Authored by Dale Nickey:
The story song is the toughest gig in songwriting. The song lyric format is tailor-made for the cut and paste Felliniesque’ imagery of a Dylan; or the run and gun pop couplets of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. However, constructing a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end; with rich characters and a good tune in the span of a few minutes? YOU try it. I have yet to succeed. I’ve written a wedding song and a Christmas Song. Both forms are childs play compared to the story song. Here is my number 1 pick…..
LILY ROSEMARY AND THE JACK OF HEARTS (Bob Dylan)
Upon first listen, one might think “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is just another of Dylan’s marathon, stream of consciousness curios. I did. However with the aid of repeated herbally enhanced listenings, the mind-boggling brilliance of this masterpiece revealed itself. Dylan had somehow exceeded the bar he had set for himself in the 60’s at a time when people least expected.
But first some background….
After Dylan’s trilogy of 60’s masterworks, (“Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan laid down his chopper, busted up his neck and became a mere mortal. His comeback album “John Wesley Harding” was generously bequeathed the title of masterpiece (it wasn’t). After Dylan issued his ramshackle, supersized slab of mediocrity “Self Portrait”; the 1970 release “New Morning” was lauded as a ‘return to form’ by critics. Yeah, it was…kinda…. But, the Babe Ruth of Rock had just posted a 23 Home Run /80 RBI season. Clearly, our hero had lost a step. Fans and critics were discreetly concerned. Perhaps Dylan was as well.
Fast forward to 1975. Dylan rewarded the faithful with “Blood On The Tracks”. Perhaps the finest album in Dylan’s career. Maybe the finest in ANYONE’S career. Break-up songs were nothing new at the time. But, Dylan upped the ante with an unflinching, drop-dead genius divorce album. Just as Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” had revolutionized the landscape of romantic comedy in film; Dylan’s new album had forever altered the landscape of the relationship record. Prior to ‘Blood’, Dylan seldom came off well in relationship songs. His snarky, nasal bray was not the most sympathetic medium for an artist already too condescending, judgmental, and full of himself. With “Blood On The Tracks”, we now had a kinder, gentler Dylan. Moreover, time and circumstance had weathered his trademark sneer into raspy, world-weary croon that suited him (and the audience) better.
At first blush, this protracted horse opera seems odd man out on an album full of finely detailed psychodramas. However, look closer and you’ll find “Rosemary…” not only belongs on “Blood On The Tracks”, but in a sense ties the whole album together. The whole yarn is analogous to a poker game. However, the face cards are real flesh and blood humans. Set in the ‘Wild West”; the story is all about bluffing, calculation, duplicity and cheating. The stakes are life, love and lucre. Big Jim is the kingpin of the town and owns it’s only ‘diamond’ mine. His wife Rosemary enters the cabaret looking like “a queen without a crown…” When Rosemary starts “drinkin’ hard and seeing her reflection in the knife….” Suddenly, Rosemary morphs into the queen of ‘spades’. Dylan turns in a career vocal performance full of camp, pathos and fun. He sticks the landing on every verse.
There are story songs and then there is “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts.” The scope of the story and characters can only be described as ‘cinematic’. Indeed, two screenplays have been inspired by this song. Dylan switches effortlessly from first to third person in his narrative. He gives us flashbacks, character studies, quick cuts….and it all makes sense and comes together. The best thing about this song is that no video exists. It’s theater of the mind. We know that young Robert Zimmerman was a disciple of old time Radio Theater as a child in Hibbing Minnesota in the fifties. The pictures he painted in his mind of far away places and exotic people inspired him to leave stifling small town rural America for New York to seek his fortune. Our culture would be forever altered if there had been an MTV to do Dylan’s visualizing for him.
“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is an unqualified masterpiece. Dylan captures lightning in a bottle with every line. Throw your ear-buds away please. Do not listen to this song as background music for jogging, blogging, housework or any other peripheral activity. Some songs demand and deserve your undivided attention and enjoyment. Close your eyes hit the play button, and let the curtain rise on the greatest “story song” yet written.
Dear Stereo Loungers:
Thanks to all of you who followed this coundown to it’s conclusion. Lists are silly and subjective….But, it keeps me off the streets at night.
I will not be doing your legwork for you this time. It’s far more rewarding to discover music as an active participant. Seek this song out. Pull up a couch, turn off the lights, close your eyes and listen on a good stereo like god intended.