Between the Grooves

by PopMatters Staff

27 April 2010


"Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" and "If You See Her, Say Hello"

“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”

Bob Dylan is so better than this.

Here sits Zimmerman, square in the middle of one of the most intensely personal post-break-up albums ever crafted, singing a nearly nine-minute story-song wherein every single verse ends with the phrase “Jack of Hearts”, ultimately adding up to 15 total repetitions, making this very description sound suspiciously like something Arlo Guthrie would tackle. There’s no choruses, there’s no bridges, and—save for a harmonica breakdown near the end—no significant change in instrumentation once during the entire onslaught. No, this is not the work of a master like Bob Dylan: it’s a hokey, jokey premise that, on paper, sounds like a prank being pulled on loyal listeners the world over.

So then why, pray tell, does “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” ultimately come off as one of the finest songs that Dylan has ever recorded?

Simple: Dylan knows convention, and he knows exactly how to subvert it to fit his own needs. Weaving a complex tapestry between two women trapped in relations with a rich, emotionally neglectful man named Big Jim, we learn of a mysterious figure named the Jack of Hearts, a bank-robber who seems to woo and intrigue virtually everyone he comes into contact with. For every verse wherein he appears at the cabaret where the action of the song takes place, there seems to be a matching one wherein he’s notably absent (his fellow burglars patiently wait up for him following their heist, he is conspicuously gone from Rosemary’s execution, yet still lingering in Lily’s mind), making him as slippery and elusive a figure as Dylan has introduced.

Yet, therein lies the intrigue. The Jack of Hearts has clearly defined character traits (a bank-robber, a fine actor, apparently blessed with abilities to take down Big Jim’s bodyguards should he want to), yet at the same time, there remains so much unknown about him. We get no description of his looks, no real idea of what he’s doing at this particular cabaret (distracting diamond magnate Big Jim from the drilling in the nearby wall, being as how the vaults being raided are likely filled with his money?  Wooing the town’s women just for the thrill of it?), and by the time the song is over, we realize that he actually hasn’t said anything to anyone. Even with that, though, you wind up leaving the song with a clearly-defined image of the Jack of Hearts in your mind. You can call it lyrical slight-of-hand if you must, but to evoke such vivid characters from such basic descriptions requires nothing short of true mastery of the craft.

With 15 verses at his disposal (16 if you count the additional one that was thrown in on the Basement Tapes version, whose inclusion winds up completely redefining what Jack’s motivations are), Dylan uses his expressive-as-ever vocal wailings and evocative imagery to describe a scene so cinematic and character-driven that you wind up leaving this song feeling like you left a movie (so much so, in fact, that there are reports that multiple film adaptations have been attempted on this song alone). Although one can certainly read into the language for hints about Dylan’s own crumbling marriage (and why not?—it was recorded on the same day he did “Tangled Up in Blue”, after all), the best way to experience “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is to listen to it yourself and form your own interpretation of what truly happened at the cabaret, if anyone really got what they wanted, and whether or not our mysterious, charismatic, and enigmatic Jack is just one more guise for Dylan himself ... Evan Sawdey



“If You See Her Say Hello”

On what is known as a legendary break-up album—and a particularly vitriolic one at that—“If You See Her, Say Hello” is one of the few moments where Dylan sheathes his sword and offers only unreserved kindness. There is zero hostility when he admits his pain: “Though our separation, it pierced me to the heart / She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart.”  Later, he offers his characteristically sly self-depreciation: “I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off / Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting soft.”  For a man who frequently, and quite capably, cuts down those who wronged him with a handful of words, this is a remarkable display of humility. To strengthen the impact of his words, he delivers them on an aching, twilit melody. Simply put, it’s one of most beautiful and tender moments in Dylan’s catalogue.

Coming where it does in the sequencing of the album (eighth of ten tracks) and with all the harshest barbs preceding it, I like to think of “If You See Her, Say Hello” as the calm after the storm, and the more honest portrait of Dylan at that point in his life: lonely, vulnerable, remorseful and, above all, a romantic. That it is followed by two songs (“Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain”) that further its core sentiments only reinforces my belief. When contrasted against the diatribes “Idiot Wind” and “You’re a Big Girl Now”, the love and tenderness in “If You See Her, Say Hello” feels even more acute. The lesson being that feeling bitter and hostile towards someone you love will get you nowhere. Dylan’s parting words are the offer of an open door tinged with a little hope: “If she’s passing back this way, I’m not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.” Ben Schumer

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