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Legendary Madison Avenue ad man George Lois on Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” video: “A poet should be read as well as heard”
Our Night Flight Plus subscribers have been telling us how much they’ve been enjoying watching the full episodes of “Night Flight” we’ve recently uploaded, including this 3-hour plus “as aired” full episode which originally aired on July 27, 1984, and when you check this one out, be sure to keep a sharp eye out for Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” music video, which shows up a little over an hour into the show. There’s quite a story to be told about that video, and some of the people responsible for it — including its production designer, legendary Madison Avenue ad man George Lois — which we’re more than happy to share with you below.
Dylan’s “Jokerman” video — directed by George Lois and Jerry Cotts, and released on March 27, 1984 — was the second video from his new album album at the time, Infidels, which had been released in November of ’83.
The song had arrived before the album, Dylan’s twenty-second, in fact, which seemed to signal to longtime fans that we were perhaps hearing the return of a mid-70s-era Dylan (oh if that were only true).
Before Columbia Records released it as a single on October 27, 1983, they were already plotting how to promote his first post-MTV recordings with promo videos, a medium that Dylan had previously spurned.
Ayear later, in 1985, Dylan would tell Scott Cohen of Spin magazine that he felt videos were “out of character” for him.
Let’s start with the song itself, though, which, according to what Dylan told Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder for a cover story interview (published June 21, 1984) “kinda came to in the islands,” meaning the Caribbean, where Dylan says he and another guy had a boat (and, one presumes, a very nice house too).
In fact, Jamaican musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare both played in the rhythm section, in addition to onetime Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and Dire Straits‘ Mark Knopfler, whose playing had helped to elevate a previous album, 1979’s Slow Train Coming.
“It’s very mystical,” Dylan told Loder. “The shapes there, and shadows, seem to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis.”
Night Flight contributor Chris Morris — writing about “Jokerman” in his 2016 book about Dylan’s recordings and their impact on his life, Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (Rothco Press) — says that the track “arced through spirituality’s history with refreshing doubt and welcome lyrical extravagance.”
The “welcome lyrical extravagance” Morris mentions here often mystified those who attempted to decipher its meaning, the lyrics conjuring up conflicting images of both creation and destruction — something straight out of the Old Testament (“Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy”) — which was then mixed in with many, many references to false messiahs.
Those lyrics and the images in the video both point to the pointed question everyone asked at the time, just who was the “jokerman” the song’s title is in reference to?
Is it the enigmatic Dylan himself, on a voyage of self-discovery or something else, or was he singing about someone else entirely? Was he being “serious,” or was Dylan having a lark at his listeners expense, sending them off on a search for answers without posing a proper question first?
The first track from the album that Columbia had decided to promote to MTV with a video, however, was for a love song, “Sweetheart Like You,” which was a performance by Dylan who was back by members of his new band, comprised, in part, of young L.A. rockers, including Carlo Olson of the Textones, drummer Charlie Quintana and bassist Tony Marsico of the Plugz, and Greg Kuehn, who had played with T.S.O.L., Berlin and lots of other bands.
That first video — directed by Mark Robinson and released in late ’83 — didn’t exactly catch fire, but Columbia prodded Dylan for another video, which made him realize that he didn’t really want to do another lip-sync performance.
This time he turned to two old friendly acquaintances and asked for their help: Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of On the Road With Bob Dylan, a gonzo account of the first incarnation of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and celebrated concert promoter Bill Graham.
It was Graham who brought in an associate of Ratso’s, the legendary George Lois, a brilliant New York City advertising genius who was the perfect guy for the project.
Lois — who had just designed the popular “I Want My MTV” ad campaign for the network — had shaken up Madison Avenue and the design revolution during the 1960s, a period so wonderfully presented in the “Mad Men“ TV show) with his clever and iconic images.
Then, as art director for Esquire magazine, he created a total of 92 iconic covers — like heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali a Martyr for refusing to fight in a bad war, or Andy Warhol drowning in his Campbell’s soup can — some of which are now hanging on the walls of the Modern of Modern Art.
