‘Jokerman’ is a song that stands out like an alligator trying to blend into a precession of crocodiles in the back catalogue of Bob Dylan. The main reason for this is because it is utterly berserk. Before you get into the utterly anti-Dylan musicology, you have to deal with the wild cascade of imagery in the truly surrealist unspooling lyric sheet.
Thus, Dylan must’ve one day begged the question: ‘What could make this song stranger?’ The answer was to perform it on Late Night with David Letterman accompanied by the Latino punk band the Plugz. It is neither a punk song nor does it have any South American musical intonations, but it is incongruous and perhaps that is what brough about the fittingly unfamiliar team up, as though two odds make an obvious.
After a fallow period for Dylan when critics and many fellow musicians alike panned his Born-Again phase, he decided not to return to the tried and tested, but push on once more, like a rolling oddball refusing to gather moss. With a sleek soundscape, the original vagabond sings of snakes in a baby’s grasp, hurricanes, dream twisters and a Jokerman dancing to a nightingale tune.
At the time when Dylan made his Letterman appearance in 1984, the talk show host was the eponymous ‘Jokerman’ himself. Comedy was hot and folk was old hat. The alternative outspoken voice of Letterman was the wry leftfield voice that in its own way echoed a generation. Thus, you could certainly argue the toss that his backing was an important factor in Dylan’s revival.
He welcomed him onto his hot show as a hero and allowed him to reinvent himself for the thousandth time. As Dylan once said, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep, I know for certain I’m somebody else.” All well and good – it’s a given, in fact, in the ever-evolving life and times of the folk poet – but what of the Plugz, his latest reinvention engine?
Hailing from Los Angeles, The Plugz were one of the first artists to meld punk with Latino when they emerged in 1977, giving them a kinship with Dylan who took the timeless old ways of folk and paired it with the visceral emerging edge of rock ‘n’ roll. However, it is the dying embers of the band which we see appearing with Dylan as they disbanded in 1984, the same year as this unique appearance. Afterwards, they welcomed Steven Hufsteter to their ranks and were renamed as the Cruzados.
With a Patti Smith Group sound, Dylan and The Plugz really had something going. While the Los Angeles punks were acclaimed, they never quite received the recognition they deserved, thus, on this big break appearance they give it their all and that eager freshness is reflected in the sound. It’s like Dylan and the band are joyous newcomers. In a way, they were, and that makes for a truly scintillating performance.