Last September I wrote an unusually irritable post about the Nobel prize for literature. Some of this was sour grapes (I don’t like feeling so poorly read when scanning lists of world-class writers). Some of my complaints though, stemmed from genuine confusion; I really couldn’t understand the logic behind several of the choices and many of the omissions. Happily, my irritation is now over, because I do love the way Bob Dylan uses words.
The Dylan track I always used to insist on my father playing is from the album ‘Blood on the Tracks.’ ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ is not the kind of song I normally get to rave about in public, but this week is the perfect opportunity to share why this is my all-time favourite Western-genre piece of writing and, for my money, one of the best examples of masterfully condensed plotting and structure in literature.
The 9 minute long song tells a story that is both obvious and confusing. We begin with the scene being set:
The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts
This is what good structure is all about. We know that there is a fall coming from the very first line, we have hints of vice and lawlessness and we have a haunting simile that will form the refrain of the story; it’s all about the enigmatic Jack of Hearts.
The anonymous Jack of Heart is not the only character in the song though. Look back at the title. Like all great Westerns (to my mind), this story is about women more than men. While there may be ‘boys’ mentioned in the first line, it is female names that dominate the title. The Jack of Hearts is the mysterious stranger in town, but there are two powerfully realised women who take over as events unfold. First Lily, ‘a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child’. It makes sense that Lily hangs around with Big Jim who owns the town’s diamond mine. It also makes sense that big Jim (when Dylan sings, it almost rhymes with ‘king’) has more than one girl in tow. There’s also Rosemary, though her place in this royal family is less assured; we’re told ‘She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown.’ Shades of Macbeth appear when she ‘started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife’, but the plot has several more twists to go before all characters come to their foreshadowed ends.
The story itself has more cuts and odd perspectives than a Guy Ritchie film, and the overall impression is that you’ve got nearly, but not quite, enough information to fully understand what’s happening, if only it wasn’t happening so fast. A bit like life itself. I love the wealth of incidental detail that ratchets up the tension (one man in the saloon is the ‘hangin’ judge… being wined and dined‘), all the while diverting you away from what’s actually happening. I love the contradictions that start to build up as the story progresses, because you can’t have a good heist without a lot of lies floating around. Most of all I love the economic narrative that delivers my favourite crime story in under 10 minutes. Trust me, there’s enough detail packed in for a whole novel’s worth of enjoyment.
I’m thrilled to have a 21st century Nobel literature laureate that I can really get behind. In my previous post I was confused by the presence of philosophers, statesmen and general ‘men of letters’ on the list. A poet and songwriter is good by me though, especially when it’s one who can write such a wonderful story.
For the full lyrics of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ click here. I’d provide a link to the song being performed but I’m not clear on the copyright so I just hope you’ll seek it out.