In 1972, Bob Dylan was an artist in crisis. The decade had opened with the release of Self Portrait, garnering him the worst reviews of his career. Although follow-up New Morning had been more warmly received, it was still considered to be several rungs below his string of ‘60s successes.
Dylan hadn’t enjoyed a chart-topping single since 1969’s “Lay Lady Lay”, had not toured since 1966, and rarely appeared in public. Negotiations with Columbia Records and Warner Brothers were stalling due to Dylan’s apparent reluctance to record. In the past two years, he had only released two singles; one of those singles, “Watching the River Flow” made his creative struggles explicit: “What’s the matter with me? I don’t have much to say.”
Unsatisfied with the direction of his music career, Dylan shifted his focus to Hollywood. His work on the concert film Eat the Document had primed his interest in becoming a filmmaker, and Dylan and producer Harold Leventhal discussed directing an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory. Dylan had also been in talks as early as 1964 to make his acting debut, but had turned down all offers. After learning of an upcoming movie based on Billy the Kid, however, he met with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer to discuss a possible role. Dylan’s resulting involvement with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid broke his seclusion in Woodstock and reinvigorated his creativity. It also inspired “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, which would become the first song written for Blood on the Tracks.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid traces the outlaw’s final months as he is pursued by friend-turned-sheriff Pat Garrett, who has been hired by a group of rich cattle barons to drive him out of town. When Billy ignores Garrett’s pleas to leave Fort Sumner for Mexico, the sheriff is forced to kill him. Death hangs over every scene of the film. The plot is minimal and elliptical, time drags, then leaps forward. Characters recall friends who died and accuse the survivors of having changed. Nearly everyone kills someone or dies, or both. Each frame brings Billy closer to his ultimate fate. When Garrett at last shoots Billy, he also shoots his own reflection — literally and figuratively. The film is not just mourning a folk hero, but a way of life lost decades before.
With Pat Garrett, Wurlitzer and Peckinpah had created an allegory for the death of the ‘60s. Freedom and revolution were being wiped out by greed and reactionary politics, and the heroes of the era — including Dylan — were fading into irrelevancy. Producer Gordon Carroll recognized the parallels between the Old West outlaws and rock stars, and had early on considered Dylan and Mick Jagger for the role of Billy.
“That was the story that could tell what it must be like to live all of your life in one incandescent span,” said Carroll in an interview with Paul Seydor. “Then, what is it like when that short period is over? Your incandescence is over. You’re alive and you’re twenty-four and you’ve got all the rest of your life to be somebody that you used to be.”
Inspired by Wurlitzer’s screenplay, Dylan wrote and performed the ballad Billy for Sam Peckinpah. The director, although unfamiliar with Dylan’s past work, was impressed and immediately cast him in the role of the mysterious Alias.
Although the character of Alias had existed in Wurlitzer’s early drafts, it would be easy to mistake the taciturn stranger as a stand-in for Dylan himself. Alias is a man on the fringes, an inscrutable presence with a mysterious smile. He wears a different hat in each of his scenes, a visual gag that seems to acknowledge Dylan’s protean identity: folkie troubadour, hipster rock poet, county crooner. The rotating hats also represent the ease with which the character switches alliances.
After witnessing Billy’s escape, Alias tosses his printer’s apron to the floor with no comment or expression. We later see him consorting with a group of bounty hunters pursuing the outlaw. When Billy arrives, however, Alias joins him in slaughtering the bounty hunters.
Alias spends much of the film riding with the Kid, but more as an observer than a participant. This lack of commitment marks him as one of the film’s few survivors, a man who can adapt to the changing West. His former newspaper job — and his voice on the soundtrack, singing about Billy — identifies Alias with Dylan the mythmaker, the chronicler of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Death of Emmitt Till”, the voice of a generation. And after all, what is Bob Dylan but an alias? Although the Alias character fit the Bob Dylan persona, Dylan himself identified with Billy the Kid. So it’s little surprise that the hero of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is an amalgam of the two.
