Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Infidels: Look Into the Fiery Furnace

Released October 27, 1983

Some notes I jotted down after a recent listen of Bob Dylan's 1983 LP Infidels

1) "Jokerman" - static production, laid back vocal, dense lyrics
2) "Sweetheart Like You" - Catchy Soft Rock, retrograde gender politics?
3) "Neighborhood Bully"- A nice rocker on Middle East Politics
4) "License to Kill" - A feminist message?
5) "Man of Peace" - More religion, simple message on the nature of evil
6) "Union Sundown" - Capitalism, Globalism, Neo-Patriotism
7) "I and I" - difficult, conflicted, inner turmoil
8) "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" - Struggle to find purpose?

I suppose when it comes to Infidels most Dylan fans will say, "yeah, it's ok."

Produced by Mark Knopfler, the album marked Dylan's return to mainstream rock and roll after a trilogy of Christian themed music. So Infidels feels like Dylan's first "80s" album because of the synthesizer heavy production.

The first four tracks of Infidels are my favorites. They are all solid songs.  I know there are many bootleg versions that included "Blind Willie McTell" and "Foot of Pride", considered some of Dylan's finest work of the decade. According to the blog Albums That Never Were, the original mixes were much edgier than the original release. Without much explanation, Dylan ditched the original version.

But there's a compelling coda to Infidels.

On March 22, 1984 Dylan made a rare television appearance on Late Night With David Letterman backed by the Plugz, a Punk band based in L.A. They took over the Letterman show that night, performing three songs before an ecstatic crowd.  Dylan appeared wearing a black suit with a skinny tie.  His expression all business, eyes looked downright sinister.

Dylan performed three songs: "Don't Start Me Talkin" (Sonny Boy Williamson cover), "License to Kill" and "Jokerman."

"Don't Start Me Talkin," an classic R&B number, got things off to an rocking start.  Dylan looked and sounded reinvigorated as if playing in a garage band back in Hibbing.

"License to Kill" is a heavy song, dark lyrics about a psychopath who cannot control his violent urges, "all he believes are his eyes and his eyes just tell him lies." The Letterman version sounds alive and relevant, as if saying  yeah the world is still the same no matter what anyone says.

And the finale "Jokerman" transforms the song from a spiritual meditation on a quasi-religious figure into an Anti-Hero Anthem.  With deliveries like "manipulator of crowds, you're a dreamtwista"  and  "look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name" suggest London Calling instead of Infidels.  In a surreal interlude, Dylan leaves the stage to find his harmonica; the Plugz keep the beat going as Dylan returned harmonica in hand.  An excited Letterman asks Dylan if he will stop by every Thursday, eliciting a rare smile from Bob.

The performance suggest an alternative 80s Dylan, an anomaly in his career trajectory.  A moment when all expectation and predictability came crashing down.


  1. If only he'd made an album with The Plugz, who knows what might have been.

  2. Totally agree - And with Frank Zappa producing! Could've been awesome.