A number of things suggest that this is not the straightforward tale of love and tragedy it at first seems to be. Instead the song is replete with inconsistencies and ambiguities in which spatio/temporal distinctions and distinctions between one character and another break down. Who, we wonder, is the mysterious ‘he’ of the first verse who is merely like the Jack of Hearts? Why is it pointed out that he’s standing in the doorway’? Why does Lily bury her dress? And how does one explain the ‘brand new coat of paint’ and the reference to Lily’s father?
There are many other questions one could ask, and there will be other interpretations to the one offered here. Nevertheless by considering just some of the issues, and demonstrating their interrelatedness, it will be possible to show how the song is essentially a moral and psychological study of one person in particular – Lily.
This is the only song on Blood On The Tracks which is narrated entirely from a third person perspective. The narrator here is different by not being the main focus of attention. But, just as with the narrators on the other songs, we should be wary of trusting him. On occasions he is clearly relying on hearsay, presumably due to a lack of first-hand knowledge:
‘… it’s said they got off with quite a haul’,
‘It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring’
‘… they say that it happened pretty quick’.
This should lead the listener to be cautious about accepting other things he says – his judgments, and his accounts of events. We should question whether Big Jim is really to be dismissed as no more than a clever wastrel, whether the narrator’s chummy reference to the robbers as ‘the boys’ isn’t out of order, and whether the events which make up the song really occur at the times and places described.
On a surface interpretation the song seems to involve four main characters – Lily, Rosemary, the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim. Lily and Rosemary are in a relationship with Big Jim, although it’s left unclear which – if either – is his wife. At the same time both are attracted to a mysterious character called the Jack of Hearts who seems to be associated with a gang of bank robbers. Rosemary murders Big Jim and for this she is hanged at the instigation of a corrupt judge.1
Virtue v Corruption
There is more going on than such a surface interpretation allows, however. In particular there are reasons for seeing the Jack of Hearts as a representation, perhaps an idealisation, in Lily’s eyes of Big Jim. And there are reasons for seeing Rosemary as representing the darker side of Lily. As a result Lily becomes a more complex and more central character than a surface interpretation would suggest.
Lily can be taken as representing virtue. Corruption is rife in the song. Robbers are stealing from a bank. Big Jim is two-timing. Someone, probably Big Jim, is wining and dining the hanging judge. The judge is already a ‘hanging judge’ before any crime has become apparent. He and Rosemary each irresponsibly get drunk. It’s against this background that Lily has to decide how to deal with the problem of her relationship.
The Jack of Hearts I
At first the Jack of Hearts could not seem more different from Big Jim. Big Jim comes across as vain and attention seeking – ‘so dandy and so fine’/’every hair in place’. