Breakfast Blend: Bob Dylan, “Jokerman”

After his three-album foray into born-againedness, Dylan eventually decided to make a rock record. He looked for a rock star producer, talked to David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello, but was turned down, and ended up with Mark Knopfler. The result was something of a comeback album called Infidels.

I’m a big fan of the first of Dylan’s Christian albums, Slow Train Coming, but I lost interest in the others, and don’t think I’d ever listened to Infidels until today. I needed something in the background while editing football profiles, if you know what I mean, something to fill the space without making too much noise or too much singing along.

The first song on Infidels is a typical long story song called Jokerman. It’s pretty good, with some cool syncopated drums and a prominent bass line, and some understated slide guitar. You can hear it here.

It turns out that Dylan hired Sly and Robbie as his rhythm section for these sessions, explaining the distinctive bottom. It also turns out that he conceived this record after befriending Mick Taylor, the former Stones’ guitarist, with whom he intended to collaborate. Taylor, Sly and Robbie play a huge part on this album, which after Jokerman loses much of its sense of melody and turns into a series of vamps, with Dylan bleating on top. Well, not really on top, since his voice is mixed behind the music, kind of in the distance.

It turns out that Knopfler had to go on tour before the album was mixed, and Columbia pressed Dylan to turn the sides in in order to make the Christmas season release date. Dylan turned them over to the engineer, who did the final mixes. Knopfler wasn’t pleased. But it isn’t the sound of the album that irks as much as the lack of melody. Good for editing, bad for paying attention to, apart from Jokerman, which is of a little interest musically.

Some months later, Dylan made his first public appearance in a good while, on Late Night with David Letterman. He performed three songs with a band of new wave kids, who chunked up Jokerman, so it was less island and a little more Sunset Strip.

Thanks mostly to Wikipedia for these facts, if they are straight, and this good story otherwise.

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