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 Revisited, Blood 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.
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
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.
Daniel Romano’s Outfit re-imagined Bob Dylan’s Infidels as if it were recorded with the Plugz. It’s pretty great
JJ Holiday is a superb guitarist. Charlie Quintana played drums.
The lyrics to “Jokerman” may be relatively cryptic, but certainly not more so than about 122 other Dylans songs!
As a serious Dylan fan(atic), this version of Jokerman is my favorite live performance of his.
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.
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…..
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.
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.
I’m pretty sure I read that these guys never saw Dylan again.