a redemption in which Bob Dylan is now happier and healthier on this album. The fact that there were many people wanting to know where he had gone during this time explains the second line of this set perfectly.
But, there is yet another theory for that second line. I believe this line refers to the requirements of Bob Dylan's children for their father, seeing as two of them were born by this point and one of them was Sara's from her previous marriage. These are the "people" confronting Bob Dylan with a choice between killing himself for fame and his family - to which he chooses the latter.
The other theory is that Bob Dylan's electric audience had grown and yet, Bob Dylan himself had disappeared. The "people" are these fans who wanted to know why he made an album like John Wesley Harding. The acceptance that he required at the beginning of the song has faltered and now, the Wicked Messenger has to retreat. This theory moves us straight on to the last parts of the song:
"And he was told but these few words which opened up his heart
If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any."
This directly refers to the "protest songs" of Bob Dylan and the way in which people thought of him by the end of his 1966 career. Famously, he was called "Judas" at one of his concerts, another biblical figure that he would come to use in killing off the "Jesus" figure in his work. He would quit being the leader and the voice for many in 1966. The term "good news" refers to Bob Dylan's new albums. With every album, Bob Dylan has a protest song or epic of some kind, which isn't the case on John Wesley Harding, since none of the songs are long enough to be considered part of Bob Dylan's epic canon.
The change of tone towards outsiders on the song "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" shows Bob Dylan's dark attitude towards what he formerly referred to somewhat positively in other songs. This is the attitude towards the outsider in which, he includes himself. This song alongside our analysis of The Wicked Messenger only shows that Bob Dylan feels as if his changing image is not welcome in the same circles it once was. Therefore, he must retreat. In fact, he does retreat - he goes to live in Woodstock. In this set of lyrics, he references what people think of him now, that if he cannot bring "good news" (or "good music") then he shouldn't make any at all.
In conclusion to this analysis on The Wicked Messenger, Bob Dylan is referring to his own career from the years of 1962/3 to 1966 and ends with the reference to the electric audience and the "Judas" era - killing off the Jesus image. The placement of this song on the album only shows us how important it was to Bob Dylan to get that across and to make that happen.
"Isis" is a song from the album Desire, entitled to be one of two "divorce-based" albums of Bob Dylan. It is believed that this song is symbolic of his split from his wife and his next stage of reinvention. I believe that this song does in fact, represent the disintegration of Bob Dylan's marriage to Sara Lownds. There are various characters that either are symbolic of other people or are symbolic of themes in this song.
The first and the most obvious is that Isis represents Sara Lownds. The man that leads Bob Dylan off on the road is Bob Dylan himself, but the future of Bob Dylan (as opposed to the past in "The Wicked Messenger"). The future Bob Dylan leads the old Bob Dylan astray and, when he dies, it was contagious. He wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise.
Bob Dylan begins the song with these lines:
"I married Isis on the fifth day of may
But I could not hold on to her very long..."
In fact, he didn't marry Sara on Cinco de Mayo, he uses this image instead to keep with the very Mexican Folk Hero theme of the album. The fact that he says he couldn't hold on to her for very long means their marriage is starting to disintegrate and they're drifting apart. She, mostly likely, has already left him. This leads us into the next lines:
"So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong..."
The fact that our main character has already changed by cutting off his hair shows the listener that the disintegration is caused by radical change. He makes his way to the "wild unknown country", representing where he will meet the "next Bob Dylan" in his journey. He then must choose whether to go back to Isis, or to let this mystery man lead him away.
The next lines state how the change impacts the life of the character and he comes to the first turn point to choose between Isis and the "man":
"I came to a high place of darkness and light
The dividing line ran through the center of town..."
The "high place" being this higher consciousness that he has realised and that "line" - that's the first point at which he has to choose whether to cross this threshold, or return to Isis/Sara and pick up the pieces to his marriage. The next line is where we get the choice made and the character now choosing yet another change:
"I hitched up my pony to a post on the right
Went into a laundry to wash my clothes down..."
The fact that the character is washing his clothes down means that he has something to wash away from himself before he continues on. This could be literal, or it could represent something he's done wrong—maybe he wronged Isis/Sara. If he did, then he's going to choose to continue on, in order to leave this sin behind.
This is another one of Bob Dylan's symbolically religious images, but so subtle that it's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. He hints at his own washing of his sins and his own wrongdoing throughout the album and on this song, this is the exact reference to that.
The next lines are where we get the introduction of the "New Bob Dylan" and what he wants:
"A man in the corner approached me for a match
I knew right away he was not ordinary..."
The reason Bob Dylan cites constantly as the reason Sara Lownds divorced him is that he had "changed" and therefore, was no longer "ordinary"—he had become someone else. This man that the main character meets is another version of himself who is not ordinary. This is the same character at a different time, possibly the future. It's an incredible image that these two would be in the same place doing the same thing at the same time. They are in fact, the same person. They are both Bob Dylan. This leads us on to the 'want' of this verse:
"He said, are you lookin' for somethin' easy to catch?
I said, I got no money he said, that ain't necessary..."
The "something" in this case is a way to get away from the prying eyes that are invading his life. Bob Dylan, at this time, was a great star having done the Rolling Thunder Revue recently. The "somethin' easy to catch" could be one of two things. The first thing it could be is a way to get away with Isis and get back to her. The second thing is that it could be asking whether the old Bob Dylan wants to leave and visit somewhere new, therefore leaving this life behind.
The fact that the old Bob Dylan says that he's got no money refers to the divorce pay-out he must have been giving to Isis/Sara at the time and the idea that it wouldn't be necessary to have any money must mean that the stranger/New Bob Dylan must be leading him away from this life and into the next. This leads us directly into the next two lines in which we see what they exchange to each other:
"We set out that night for the cold in the north
I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word..."
They travel towards the cold north at night and therefore, this is a pathetic fallacy for danger. The next line however, makes the most of the image of duplicity. They exchange the physical and the emotional, meaning that it is quite possible that they are the same person. The New Bob Dylan is giving the old one "his word"—or more likely, "his words" making Bob Dylan write differently, sing differently, act differently, etc.
More mystical than just a metaphor it produces the main reason for the divorce and embodies the entire change in Bob Dylan. The blanket representing the clothes, this is where they seem to change places and one becomes the other—it is a transformation scene which you will never forget once you see. This leads us on to the information in the next line that the New Bob Dylan character couldn't possibly have known and could not possibly be a coincidence:
"I said, where are we goin' he said we'd be back by the fourth
I said, "that's the best news that I've ever heard..."
The New Bob Dylan character states that they'll be back the day before the fifth day—which happens to be either a yearly or monthly anniversary for the protagonist and his wife, Isis/Sara. But, this could not really be much of a coincidence, so how on earth did the New Bob Dylan know that? Thus representing that they are both in fact, the same person at different times.
The next line represents the change and embodies it in thought:
"I was thinkin' about turquoise, I was thinkin' about gold
I was thinkin' about diamonds and the world's biggest necklace..."
These are very material things that the New Bob Dylan has taken the protagonist away to find. The "world's biggest necklace" probably representing something he would want to take back to Isis/Sara in order to apologise for his wrongdoings. This is only exemplified by the following lines in the verse:
"As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold
I was thinkin' about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless."
I believe that the first line brings us back to the reality of the situation, we're still in the danger zone with the old and new Bob Dylan characters. He then switches back to his internalised thoughts and is relating the "world's biggest necklace" to his thoughts about Isis. Isis now seems to think the protagonist is "reckless" and probably rightly so as he's in the middle of nowhere with a random stranger.
This is also where we see the reason for the split again, Sara thought Bob had changed - therefore Bob Dylan has become "reckless". Whether this is a positive kind of reckless or a negative kind is unknown - but we will have to listen to the rest of the song to see what happens in the story.
The next verse is the memory of Isis/Sara by this time:
"How she told me that one day we would meet up again,
And things would be different the next time we wed..."
This "next time" purely depends on which Bob Dylan comes back from this journey. If it is still the "old" Dylan then yes, he's getting married to Sara again and it will be happily ever after. But if it's the "new" Dylan then he shouldn't be so optimistic. Isis/Sara doesn't want to be with someone she doesn't know. The only thing that would be different the "next time (they) wed..." would be the time and place, not the character. If the character is different, he doesn't get to remarry Isis/Sara.
The next lines give us a foreshadowing of the fact he's not going to remarry Isis/Sara:
"If I only could hang on and just be her friend
I still can't remember all the best things she said..."
The fact that the protagonist can't "hang on" means that he cannot stop this change. He can no longer "be her friend" either because she's angry with him for the change itself. They have been apart for so long by now that he can't remember the sound of her voice and therefore, "the best things she said" have become distant since they're either fighting, or they're completely apart. It is the embodiment of the change. Isis/Sara is no longer saying the "best things", she's now cursing him and she's left him - so he can no longer remember her positivity.
The next lines take us back to the present time in the narrative:
"We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
He said, "there's a body I'm tryin' to find..."
We have another image of danger - ice. Ice represents the cold and the dark dangers awaiting the protagonist. The next line is yet another representation of the change. "There's a body I'm trying to find..." They seem to be trying to find an even older version of Bob Dylan that's already been killed off, one that Isis/Sara fell in love with. It is within both of their interests to find this body before it's too late for them to receive Isis/Sara and she leaves them. The next line exemplifies this theory:
"If I carry it out it'll bring a good price
'Cause then that I knew what he had on his mind..."
The first line in the set suggests that the newer Bob Dylan is going to try and sell it back to Isis/Sara in order for her to fall in love with them again. The second line of the set lets the listener know that the protagonist is entirely aware of this. It is not a problem for either of them. They are now just trying to get Isis/Sara back, and yet the transformation continues without the ability to stop.
The next lines we get are:
"The wind it was howlin' and the snow was outrageous
We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn"
The image of danger comes back in the first line. What they are doing is dangerous for everyone, including Isis/Sara. The next line represents that these two people are now doing things together. They are now trying to survive whilst finding this body so that they can get back to Isis/Sara in one piece. But the fact that they're doing things together and we get the collective "we" means that the transformation is still happening and Bob Dylan is quickly running out of time.
In the next lines we get the moment of transformation:
"When he died I was hopin' that it wasn't contagious
But I made up my mind that I had to go on."
If the want to be "New" wasn't contagious then he wouldn't have mentioned it at all. The fact that he was "hoping it wasn't contagious" means that it was and he's already been infected with the "New" whatever the "New" involves. He has completely transformed by catching whatever the other protagonist had, thinking that he'd killed it off entirely, he is confused and deluded.
Again, probably admitting his wrongdoings to Isis/Sara and blaming it on confusion. He "(makes) up (his) mind that (he) had to go on..." and this means that he can no longer stop anything—he has accepted what he "caught" from the "New" Bob Dylan that has now died (or so we thought...). In fact, the New Bob Dylan hasn't died at all, the contagion has just been spread to the old one. They have become one. The next lines again, show us that the song agrees with this theory:
"I picked up his body and I dragged him inside,
Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover"
The man is now a lifeless body, he has none of the qualities of the New Bob Dylan anymore, as the contagion has been passed on to the old one and has him quickly transforming. The contagion is supported by the fact that the living protagonist actually physically picks up the body and has, therefore, caught any contagion that there would have been. He then throws the body into a hole and this makes it seem like there is nothing of interest left in that body—the transformation is nearly entirely complete.
"I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied
Then I went back to find Isis just to tell her I love her..."
The image of a "quick prayer" shows the religious aspect of the character is still around and so is the want to tell Isis/Sara that he still loves her. This represents there is still little bits of the old character left and that he must hurry back to Isis/Sara if he wants to remarry her with whatever is left of the old him.
"She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise
Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed..."
Isis/Sara has been having trouble sleeping, possibly the insomnia caused by the horrors of splitting from her husband. The fact that the creek "used to" rise and no longer does means that this is yet another aspect of the transformation of character. The reason that Isis/Sara would need a bed is possibly because of the fact that she has been awake all this time, or that he only believes she needs a bed.
We can't exactly know what Isis/Sara is feeling, but this is the same image we get in Virgil's Aeneid when Aeneas travels to the underworld and sees the sleepless Dido. Or when Dante travels to the Heavens in Dante's Divine Comedy and sees the beautiful Beatrice. Both of them loves, both of them unattainable due to mass changes. This is exactly the same image.
The transformation image is getting stronger now:
"I came in from the east with the sun in my eyes
I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead..."
The fact that he comes in from the east and the sun is in his eyes means that it must be sunset when he comes to see Isis/Sara because he's facing the west. He "curses" her—noting that they are still not on good terms and he rides off without any words. This means that the transformation is entirely complete. Just a few lines ago he wanted to tell Isis/Sara he loved her, and now he curses her. There has been yet another change and now, they are splitting further apart.
Isis/Sara notices the change in the next lines:
"She said, where ya been, I said, no place special
She said, you look different I said, well, yes..."
The fact that the character now looks different means that they have completed whatever transformation they required to complete and there is no way back. He will never get to remarry her and he will never get to love her again. The only reason he wouldn't tell Isis/Sara where he's been is that if he's ashamed of it. He knows the change has happened and he'll never get back to Isis/Sara again. This causes Bob Dylan's divorce from Sara Lownds - the inability to reach her spiritually ever again.
The next lines represent the desperation of Bob Dylan to get back to Sara Lownds:
"She said, you been gone I said, that's only natural
She said, you gonna stay I said, if you want you me, yes..."
As a rockstar, Bob Dylan would be on the road a lot and so, it would be only natural that he would be gone for a certain amount of time. But, when Isis/Sara asks the protagonist to stay—he is very quick to say yes. He emphasises that he will only stay if Isis/Sara really wants him to. This is actually Bob Dylan really trying hard to save his marriage. At the end of it all, it was Bob Dylan who had to vacate the premises (I assume) as most of the time it's the male who has to leave the housing premises as the woman normally has the children. I only assume it was the same in Bob Dylan's case. This would support that theory.
The whole song then circles back to the beginning, giving us the only real thing he says he remembers about Isis/Sara:
"Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of may in the drizzlin' rain."
The fact that he still remembers that he is driven to Isis/Sara means that there is still a small piece of him that remains from before he left for the journey with the mysterious stranger. He only now remembers their wedding day and this is representative of the old state of Bob Dylan from the very beginning of the song. It's a sad ending because Isis/Sara seems to be no longer there when this line is addressed—it never says whether it was a happy ending but we can only assume it wasn't because of the change in character.
In conclusion, this song represents the second autobiographical mode discussed. Even though it is still plot-based, I feel like this one is more difficult to decipher because of all the various symbolism and careful pseudonyms in place of things, people, places etc. There are a number of theories about this song and this one is mine. I hope I have entertained you with the theory surrounding Bob Dylan, duplicity and divorce. He is a Gemini after all.
"Jokerman" is a brilliant song on the 1983 album 'Infidels'. It represents the third mode of autobiography, in which Bob Dylan talks to himself and criticises/ridicules himself whilst also referencing moments in his career that have either been poignant, symbolic, positive, negative etc. There is something hauntingly religious about this song as well, as if Bob Dylan is tearing down that 60s Jesus figure everyone pinned him up to be and making himself more like a normal human being, more like a simple magician rather than a God-like figure.
Let's have a look at how the lyrics support the theory that Bob Dylan is talking and criticising himself:
"Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing..."
The speaker here is talking to an earlier version of themselves, the act of "casting the bread" is someone who is trying to get their message across. This happens to be exactly what Bob Dylan was doing in the early 1960s, trying to get his message out.
"Distant ships sailing into the mist
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing..."
It could've actually been incredibly likely that Bob Dylan was born whilst a hurricane was blowing but not in Minnesota. He was born in 1941, which means one of the largest hurricanes to hit America hit Texas that year. To have a "snake" in both of his fists is Bob Dylan telling himself that he was born into bad luck - he was born in an extremely cold climate and ships probably sailing up and down the river (the first line) and "into the mist". He was also born into the middle of World War 2, and he was a young Jewish boy, which made it worse. He's referencing the sheer amount of bad luck he was born into and the "Jokerman" is someone who carries on, regardless of this. The "Jokerman" is Bob Dylan.
"Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?"
