“Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants
Oh, Jokerman, you don’t show any response.”—Bob Dylan, “Jokerman”
In the late 1960s, legendary adman George Lois created the “celebrity odd couple” campaign for Braniff Airlines. To underscore the diversity of passengers who enjoy Braniff’s service, Lois placed mismatched famous travelers together under the tag line, “When you got it—flaunt it.” In Lois’s ad world, pop artist Andy Warhol chats with boxer Sonny Liston; mystery writer Mickey Spillane flirts with prim poet Marianne Moore; and pitcher Whitey Ford dishes with surrealist Salvador Dali.
One would have thought that artist Bob Dylan and adman George Lois belong in that fictional world too. But the men were more compatible than anyone could have realized.
Lois, the prototypical Mad Man, was advertising’s street fighting man, the leader of the design revolution of the ‘60s. He learned his trade at the ad colossus Doyle Dane Bernbach and then launched his first company, Papert Koenig Lois, in 1960 with fellow DDB renegades. At DDB, he learned how to sell “big-idea” thinking, juxtaposing crisp, clean visuals with strong, emphatic text. Lois and his colleagues dreamed up the defining ad of the era, the Volkswagen beetle combined with the words “Think Small.”
The campaign defied the received wisdom about ads and rocked the entire advertising world, including the fictional agency of Sterling Cooper from the AMC series Mad Men. The beetle ad was the opening image of the third episode and flummoxed the firm’s conventional executives. Lois summarized his Madison Avenue-shaking philosophy for the American Institute of Graphic Arts: “Everything I did was looking for the Big Idea, but you’re not going to get an idea thinking visually in most cases. You have to think in words, then add the visual. Then you can make one plus one equal three.”
Lois’ groundbreaking art direction revolutionized design the way that Dylan transformed popular music. Lois’ recollection of the agency world doesn’t sound that much different from Dylan’s Greenwich Village scene happening concurrently: “There was an arrogance that everyone had, but it was a closed club. I was a guy who worked a little differently. Edgier. More punch-in-the-mouth.” His covers for Esquire would define the decade’s tumult with witty, bold imagery, much like Dylan’s hallucinatory lyrics on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Whether it was Muhammad Ali portrayed as a suffering St. Stephen or Andy Warhol drowning in a Campbell’s soup can, Lois’s work exemplified a willingness to shock his audience.
Like Dylan, the audacious Lois fused high and low art, ancient and modern traditions, highbrow and pop cultures. Throughout his career he stayed true to his credo, which he described in a lecture at the University of Texas: “I was hungering to get my face into changing culture, my way. I like to do things that change people’s minds.” His Esquire covers, now hanging on the walls of the Modern of Modern Art, still possess that ability to engage.
In 1965, Lois created a cover for Esquire’s college issue that fused the faces of four icons into one face: Dylan, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, and John Kennedy. Provocatively, the composite face was put into a rifle sight. For Lois, the creativity and innovation of the times that these “heroes” represented were intermingled with death and loss. Later, he would remark about the cover, with a nod to Virgil’s Aeneid, that only Dylan remained to “sing of that violent revolting age.”
Lois and Dylan would first cross paths in the mid-‘70s, brought together in a movement to free wrongly convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Lois was one of the developers of the Hurricane Trust Fund, whose ranks included film director William Friedkin, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Norman Mailer. Lois designed the letterhead and ads that connected Carter to past victims of injustice: Dreyfus, the Scottsboro Boys, Sacco and Vanzetti. He and co-organizer Richard Solomon engaged Dylan to become active in the fight for a retrial, resulting in Dylan’s writing the anthem “Hurricane” and his performing at two benefit concerts.
Lois also figures prominently in Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book On the Road With Bob Dylan, a gonzo account of the first incarnation of the Rolling Thunder Tour, during which “Hurricane” was played at every stop, most notably at the Correctional Institution for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. Ratso describes Lois as “one crazy motherfucker” and details an uproarious phone conversation between the minstrel and the adman, as both try to get the lyrics of “Hurricane” factually right. (Lois to Dylan: “Now in stanza seven it should be Bello that says, ‘I’m really not sure!’ ... Wait a minute, no I’m sorry, that is Bradley saying that, yeah, yeah, I’m mixed up now.”)
Later, in the early ‘80s, Dylan tested evangelical Christianity while Lois helped to convert America’s young to music video. He designed the “I Want My MTV” campaign, which helped establish the cable service as a major player in the music business. (Many years earlier, Lois had revitalized the slogan of a breakfast food, “I Want My Maypo” with photos of athletes or muscular teenagers.) Dylan was hesitant to embrace the new format; in 1985 he told Scott Cohen of Spin that videos were “out of character” for him, even though many point to the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opening of Don’t Look Back as a pioneering video avant le lettre. Dylan’s first true effort into the form, however, was an uninspired promo for “Sweetheart Like You” in 1983. The second outing for the Infidels album—for “Jokerman”—would be crucial if Dylan were to have viability in the new visual order.
Lois remembers being contacted by Bill Graham and Ratso Sloman to help conceptualized this pivotal video. An ardent believer in storyboarding to organize ideas, Lois was inspired by phrases of Dylan’s lyrics to make a tapestry of images from various cultures and eras using reproductions from his private library of art books. Dylan reportedly wanted a Rainer Werner Fassbinder interpretation of “Neighborhood Bully” instead of “Jokerman,” but when he experienced Lois’s vision strung out in the Mad Man’s office, he acquiesced. Sloman recalled the adman’s methods of persuasion: “Lois began his lecture: Now, when you say ‘You were born with a snake in both of your fists,’ that’s the Minoan snake goddess from Crete, circa 1500 B.C. Case closed. That’s what you meant, right Bob?”
