There is something foreboding, eschatologically near about Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Time is running backwards, counting down the clock. Everyone is wearing a mask. To ‘show your hand’ becomes transfigured into an act of metanoia, a self-reorientation, standing naked. Many of the characters are working around this pivotal idea of ‘ showing their hands’. Take a look at Lily and Rosemary.
‘Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child’. Princess here being a member of royal ‘card’ family. She plays cards, ‘had two Queens, was hoping for a third to match her pair’ and yet she accidentally ‘drew up the Jack of Hearts’. She gambled and pulled out a mystery, unwanted, unexpected and yet revealing. It becomes a glimpse into a deeper reality: ‘She’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of hearts’. And yet her fascination is filled with jealousy, fear and religious devotion, he becomes ‘like a saint’ to her. He reveals her heart, full of desire, yearning for this mystery.
Rosemary is unconnected and unhappy ‘she flutters her false eyelashes’ and in response to her efforts gets silence, nothing. She is wearing a cosmetic mask; covering the unappreciated, lonely and passionate yearning for more; ‘looking to do just one good deed before she dies.’
‘Rosemary started drinking hard and seeing her reflection in the knife’; is this a glimpse into the future, a dark vision of her ‘real identity’ as desperate emancipatory slayer, or is this another false self, simply bought on by the drink and the disguise? She doesn’t meet the Jack of Hearts in the narrative, his mystery and ‘revealing of the cards’ happens in the background of her story, and yet she undergoes her own violent transformation, she is ‘leaning towards the Jack of hearts’, that is, being revealed herself. She ‘slips in though side doors’, the periphery, a dull world between worlds: yet we as listeners perceive from our god-like perspective she is ‘like a Queen without a crown’. Another card has been revealed. Her true identity is not in the knife, but in the cards.
And so on the gallows, her passions have died with her false eyelashes; her eyes are now wide open. What does she see? The past and present violently clear, all the repressed now violently revealed, her cards now showing the ‘hanged woman‘ a symbol of sacrifice, letting go, surrendering and perhaps new perspective. Her full Queen-like nature has not been revealed. And yet the only person on the scene missing is the Jack of Hearts. The future of Rosemary is somehow ‘riding on the Jack of Hearts’; bound to this ‘revealed card’ that only a few people can behold, mysterious, transformative and arbitrary.
At the end Lily is left alone, having taken ‘all the dye out of her hair’, with just a whirlwind of thoughts; about Rosemary, her father, the law, ‘but most of all she is thinking about the Jack of Hearts’. Seeing everything cast in a new light, slightly melancholy and yet devoutly immersed in the character who’s very intrusion instigated this transition.
Why is the Jack of Hearts so mysterious? Because certain people can for a second, see his ‘card’ and then he disappears into shadows. But only certain people may see: to others he is nothing, absent, unnoticed, ‘face down’; to others still, he is a slightly familiar stranger, recalling memories, pictures yet these recollections are overcome by sound and darkness. He was not symbolic of revelation to everyone who saw him; only to those who, like Lily, were dealt the card beforehand. The listener sees everything, sees the mystery unfold, the hidden narrative revealed. And yet revealing is not the abandonment of mystery: what is revealed is mystery.
There is a sea change, a transformative metanoia that has gripped both characters. This then is true sense of apocalypse ‘lifting the veil’; this intrusive Jack of Hearts, this revealing card that exposes the hearts of the characters around, moves them all to reveal there own mysterious cards as time draws near.
There is an outtake version of the song, still unreleased, thats not too hard to find. The slower, hypnotic reading adds another layer of incense-smoke.