At this point, the fact that Peter Case
is one of the most important American songwriters of the last 30 years goes
without saying. However, in my never-ending quest for superfluity, I just said
it. And I’ll say it again, but this time using different words. To attempt to
classify Peter Case’s songwriting, or quantify his impact on American rock ‘n’
roll and roots music, would be an exercise in redundancy. Between his time fronting
the Plimsouls (whose recently released Live:
Beg, Borrow & Steal, recorded in 1981, finds the band in particularly
blistering from) and his extensive solo catalog, Case’s sphere of influence is
damn near all-encompassing.
To that end, I can not think of a
better way to kick off this series than to discuss songwriting – specifically,
the songwriting of Bob Dylan and, more specifically, Dylan’s tune “Jokerman”
from the 1984 album Infidels – with
you remember the first time you heard the tune? I was pretty young when Infidels was released but, growing up,
my dad would usually put on a Dylan record and then play me his favorite tune
from each record. “Jokerman” was that tune from Infidels.
It was 1984 and I was still in the Plimsouls, but outside of a couple tours
that year, we had wound down, and I was just knocking about, living alone in a
tiny pad up in Laurel
(In the same cottage the Melvins eventually moved into, after I split!) I was writing
songs for what was gonna be my first solo LP, and felt like I was on the moon,
’cause I was living at night, isolated, kinda living in my dreams and musical
ideas, and I didn’t have to show up anywhere or anything, it was woodshed time.
It was a good time. I was 30 years old, freed up for the first time from a lot
of things that had been bugging me.
So I picked up the new Dylan LP at Tower on Sunset, and took it straight back
home, threw it on, and was completely transfixed by “Jokerman.”
The first thing that got me about it was the Sly and Robbie groove, unlike
anything I’d heard before; it’s not rock or reggae either, but something new,
very open. As usual with a Dylan record you hear every word. He delivers that
On first listen the song hits you with a strong sense of life, of what it’s
like to be alive in the world at that moment, a sense of now. The complexity, color, seductive sensual lure, sense of
danger, of freedom, of possibility that one feels in the world – call it the modern
world – is all communicated so vividly, that the flash of recognition I felt
upon hearing it, even though I had no
reasonable idea what he was on about, gave me a rush of companionship.
That’s the first thing about the art of his songwriting, he wins you with the
representation of what it’s really like to be alive. And you feel that before
you understand it.
I think “Like A Rolling Stone” did that for its time. And the song
“Dignity” hit me with that kind of force, when I first heard it on
the radio, and had to pull the car over. It’s a hugely exciting thing. I’m not
sure to this day that I could say I understand the song really. But I find it
The lines about ships, mist, snakes, glowing eyes… all were like kindling. I
went up in flames when he hit: “freedom just around the corner for you /
but with the truth so far off what good will it do?”
That’s what I mean about him reflecting the true complexity of being alive,
instead of the party line, which would be something like : “Gotta get
free!” or “I’m free but with freedom comes responsibility.” You
know, “freedom: good!” I was in a period of my life when I felt a bit
of freedom, but the nagging thoughts about the validity of what I was doing
were unexpressed, kinda murkily swimming about in my mind, then presto! Dylan’s said it, and I’m pushed
into a new dimension of thought. All of this I just felt, though, on that first
“So swiftly the sun sets in the sky,” yeah especially if like me
you’re getting up in the afternoon and turning night into day. “You rise
up and say goodbye to no one.” Check. “Shedding off one more layer of
skin, staying one step ahead of the persecutor within.” He does it again
with this one. Shedding off skin: sounds good, that’s what I was trying to do;
reinvent myself, renew my musical vision, evade the weights and mistakes of my
past. “One step ahead of the persecutor.” It was like he was reading
my mind. I’d been feeling guilty for my impulse to ditch the band and go solo,
though it seemed necessary from a purely artistic point of view. So, those
lines hit me too.
As they would anybody I think, who was actively going through the kind of
changes life threw on individuals at that time, which is still this time, by the way. The struggle of
freedom, guilt, knowledge, power, foolishness, that we all experience.
The groove, the Sly & Robbie thing.
Not to get too anthropological about it but I have always found White Guy
Reggae and White Guy Blues to be really hollow and hokey, with a few exceptions
– you and Dylan being two of them. What do you think it is that he taps into,
and that you tapped into, that so many imitators can’t get their heads and
White guy blues? Well, the first thing about that is, a white guy can’t really
be a blues singer now. I’m not sure there really can be any blues singers now,
in the way there once were.
Bob Dylan uses roots music to tell his story, his way. That’s what I try to do
as well. But you have to know your limits. Dylan is the best at that, he’s got
that “bullshit detector” that lots of people talk about. It better be
real or forget about it.