Bob Dylan tells himself that he can get out at any time he pleases but for some reason, he continues on because he's made various characters for himself by now—he's created and killed the "Wicked Messenger" and he has killed off the troubadour from the Desire days. He has also been through his Gospel Era and killed that off, what we have is a brand new character—and yet we are no closer to the truth. We are no closer to finding out who Robert Zimmerman really is. So really, what good will it do to leave now? It won't. Bob Dylan is telling himself quietly, to continue deceiving people.
"So swiftly the sun sets in the sky
You rise up and say goodbye to no one..."
This is Bob Dylan talking to himself at the point of the motorcycle crash, so we've moved on from 1963 Dylan, the Voice now. He "says goodbye to no one" because he's not really leaving. He'll be back in a while and the fact that he physically "rises up" means he dies and is reborn as another. This "another" is the character seen in John Wesley Harding, the critique of the Wicked Messenger's story. Bob Dylan, the family man.
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread
Both of their futures, so full of dread, you don’t show one."
I find that the second line gives us more about Bob Dylan than the first, but let's begin with the first one. The first line is an obvious religious reference and the fact that "both" the angels' and fools' futures aren't great means that someone must do something. Bob Dylan, even though he went through so much, stands by and does nothing.
Why? Well he doesn't want to be the voice of a generation anymore, he doesn't want to be the Jesus figure anymore—he gave that up and now, here's 80s Bob Dylan criticises and chastising him for standing by and saying nothing.
I'm guessing that this has something to do with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when everyone expected Bob Dylan to make a statement of bold trepidation and some protest song against the act - instead he ended up releasing Nashville Skyline. He abandoned his people. The line "you don't show one" is haunting.
The next lines are terribly sarcastic, but I love them:
"Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within..."
Now the first line is pretty simple to understand, Bob Dylan is "shedding" one character and moving to another "skin" (character). But, "keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within" can mean two things. The first thing it could mean is that Bob Dylan keeps himself from getting bored with music by "keeping one step ahead" of anyone who wants to criticise his style. Or, more likely, it could mean that Bob Dylan, the character, wants to keep "one step ahead" of Bob Dylan, the speaker. Since the speaker is the one chastising him, it would seem the logical thing to do. The fact that Bob Dylan wants to keep one step ahead of himself means that he is always doing something different, the question is was he referencing his later 80s career in this line? Maybe we'll never know.
"You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister..."
The "man of the mountains" is obviously referring to the wilderness Dylan of the mid-70s Desire era. The "walking on the clouds" referring to his 79-81 Gospel Era. He can manipulate crowds to listen to his message and twist their dreams into analysing him for the rest of their lives. Bob Dylan explains himself to himself, as if he remembers his own message previously. But then we get that chastising again:
"You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister..."
This suggests that Bob Dylan is on the road back towards sin, obviously he spends most of the 80s high on cocaine - which I'm assuming he abstained from in the Gospel Era. The "Sodom and Gomorrah" is Bob Dylan's drug addiction that returns in the mid-80s, he is chastising himself for letting it. But then again, he asks himself whether he really cares since he makes fun of himself by stating that nobody wants to marry his sister. Of course, this is Bob Dylan's biblical reference, almost asking himself what good did the Bible do if we were going to end up in Sodom and Gomorrah.
"Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name."
Bob Dylan is "friends" with a martyr. This martyr isn't a physical one, but it is instead Bob Dylan's 1966 character - the martyr, the voice of a generation, the protest-song writer. He's also a "friend" to the woman of shame. The woman of shame is his drug addiction, which Bob Dylan interweaves into his verse about Sodom and Gomorrah. The "fiery furnace" represents the rebirth of a new character after the Gospel Era and so, we are finally thrown back into the present with the "rich man without any name" - this is the character we have now, the speaker. The speaker is the "rich many without any name."
Bob Dylan now speaks directly to his Gospel self:
"Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers..."
We have two sides presented as being a part of Bob Dylan here. We have the religious side, which he is speaking to and then, we have the animalistic side, with the "law of the jungle and the sea" both part of the same character, both serving the same purpose. Bob Dylan admits that these are the character's teachers and saying the word "only" makes it seem like that mind is closed off to everything else. It's almost as if the speaker Dylan is trying to make the character Dylan remember who he is. This would explain the political commentary on Infidels.
"In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features..."
