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...
So go the opening lines to what maybe is the greatest song ever sung. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, first heard in 1975 on Bob Dylan’s seminal album Blood on the Tracks. It’s quit a long song, nearly nine minutes – but in terms of length not a shade on his latest release, the 17-minute Murder Most Foul – but like all of his songs, is made up of sublime writing. The lyrics of Lily, Rosemary, like the entirety of Blood on the Tracks, is a love story of sorts. It has been described as “an intricately evasive allegory about 'romantic facades' that hide 'criminal motives', and the way one character's business triggers a series of recriminations from people he doesn't even know." Whatever – it’s epic; and the kind of story-telling in song that justifiably won Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. (Incidentally, for anyone uncertain about whether he shoulda won it, listen online to his acceptance speech, when he finally got round to it. All doubts will be dispelled.)
Dylan obviously had greater things in mind for the song. He commissioned a screenplay from John Kaye, so that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts could become a movie. Apparently another screenplay was independently written by James Byron, but neither ever turned into a finished film. That’s a pity, I think, for the cast of characters and the set-up in the song are both compellingly visual and mysterious. Look at those first lines: what was ‘the drillin’ in the wall?’ why had the curfew been lifted, and why was it there in the first place? And why was it that ‘Anyone with anysense had already left town?’ And this stranger ‘in the doorway, lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts’ – who, exactly, is he? All we know from this beginning is that something is about to happen. And it does. What’s more, there’s plenty of space for a fine film to grow out of the lyrics.
Enter the characters: first we go backstage at the cabaret to meet Lily, playing cards with the other girls. ‘Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair.’ But that doesn’t happen. Instead, ‘Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts.’ Later, we learn that ‘Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child/She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled/She'd come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs/With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere/But she'd never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts.’ More mystery, filled with the richness of an unusual life.
Now comes the big guy: “Big Jim was no one's fool, he owned the town's only diamond mine/He made his usual entrance lookin' so dandy and so fine/With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place/He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste/ But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts.”
And then we’re introduced to his long-suffering wife: ‘Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town/She slipped in through the side door lookin' like a queen without a crown/She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear/"Sorry, darlin', that I'm late, " but he didn't seem to hear/He was starin' into space over at the Jack of Hearts.’
Everyone in the story has their place marked by the Jack of Hearts – surely one of the greatest protagonist in song ever sung about. More characters are given us, the hanging judge and the backstage manager, who knows "There's something funny going on, " he said, "I can just feel it in the air". We get the hints of what it is: ‘Rosemary started drinkin' hard and seein' her reflection in the knife…’ In a neat inversion, the leading actor is relegated to a minor role: ‘As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk/There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.’ The fateful meeting of Lily and the Jack of Hearts is covered with eloquernt mystery: ‘Lily took her dress off and buried it away/"Has your luck run out?" she laughed at him/"Well, I guess you must have known it would someday…’ And all the while, parallel to this story, a successful bank heist is going down.
Big Jim bursts in, but we are only told in aftermath what happens, when next day – ‘hanging day, the sky was overcast and back’ – Rosemary is on the gallows, and ‘Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back.’
In a masterful line we learn that ‘The only person on the scene missin' was the Jack of Hearts.’ Notice how Dylan inverts the word sequence: rather than say ‘the only person missing from the scene’, it’s ‘the only person on the scene missing…’ The Jack of Hearts is always there; and remains so in the 35 years since the song was first performed. He will be there forever, and so will Lily. Maybe they will meet again someday.
But sadly, it seems, it won’t be in film – for now. Perhaps that’s for the best, for Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts live on in a kind of better-than-real splendour in our imaginations.