Bob Dylan Goes Punk on Late Night with David Letterman, Playing “Jokerman” with the Latino Punk Band, the Plugz (1984)

Lis­ten to Bob Dylan’s stu­dio albums all you like; you don’t know his music until you hear the live ver­sions. That, at least, is the con­clu­sion at which I’ve arrived after spend­ing the bet­ter part of the past year lis­ten­ing through Dylan’s stu­dio discog­ra­phy. This is not to put him into the mold of the Grate­ful Dead, whose stu­dio albums come a dis­tant sec­ond in impor­tance to their vast body of live record­ings. It was sure­ly the songs pre­served on the likes of High­way 61 Revis­it­edBlood on the Tracks, and Love and Theft, after all, that won Dylan the Nobel Prize. But in a sense he’s nev­er stopped writ­ing these same songs, often sub­ject­ing them to brazen styl­is­tic and lyri­cal changes when he launch­es into them onstage.

This self-rein­ter­pre­ta­tion occa­sion­al­ly pro­duces what Dylan’s fans con­sid­er a new defin­i­tive ver­sion. Per­haps the most agreed-upon exam­ple is “Jok­er­man,” the open­er to his 1983 album Infi­dels (and the basis for one of his ear­li­est MTV music videos), which he per­formed the fol­low­ing year on the still-new Late Night with David Let­ter­man.

As Vul­ture’s Matthew Giles puts it, Let­ter­man was fast becom­ing “a com­e­dy sen­sa­tion, bring­ing a new lev­el of sar­casm, irony, and Bud Mel­man-cen­tric humor to a late-night for­mat still reliant on the smooth unflap­pa­bil­i­ty of John­ny Car­son.” Dylan had been going in the oth­er direc­tion, “hav­ing frus­trat­ed his audi­ence with the musi­cal­ly slick, lyri­cal­ly hec­tor­ing series of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian albums that he’d released in the late 70s and ear­ly 80s.”

By 1984, “Dave was far more of a coun­ter­cul­ture hero than Bob.” But Dylan had been sur­rep­ti­tious­ly prepar­ing for his next musi­cal trans­for­ma­tion: many were the nights he would “leave his Mal­ibu home and slip into shows by the likes of L.A. punk stal­warts X, or check out the San­ta Mon­i­ca Civic Cen­ter when the Clash came to town.” For accom­pa­ni­ment on the Let­ter­man gig he brought drum­mer J.J. Hol­i­day,  as well as Char­lie Quin­tana and bassist Tony Mar­si­co of the LA punk band the Plugz, with whom he’d been spent the pre­vi­ous few months jam­ming. It isn’t until they take Let­ter­man’s stage that Dylan tells the band what to open with: blues­man Son­ny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talk­ing.”

Just above, you can see Dylan’s rehearsal for the Let­ter­man show. It fea­tures five tracks–“I Once Knew a Man,” “License to Kill,” “Treat Her Right,” “My Guy,” and a ren­di­tion of “Jok­er­man” that turns the orig­i­nal’s reg­gae into stripped-down, hard-dri­ving rock. The styl­is­tic change seems to infuse the 42-year-old Dylan with a new sense of musi­cal vital­i­ty. As for the song itself, its lyrics — cryp­tic even by Dylan’s stan­dards — take on new mean­ings when charged by the young band’s ener­gy. But even in this high­ly con­tem­po­rary musi­cal con­text, Dylan keeps it “clas­sic” by bring­ing out the har­mon­i­ca for a final solo, though not with­out some con­fu­sion as to which key he need­ed. If any­thing, that mix-up makes the song even more punk — or maybe post-punk, pos­si­bly new wave, but in any case thor­ough­ly Dylan.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Bob Dylan Plays Tom Petty’s “Learn­ing to Fly” Live in Con­cert (and How Pet­ty Wit­nessed Dylan’s Musi­cal Epiphany in 1987)

Bob Dylan & The Grate­ful Dead Rehearse Togeth­er in Sum­mer 1987: Hear 74 Tracks

Watch Bob Dylan Per­form “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” His Damn­ing Song About the Mur­der of Medgar Evers, at the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton

Bob Dylan at the White House

How Bob Dylan Cre­at­ed a Musi­cal & Lit­er­ary World All His Own: Four Video Essays

75 Post-Punk and Hard­core Con­certs from the 1980s Have Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Fugazi, GWAR, Lemon­heads, Dain Bra­m­age (with Dave Grohl) & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (10)
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  • brnpttmn says:

    Daniel Romano’s Out­fit re-imag­ined Bob Dylan’s Infi­dels as if it were record­ed with the Plugz. It’s pret­ty great

  • Tony Gilkyson says:

    JJ Hol­i­day is a superb gui­tarist. Char­lie Quin­tana played drums.

  • Paul Tatara says:

    The lyrics to “Jok­er­man” may be rel­a­tive­ly cryp­tic, but cer­tain­ly not more so than about 122 oth­er Dylans songs!

  • Robert Escobar says:

    As a seri­ous Dylan fan(atic), this ver­sion of Jok­er­man is my favorite live per­for­mance of his.

  • brian armstrong says:

    That’s not a cov­er of Don’t Start Me Talkin’. They’re not even real­ly close, oth­er than both being 12 bar blues songs. This Once Knew A Man song seems to be either an uncred­it­ed Dylan orig­i­nal or else a cov­er of some­thing that nobody can find the orig­i­nal of.

  • Margaret says:

    You were great!!! If this is a pre­view of your com­ing con­certs we are in for the best!!! Don’t miss Bob Dylan!!!Better than ever.….

  • Chris Meserve says:

    Does any­one have a record­ing or know of one from Pat­ter­son New York, August 11, 1994 at the birch pavil­ion? He start­ed with Jok­er­man and it absolute­ly left me sock­less. Actu­al­ly an amaz­ing con­cert too. My favorite Dylan con­cert. One of those con­certs where you are go OK this is why every­body was so excit­ed. Acoustic riffs on it’s all over now baby blue that were end­less and celes­tial. Small fam­i­ly Skis­lope venue down the road from where are used to live. Just pitch per­fect. Sin­cere, soul­ful Dylan, steady Tiger.

  • David Vasquez says:

    I grew up with and played with Char­lie Quin­tana before he left to form the Plugz with Tito Lar­ri­va in LA.I was elat­ed to see him play with Dylan and fol­lowed their career.Thank you for this chance to see it again.I miss Char­lie.

  • Bill Waquoit says:

    I’m pret­ty sure I read that these guys nev­er saw Dylan again.

  • Paul says:


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