Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Track of the Week: Bob Dylan "Jokerman"

The 40s are a treacherous decade that nobody warned me about. They've been the biggest moment of emotional volatility I have experienced since my teens. At this point the reality of middle age is inescapable, as is the knowledge that I have failed to achieve the goals I once set out for myself. I have not published my book or made a splash with my writing. Here I am blogging like it's 2005, terminally unhip.

You've got to be strong to get through, and to have an understanding of what's actually important in life. In my case my family and my work as a teacher give my life meaning, even if they don't give me fame and fortune. 

Back in the 80s I remember a lot of ink being spilled over the fact that there were now rock stars in their 40s. That's hardly news these days, but those who grew up with rock and roll had never seen such a thing. Many of those rock stars had their difficult 40s play out in public, only to rebound in the 90s after surviving the painful plunge into middle age. Neil Young is probably the best example. He went from a perplexing run of genre exercises in the 80s to some great records in the 90s like Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon.

Growing up in the 80s only a select few of the geezer rockers crossed my MTV and local hits station radar. I certainly knew the Stones, for instance. Bob Dylan was a mystery to me, however. When he had his spotlight in "We Are the World" he was the one singer whose identity escaped me.

When I first dipped a toe into Dylan fandom in the early 90s I already knew the (correct) conventional wisdom that his 80s output was suboptimal. Even as I have become a more and more devoted Dylanologist, I have pretty much avoided this music. I also knew that for some reason he left some of his best work of the era ("Blind Willie McTell," "Series of Dreams," "Foot of Pride" etc) on the cutting room floor. Did I really need to listen to any of this stuff apart from the bootleg series? I made only one exception, for Oh Mercy.

The other day I finally decided to listen to Infidels, considered to be among the salvageable works of the 80s from Dylan and the first song, "Jokerman," really struck me. It probably marks the point that Dylan's unmistakeable voice became more of a croak, as it's been for 40 years now. It came after his trilogy of Christian albums, one of the more unexpected midlife crises in rock history. 

At first I thought "Jokerman" was slight, but I have been singing its deceptively catchy chorus all day long today. It has a languid beat that's like a cross between reggae and yacht rock, with Mark Knopfler's irresistibly sweet guitar tone floating on the top. Something about it suggests middle class repose, sort of giving up and sitting back and letting life just happen to you. I know the song has all kinds of allegories and metaphors, but I am mostly just lost in the slipstream of its sound, which is perfect for a broken down 45 year old like me. 

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