This is an ironic set of lines because I feel like Bob Dylan is talking directly to Gospel Era Dylan stating that he wasn't satisfied because of the way Gospel Dylan was always trying to act good instead of doing good. This is why we have "smoke of the twilight" - it's almost like he's trying too hard to be good. We have the image of goodness, "the milk-white steed". And the second line confirms that this is all to keep up appearances for the albums. Maybe he's done with all of that now and he's on his way back to his true self. Spiritual but not trying too hard for anyone or any albums.
"Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face..."
Bob Dylan is here making fun of himself. He states that Gospel Dylan is so detached that he's "far from space" - meaning that he's acting so good that he's lost his true spirituality. He's "half-asleep" trying to decipher the stars, not knowing exactly what's going on. He was too busy getting to a higher consciousness to write better songs. I really do feel like Jokerman is Bob Dylan being dissatisfied with what he has done to himself.
He then gets pretty dark down there:
"Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame
Preacher-man seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain..."
He discusses the similarities between religion and a gun, which is an interesting, but dark image. Living through his divorce, it is possible that Bob Dylan suffered some amount of depression. Possibly discussing the depressive state in the words "sick and lame" as those are two aspects of depression—Bob Dylan gets to know whether he'll shoot himself or find God first. Thankfully, we get the Gospel Era. "Who'll get there first is uncertain" is almost Bob Dylan making a snarky joke about it, calling himself weak-minded and trying to wake himself up. Especially when he's about to go back into his cocaine habits again.
"Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain..."
Bob Dylan, the speaker, is definitely trying to wake up Bob Dylan, the character now. This is because he practically lists the different things that countries have got, he's basically asking the character to look at all this stuff and choose something else to write about other than just the Bible all the time. Bob Dylan, the speaker, is begging the character not to abandon his people.
"False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in..."
The image of the night has always been closely associated with Dylan, whether it's "between darkness and light" in Isis, or whether it's "Just like the night" in Visions of Johanna. The image of "the night" has always been linked to Dylan himself as he is as mysterious as that particular time of day. And, according to the speaker, he has almost convinced the character to step up. And now, it's "only a matter of time 'til night comes stepping in..." The king has returned.
Bob Dylan, the speaker, then explains the different wrongs and rights in the world to the character, bringing him back to reality:
"It’s a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey
A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet..."
Here we have the juxtaposition of the bad and the good. Even though we've got all these things to write protest songs about in the "shadowy world", we also have some spirituality - a woman has given birth to a prince. It is something to meditate on. The explanation here is for the character not to lose his spirituality, but lose his "act" and start anew.
"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..."
This prince is going to do incredible things if the character comes back to reality—which makes us think that the "prince" that this story is talking about is the speaker, Bob Dylan. He can only write songs about these things if the character moves with him, keeping the spirituality and letting go of the Gospel Era.
But, ultimately - it is uneventful:
"Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants
Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response..."
The "Jokerman" (Bob Dylan, the character) does not respond to the wants of the speaker. This will lead us into Bob Dylan's cocaine era, what seems like the end of spirituality until Oh Mercy. All in all, this song does not have a happy ending.
In conclusion, however you think of it, this song would never have a happy ending - we end with a cliffhanger of whether Bob Dylan gains spirituality and yet leaves behind the Gospel Era, whether he does that and returns to form like he did on this album, or whether he gives into his cocaine-fuelled rage entirely and descends into madness. We end up with Empire Burlesque and so, it is the last one.
Bob Dylan's three modes of autobiography are very interesting to consider when looking at his catalogue. This is because if these really exist then there must be some other songs that fit into them. Personally, I always wonder if anything from Highway 61 Revisited can be considered autobiographical since Dylan said himself at the "Rolling Thunder Revue 1975" that "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is "an autobiographical song..." Can we really believe him though? He's changed since then and he changed in between—is Bob Dylan writing autobiographies to keep up with himself or is he purposefully leaving things around for us to discover? Maybe we'll never really know. Maybe the game is to guess.
I hope you enjoyed my first real attempt at some Dylanology. This was actually really difficult to do since I still wanted to keep it short enough to read but long enough for analysis. I get carried away sometimes and require to cut down some of my stuff. When I share this on social media, I want some feedback on how this went. Hopefully, I can get some more stuff out in the future, but this is my first attempt at it.