The Godfather: Peter Corris on the Jack of Hearts
If people of my generation, those of us who tuned in to popular music, were asked what was their favourite Bob Dylan song, I expect there’d be at least 20 nominations, maybe more.
The early protest songs would register with many people, and then the breakthrough into electronic rock and the cataclysmic force of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and others. For some it would be the lyrical ‘Lay Lady Lay’. Perhaps for others the buoyancy of ‘New Morning’. While I love these songs and listen to them constantly (I have more Dylan in my CD collection than any other artist), the song that perhaps interests and grips me most is ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ from the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks.
The reasons for this have partly to do with the appeal of popular music itself. The significance of a song to someone who admires it, I believe, has to do not only with the force of its intrinsic qualities, but to the emotional context in which it is first heard and the attachments that follow. This certainly the case with me and this Dylan song.
In 1975 I was teaching at the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education. Jean and I and our two young children drove to the house of fellow lecturer Peter Kerr, who had helped me get the job. Peter’s girlfriend was present, along with another academic whose name I forget.
Jean and I bedded the children down and we proceeded to eat and drink and some of us, including me, to smoke dope. My recollection is that the other guest had recently returned from the USA with a copy of Blood on the Tracks. Peter played it more than once and the song seeped into my brain in a way no other song I’d ever heard when stoned – which was a very rare event for me – ever had.
It lodged there and the peculiar thing is that my appreciation of it violates many of my usual cultural judgements. I dislike experimental writing and cinema (like Dylan’s disastrous 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, memorably reviewed in Nation Review under the heading ‘Wanking in the Wind’), music and abstract art. But ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ proves an exception.
Copyright prevents me from extensive quotation but the list of characters is instructive – two women, card-playing Lily and hard-drinking Rosemary, have some claim on dandified Big Jim, who owns the town’s diamond mine. The town has a hanging judge who is drunk in one verse but sober in another. There are cabaret girls and a backstage manager who is aware of something going on not perceived by the others, and there is the enigmatic Jack of Hearts. This character, all things to all men and all women, knits together the denizens of the town and the gang who are drilling through the wall of the bank as the other characters play their roles.
As is usual with Dylan there is no coherent narrative, just a series of scenes and symbolic actions and references (Mexico, a Colt, a gallows, a riverbed) accompanied by a remorseless rhythm and the characteristic obsessive rhyming.
The song is, in fact, a surrealistic Western and I play it frequently, constructing my own connections and explanations as the song invites the listener to do. As I take it in, as well as the peculiar pleasure the words and music give me, I’m back there 40 years ago in that Gippsland house with those people and the drugs and, because I hated teaching, my uncertain future.