I grew up in a house when blues and jazz and early rock and roll were just
coming out, and the records were constantly being played on our record player,
and my sister and her friends (who were all about the same age as Dylan) were
attempting to play the music, too, on piano and other instruments. And that
50’s music was all blues-based, or country. And then there was Elvis, who I
experienced as a three-year-old. He’s the original white boy with the rockin’
blues. I feel like he died for my honky ass, so I could sing any kind of music
I can feel. He had the feeling on the Sun Records, and the early RCA, and I
just soaked it up. Also the Everly’s, Chuck Berry, Link Wray (the first heavy guitar), Ritchie Valens, Fats
Domino, and Little Richard and Jerry Lee on TV. All of that is blues.
Then Dylan and the Stones, Beatles too, and I followed the streams and
discovered Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and
I just loved all of that so much. And it got deeper from there. Howlin’ Wolf,
and Robert Johnson, McTell, Gary Davis, etc. I just loved it and listened
endlessly. And kept trying to play
and sing it, and I hated what I
sounded like at 17, 18 years old, so young and white and reedy. It was embarrassing. The story of all this is
in my book, As Far As You Can Get Without
Somewhere in there it all opened up to me, but you still gotta keep a sense of
humor, and the bullshit detector trained on yourself. Look out!
You gotta work to be yourself, sing
through the influences.
I often wonder about Dylan’s tunes – as
many do, I’m sure – how much of himself does he put into the characters? Do you
feel at all like this song is Dylan addressing Dylan?
“Jokerman,” that’s him singing about himself, and maybe about Jesus in verse
three, and maybe about the silence of God at the end. But it’s also anybody.
The Fool, jokers trying to get serious (by that I mean living with their eyes
open), not “asleep ‘neath the stars with a small dog licking your
face”; an image of a childish, maybe foolish sort, but also attractive in
a way.. The nightingale’s tune, is that like Keats’ Nightingale, the Muse, or
Imagination? Flying high by the moon, that is almost in the dark, moony, lunar,
almost lunatic inspiration, like the sub conscious, or unconscious (I mix them
up!) which it always seems like Dylan relies on. For example, he always insists
the songs come “through him” and the creation of his early work had
to do with “power and dominion over the spirits.”
It does seem like he is singing, at least in part, about himself. And it’s
relevant to you and me, to the degree we want to apply it.
I love the
notion of Dylan conveying clearly what it means to be alive. I’ve read a lot of
criticism of his writing as cold, detached, esoteric, inaccessible, and I think
that’s just nonsense. What he does is tap into the most universal experiences
and distill their complexity into one or two lines. Had you heard
“Jokerman” ten years earlier or later, how drastically different
would the impact have been?
Well, there’s a great difference between his best work and his other stuff.
“Jokerman” is one of his great songs, right in there with the best of
the early work, and the best of the 70’s. One of the things that makes it great
is this really alive quality it has, which isn’t present in some other songs.
“Neighborhood Bully” doesn’t have this kind of impact, whatever you
think of its message. “Man Of Peace,” likewise. I think “Union
Sundown” is a great piece of work, but as a song lyric, though it’s good,
maybe someone else could have written it. He merely covers the subject. Another
song like that, from a later album, is “Everything’s Broken” from Oh Mercy. It’s strong, complete, but not
necessarily “Dylan-esque,” in that it’s not communicating that
super-vivid and 360 degree sense of life, of what’s it like to be alive at that
moment. And when you hear the songs that have that quality, it’s like a mirror,
or a trick window. You almost feel as if you’re looking through reality,
getting a glimpse “behind the screen,” and that’s what makes it so
So some of it is cold, detached, etc., but people need to hear his great stuff.
His Greatest Hits, Volume 3 is pretty
powerful, for that reason.
If you don’t get Bob Dylan, you don’t get much, in my opinion. Complaints about
his voice are a sure sign of ignorance of music and history. It’s not a matter
of taste. It’s a matter of mind or not. I know as time goes on it may be harder
for younger people to get in on, but it’s worth trying to find the door in. A
whole universe opens up.
A lot of it comes down to words. Can you relate to another mind, as related in
language? Beyond the either/ors of binary choice: Democrat/Republican? Hot/Not?
Young/Old? Yes/No on this or that issue? Pro choice/Pro-Life, etc. Talk about
manipulation and dream twisting. The media are reducing everything to sound
bites and pablum.
But we all know that. Sorry. The point is love of language.
Dylan comes into that spiritual and mental gridlock and makes entirely new
roads through it, expresses true thoughts of a lightning mind, and we get a
huge blast of energy from it. Which is why it’s always Christmas when his
records come out.
Kasey Anderson is a songwriter, singer, dog owner and bacon enthusiast from Portland, Oregon. His three albums, Dead Roses (2004), The Reckoning (2007), and Nowhere Nights (2010) have earned plenty of praise from critics (No Depression, USA
Today, The Onion) but, unfortunately, have not as yet yielded the
Swedish Fish endorsement Anderson so badly desires. If you’d like to
have Kasey Anderson sing, play harmonica and strum a guitar at you,
you’ll find him on tour all spring and summer (dates and info available
or if you’d simply like to read on as Anderson discusses various songs
with other artists, writers, friends and cohorts, you’re in the right