“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”

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(For Corey, who likes it)

Going into this week my thoughts on “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” was that it was the scar on an otherwise flawless picture. A nine-minute miscalculation of a story song that is both pointless and irritating. When my friend Corey enthused about this song in particular from Blood on the Tracks I thought “Well, he has finally lost his mind!”.

I had planned to skip this song pretty much every time through this week, but instead I have been listening to it. This morning I listened to it three times (half an hour of my life!), once while reading along to the lyrics. I read along because Rebecca asked as we were coming to campus: “Who is Big Jim in this song again?”, which is a sort of understandable question in a song that uses the pronoun “he” thirteen times to refer to about four different men.

As a story song it is interesting that there are such a varied number of interpretations not only of what it all means, but, indeed, what the hell even happens. The wikipedia page for the song offers a bunch of (fairly poor) readings of the song. I do agree that it is all pretty vague though. Past relationships are hinted at without being explicitly stated (that Dylan dropped a verse in the album version doesn’t help matters on this front a lot either), the pronoun confusion adds to the misunderstandings, the fact that there is at least one love triangle and possibly two, and that characters (including the gang of bank robbers) are added very late in the whole thing, and that there is no explanation given for the disappearance of one of the title characters at the end.

And, of course, the Jack of Hearts might not even be a real person in the context of the song.

Apparently there were some discussions about turning the whole thing into a movie, with Dylan playing the Jack of Hearts. Maybe that would have made things more clear.

Anyway, there’re two great reasons to hate this song. The first is the bassist and the second is the drummer. The whole rhythm section in this song is just awful. The bump-da-bump trotting rhythm drives me absolutely around the bend on this thing, and sort of puts me to sleep. I’ve listened to this a number of times this week, and it was only while reading along that I could maintain my focus long enough to try to hear the whole thing. For the most part if I’m just listening in my car or elsewhere it becomes wallpaper because of the invariable rhythm. Then every once in a while Dylan will put some emphasis into his singing and I semi-snap out of it, only to be lulled back into submission.

The New York recording of the song, which features only guitar, is much, much better than the album version. It’s still not great, because the guitar becomes just as droning as the bass does on the album version, but I do think it is superior. You can hear that here as someone has made the bootleg available streaming (the whole album is worth listening to). Also, there’s Joan Baez’s version (below) which is also much better. Basically, if you shoot Dylan’s rhythm section you can turn this into a fine song, but I don’t think you can turn it into a great one.

Dylan’s website indicates that he has played this live only one time, at the last show on the 1976 portion of the Rolling Thunder Revue in Salt Lake City, UT. Bjorner reports that there is no known recording of this show, and that it is also claimed that this show had the only performance of “Black Diamond Bay”. I dunno. Seems sort of dodgy to me that one of the few shows with no recordings is rumoured to have had two unique song performances. It’s not impossible. The claim is that “Lily” was performed with Joan Baez, and since she performed it live elsewhere that year it is certainly possible.

I have to say: I still don’t really like it, and it is the only song on the album that I don’t like. I tried, but I’m going to start skipping it again.

Here’s Joan:

4 thoughts on ““Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”

  1. Rusty

    Like and dislike as world strikes you, by all means, but when you say, “characters (including the gang of bank robbers) are added very late,” you’re what we call “wrong.” We first hear of the the bank robbers in line 2, drilling in the wall.

    (Rebecca, Big Jim is the rich one who dies.)

    Your demand for complete narrative coherence and precision in delineating the characters is rather surprising, given that we’re talking about *Bob fucking Dylan* here. Maybe the fact that “Lily” is *more* coherent than the classic Dylan story- or almost-story songs creates the expectation that it will be completely so–compared to say “Tombstone Blues,” this one is (as Corey Creekmur noted on Facebook) an elevator movie pitch set to a rhythm that some people like and some people don’t.

  2. We don’t hear of the robbers in line two, but I will concede that we hear of their actions. I was actually thinking of the backstage manager and lead actor, who show up in verse eleven (of sixteen).

    Well, more coherent than “Tombstone Blues” isn’t a high standard. It’s no “Hattie Carroll” or “Hurricane”, that’s for sure (also songs that I’m not in love with, but both of which I like better than this one)

  3. Rebecca

    The problem with this song is that mind-numbing idiot bass line that simultaneously makes you think that there HAS to be a story worth following here while dragging you out of it into some kind of prison delirium where the dum-dum-dumdumdumdum-dum-dum just keeps pounding on your skull.

    I read the wikipedia entry too and it only left me more confused. I’m going with a new version: Lily and Rosemary fuck all the men, steal their money, and ride off deeper into the West to become outlaw lovers. That’s a movie I’d watch.

  4. charleshatfield

    The galloping rhythm of this song is cool, therefore (almost) all of you are WRONG. And this song’s a masterpiece of Dylan’s buried/implied method of a novel’s-worth of meaning behind an iceberg’s tip of statement. The same haunting vagueness is in “Tangled Up in Blue,” etc etc etc. Love it!

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