Like Billy the Kid, the Jack of Hearts is the charming criminal, respected by men and adored by women. Instead of murder, however, Jack opts for the less-gruesome crimes of burglary and bank robbery. Diamond mine owner Big Jim is Dylan’s Pat Garrett in the composition, the representation of the capitalist interests overtaking the West. Much like his namesake card, Jack only shows one side of himself at all times — and since his name is an alias, even that one side is suspect.
Throughout the song, Dylan describes his quasi-protagonist as “lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts” or being “face down like the Jack of Hearts”; “there was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.” If he isn’t the Jack of Hearts, then who is he? This disassociation from identity echoes Dylan’s famous declaration at the 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall: “It’s Halloween. I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on.” Alias may be unknowable, but the Jack of Hearts is a true cipher. Does he even exist, or is he nothing more than a card in Lily’s poker game?
The enigma of the Jack of Hearts is just one aspect of “Lily” that Dylan leaves as an exercise for the listener. The song’s plot seems at first to be standard Wild West heist/romance. Look closely, however, and the tale is a painting by Seurat, where none of the dots quite connect. Dylan presents events in seemingly random order, omitting key details and conflating identities. Why, for example, is there wet paint in Lily’s dressing room before Jack’s men drill through the wall? Surely the paint is wet afterward, when the cabaret is closed for repairs. Whose “cold revolver” clicked? Was Jack the actor in the monk costume? Why was Lily rinsing dye out of her hair? The result resembles nothing as much as an old folk ballad, whose lines have been altered and verses rearranged by each new teller until the original meaning is obscured.
The most puzzling question, however, is whether the Jack of Hearts survives the end of the tale. Dylan states only that Jack is “missin’,” leaving his accomplices waiting by the riverbed. His description of the day after the heist is ominous: the sky is “overcast and black,” Rosemary hangs from the gallows, and Big Jim lies under a sheet, penknife still in his back. Even if Jack did manage to escape this time, Pat Garrett reminds us that the Big Jims of the West will win out in the end. As Lily once said, Jack’s luck will eventually run out – “I guess you must have known it would someday.”
By leaving open the possibility that the Jack of Hearts survives, Dylan cast off the history of the West in favor of his own version of the myth. Jack’s escape proved that Dylan could succeed without burning out, like Billy the Kid, or selling out, like Pat Garrett, but the life of an outlaw requires complete freedom, something incompatible with the responsibilities of being a married father.
In his 1979 essay “Dylan: What Happened?”, Paul Williams writes that this realization is what led Dylan to abandon his marriage:
“Dylan as the Jack of Hearts, in the midst of things and outside it all, irresistible to women, impeccable in his timing, living by his wits and charm and awareness of the cosmic joke. What a marvelous temptation – far beyond any ordinary offer of wealth or women or fame. How could he refuse to try out for the part?”
Pat Garrett would prove a persistent influence in Dylan’s ensuing mid-‘70s revival. His original motion picture soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid resulted in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, a much-needed hit that became one of his best-known compositions. Western imagery and the mythologizing of modern folk heroes (including Rubin Carter and Joey Gallo) would become common threads throughout this era, particularly on the 1976 album Desire. Dylan even dedicated “Romance in Durango” to Peckinpah in concert.
The role of Alias was not the last time that Dylan would experiment with film. Given the cinematic origins of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, it came as no surprise that Dylan attempted to turn the composition into a movie. Writers John Kaye and James Byron both drafted screenplays, but the idea was eventually dropped. Dylan also lost Bound for Glory to director Hal Ashby and star David Carradine. Instead, Dylan made 1978’s Renaldo and Clara, a four-hour experimental/concert film reflecting his fascination with fractured time and identity. While Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid had sparked a new creative period in Dylan’s life, Renaldo and Clara, a box office failure, would prove that even creative geniuses could overextend their reach.
(Sally O’Rourke is a New York-based freelancer with an MA in advertising. She also blogs about Billboard number-one singles at nohardchords.wordpress.com.)