But I think it’s right to say that Dylan produces atmosphere but that’s about all isn’t it? So, I like the Virginia Woolf quote as well [‘It is, as a rule, when a critic does not wish to commit himself, or to trouble himself, that he speaks of atmosphere’]- it doesn’t apply to Chekhov, of course he’s more than atmosphere, but it applies to Dylan; not that there isn’t more to Dylan but often it seems to me that the atmosphere is the main thing – if you can explain to me what substance there is in Lily and the Jack of Hearts and Wotsisname then that would be great but I bet you can’t! It really IS just atmosphere…
But I propose that there’s lots to say about this song. For a start it’s a relatively long narrative in the ballad style, with a fully realised plot and storyline, which itself differentiates it from the majority of popular songs. So we can look closer at this narrative – the fact that it tells two parallel stories of thieving and robbery – the gang breaking into the safe next door to the cabaret, and the Jack of Hearts himself stealing Lily from Big Jim. We can then reflect that the Jack of Hearts, as Christopher Ricks points out, is a common signifier of the thief, as in the nursery rhyme and Alice in Wonderland.
Then we could study the symbolism. The Jack of Hearts isn’t the only character likened to a playing card. Big Jim is clearly the King of Diamonds:
Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine…
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring, And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king.
Rosemary slips into the side door, looking like ‘a queen without a crown’, and Lily and the girls are playing five-card stud by the stairs when the Jack of Hearts enters the cabaret. Later, Lily is referred to as a princess, so we have a full royal family as the cast of this drama – King Jim, Queen Rosemary, Princess Lily and the Jack of Hearts. Perhaps this card-playing metaphor suggests that the main theme of the story is gambling with fate, and its tragic consequences (much like Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen Of Spades).
And then there are the clear references to the Tarot, another fate motif. As Clinton Heylin points out, the Jack of Hearts shares the attributes of the magician or magus in AE Waite’s tarot pack. And when we read the profile of the magus, look what we find:
On the table in front of the Magician are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills. Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to shew the culture of aspiration.
In case you’re tempted to view this as mere coincidence, consider that the inner sleeve of Dylan’s next album, Desire, features a picture of the AE Waite tarot pack, surrounded by two flowers – a rose and a lily.
We could also look at the characterisation, particularly Lily, the butterfly, who has come from a broken home and had ‘lots of strange affairs’, and at the end appears to be parading multiple personalities as she takes off her dress, buries it away, and finally ‘washes the dye out of her hair’. There’s also the lyricism of many of the lines we could discuss, and even the rhyming schemes – here’s an extract from Christopher Ricks on Dylan’s use of rhyme in the song:
There is the tension, for instance that of a duel in the world of the Western:
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
Once ‘did dim’ has set the scene, the two of them stand there: Jim and him, simplicity themselves.
This just scratches the surface of a song which clearly presents more than one layer of meaning and offers far more than mere ‘atmosphere’.
Other posts on Culture Club about Bob Dylan:
- 50 Reasons to Love Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts – Layers of Meaning
- Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and Tangled Up in Blue – From Complexity to Simplicity
- Song Strucutre in Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks
- Blood on the Tracks and the Quest for Salvation
- Themes of Identity in Blood on the Tracks
- Defying Time in Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Best Album?
- Cambridge Forum Radio: Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan
- Video: Bob Dylan, When the Deal Goes Down