In its six stanzas “Jokerman” conjures complex and often contradictory images of creation and destruction. Dylan told Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone that he wrote the song while in the Caribbean: “It’s very mystical. The shapes, there, and shadows, seem to be so ancient.” Dylan’s eponymous Jokerman seems ancient indeed, very Shiva like, both a creator and destroyer. “Jokerman” has always frustrated listeners: Who is Dylan really singing about? If it is about himself, the singer indeed has a messianic (or satanic) complex. Or perhaps he is joking about these hubristic tendencies. With the enigmatic Dylan, you never know. But Lois thought he did. His video, perhaps the most evocative of any promo Dylan has made, suggests what happens when two visionaries collaborate.
This partnership started with the words, just as it had in Lois’s advertising days. Dylan would play the copywriter to Lois’s art director. Lois framed the video with two images about artistic metamorphosis. The video commences with the provocative self-portrait of the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer as Jesus Christ. Dürer was notoriously obsessed with his own image, and his messianic conception of himself was at once spiritual and overreaching, just like Dylan’s song. In one Big Idea, Lois captures the essence of the opening lines: “Standing on the water, casting your bread”.
Following his ad-business training, Lois superimposed Dylan’s fiery lyrics over the iconographic panorama, a technique he jokingly labeled “poetry right in your fuckin’ face.” Most of Lois’s pictorial choices imaginatively focus on one salient element of the lyric. For example, in the first stanza, Joseph Turner’s apocalyptic The Slave Ship complements “Distant ships sailing into the mist” and William Blake’s Man in Bondage from The Book of Urizen illustrates “But with truth so far off, what good would it do?” Sometimes his technique is a bit too literal and heavy-handed; sometimes it’s pure poetry—not unlike Dylan’s output in the 1980s. (The complete list of the Jokerman visuals can be found Expecting Rain.com)
Throughout the video, Lois reproduces art from various epochs, referencing everything from Sumerian idols of 2700 B.C. to modernists Georgia O’Keeffe and Picasso. He also utilizes pictures of Dylan from his various phases of his shape-shifting career. Dylan is first seen in a cartoon version of Milton Glaser’s iconic poster, this time with his colorized hair moving to “while the hurricane was blowing.” In the second stanza Lois cuts to sixteen images of Dylan during the self-referential couplet, “Shedding off one more layer of skin, Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.” Lois leaves no doubt that Dylan, whether fresh-faced folkie or grizzled Rolling Thunder gypsy, has always been a Jokerman.
Lois also throws in many 20th century images of destructive power as well. “You’re a dream twister” evokes Hitler; “You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, but what do you care” suggests atomic warfare, and the evil side of the Jokerman is conjured up by a dissolve of Batman’s Joker into a “Hear No Evil” Ronald Reagan, with thumbs comically thrust in his ears. Lois also uses two of his own Esquire covers to examine this dark side: the martyred Muhammad Ali and the ghosts of the assassinated Kennedys and Martin Luther King at Arlington. Is the Mad Man also a Jokerman?
The video’s final image is an animated reworking of Magritte’s Painted Death Mask, which depicts Napoleon’s death mask with clouds and blue sky in 1935. Almost 50 years later, Lois updates this design with an animation of Dylan’s muted profile, now layered with Magritte-like clouds. As Magritte transformed a relic of human ambition into a new reality (he originally titled the work “The Future of Statues”), so Lois uses it to underline the potential of another creative transformation: This time the Emperor does not become frozen in time, but the artist, in fact, is transmogrified into Art, as the nightingale, with all its Keatsian resonance, flies into the frame.
Lois offers up artwork from a 5,000-year span to raise questions about creativity. We are asked not to Think Small, but universal. Dylan’s lyrics remain as elusive as ever, but the Jokerman of the video seems a constant in human civilization, for good and evil. One of Lois’s most quoted remarks captures the essence of his Jokerman: “The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
Most anecdotes about the filming of “Jokerman” focus on Dylan’s reluctance to open his eyes as he sings the refrain about the nightingale tune. (“Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune / Bird fly high by the light of the moon”). Lois wanted a flat perspective to mirror the Renaissance paintings in the video, so he shot from a distance with a telephoto lens. In take after take, Dylan, dressed in white, refused to engage the camera. Several witnesses blamed Dylan’s anxiety about the whole video process, a way to subvert the system that turns your song into an ad for itself.
But perhaps, Dylan, having seen the historical storyboard, was playing a role from long time ago: the ancient blind prophet of Thebes, Teiresias, or his 20th century counterpart, Willie McTell. Whatever his motivation, he briefly opens his eyes during the last chorus and the look is pure Greek drama: the singer becomes the seer.
Despite the artistry and erudition, or because of it, “Jokerman” did not break into MTV’s rotation. At six minutes, the video was long and especially theatrical. The animated sequences were neither cutting edge nor state of the art, certainly compared with “You Might Think” by the Cars, one of the year’s more heralded videos. The advertising guy who actually made it on MTV, Bob Giraldi, emphasized stories and performance, best exemplified by Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”.
But among most critics and Dylanologists, Jokerman is held in high esteem. Biographer Clinton Heylin calls it “one of the most innovative from the video age” while MTV elder statesman Kurt Loder says it “makes most run-of-the-mill rock video slook like the glorified cola commercials they generally are.” Critic Paul Williams is one of the few naysayers, finding the video “pretentious,” without the song’s “magic or grace.” Lois himself was pleased that Dylan the poet was finally heard and read at the same time.
Dylan’s immediate impression in Rolling Stone was not so high falutin’ or literary: “All I saw was a shot of me from my mouth to my forehead on screen. I figure, ‘Isn’t that somethin’? I’m paying for that?” Jokerman, indeed.