I was just reading through my email and TPM Reader MMD sent me a couple Dylan videos that I don’t think I’d ever seen before, along with touching on some topics we’d both remember as kids growing up in Southern California in the 1980s.
I’m sort of surprised that I’d never seen these videos before because not only am I a big Dylan fan (which you know) but I’m also a big, big Letterman fan. Or at least I was in his early years. I was really into Letterman from the very beginning. In fact, before he got the late night show he had some kind of morning or daytime show that I vaguely remember watching too.
In any case, this is from 1984, which as MMD notes is something like the peak of Letterman’s fame and maybe the nadir of Dylan’s. The songs are from Dylan’s album Infidels and one the I’m going to show you below is ‘Jokerman’. ‘Jokerman’ is pretty high on my list of Dylan songs. It has some elements of Dylan’s characteristically beautiful and grotesque oracular lyrics. But almost two decades on from the mid-60s years this dimension of his music is most associated with. The studio version of ‘Jokerman’ is highly produced – a very smooth, kind of lightly reggae-inflected song. Here’s the studio version in the form of the early music video that went with it.
Now, the Letterman version is very, very different. As MMD explained before I watched, it’s basically a punk version. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that before I watched it. But he noted that Dylan’s backing band here was a early eighties LA Punk band called The Plugz that he was a fan of at the time, among the first Latino punk bands. They started in 1977 and disbanded the year of this mini-concert on Letterman.
Dylan is perhaps above all else an experimenter. And here you have this song I know extremely well totally transformed. It’s a very punkified version of a very non-punk song, with the very tight guitar and bass cycles rapid-fire, aggressive velocity and even the get-ups and stage mannerisms.
I was incredibly curious. How did this come about exactly? Well, it turns out in 2015 New York Magazine explained the backstory. Apparently Dylan had it in mind to do a tour like this. But after this Letterman appearance he’d gotten it out of his system and that was it.