Dylan had actually met Lois before, backstage at a legal-defense benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter had been imprisoned on a 1966 murder charge and conviction, a crime that was ultimately not proven to be committed by Carter (he had been released from prison after serving nearly twenty years, in 1985).
Lois — who was one of the developers of the Hurricane Trust Fund, on Carter’s defense committee and had helped organize the concert — has said that in gratitude for Dylan’s dynamic help in freeing Carter, and his famous song,” Hurricane,” written in direct response to this American episode of justice and injustice, and racial prejudice — he leapt at the chance to work on a video with him.
George Lois (center, in the Hurricane Carter t-shirt), and concert co-organiser Paul Sapounakis (left), talk to Bob Dylan about writing the protest song, “Hurricane” (1975)
Dylan had originally wanted his next video from Infidels to conceptualize a different song entirely, “Neighborhood Bully,” another track on the album which he had imagined they could interpret much like German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have filmed it, but Lois — and, one presumes, key label execs at Columbia — had other ideas, wanting a video for the album’s first single, “Jokerman,” instead.
Lois began to storyboard his ideas, and came up with the idea of intercutting close-ups of Dylan singing over illustrations from his own private library of art books, an assemblage of images from 5,000 years of art history, including a 2700 B.C. Sumerian idol, paintings by Michelangelo, German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, Edvard Munch, Hieronymus Bosch (The Musicians’ Hell), along with more modern works, like paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Picasso (“Weeping Woman”), not to mention an animated cartoon of Milton Glaser’s iconic Dylan poster, two of his own famous Esquire covers, and all sorts of images of 20th Century heroes and villains.
Lois then came up with an innovative conceptual idea, to superimpose the song’s apocalyptic lyrics over the images throughout the video, a technique he said was akin to “poetry right in your fuckin’ face,” and later saying, “a poet should be read as well as heard.”
Apparently the camera-shy Dylan — who Lois and director Jerry Cotts lensed on a soundstage somewhere in Manhattan, shooting his face close-up, using a telephoto lens from a distance — had a lot of anxiety about the entire video shoot, and he didn’t like to lip-sync to certain lyrics in the song (“Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune / Bird fly high by the light of the moon”) with his eyes open.
Or any lyrics, really.
VHS tapes of Dylan’s “Jokerman” video — which would win MTV’s Best Music Video of the Year award despite the fact that the network didn’t play it very often, possibly because of its length (six minutes) and its downbeat apocalyptic ending — would later be sent around to high school art and music departments around the country with a list of the artwork included.
It turns out, however, that Dylan wasn’t a big fan of the song to begin with, and in 1991, told music journalist Paul Zollo, “That’s a song that got away from me. Lots of songs on that album [Infidels] got away from me. They just did.”
He also reportedly hated the footage that had been shot up-close of him, telling Loder of Rolling Stone:
“All I saw was a shot of me from my mouth to my forehead on screen. I figure, ‘Isn’t that somethin’? I’m paying for that?’
Instead, he wanted to do some kind of 8mm handheld camera footage to replace what Lois had shot.
Columbia Records, however, liked what Lois had done, and so he delivered the finished video to the label over Dylan’s objections.
Dylan performed “Jokerman” on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” on March 22, 1984, with a band that featured members of the Plugz
Watching the “Jokerman” video today, with the Biblical and secular themes that Lois used to tear down political charlatans and his choice of Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan, among others, remind us that we may soon, if we’re not already, be facing some of the same issues we were facing back when Dylan’s video first aired on “Night Flight,” MTV and elsewhere in the mid-80s (we’re talkin’ ’bout the threat of nuclear war, global warming, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, et al.).
Given the current state of our deplorable political climate on this first full week of a mind-blowing new presidential administration, after a highly contentious two-and-a-half-month interregnum which worried not just concerned Americans but saw citizens from all four corners of our planet gnashing their teeth in despair, Dylan’s “Jokerman” video seems to point out that we aren’t really learning from the mistakes we’ve made in the past.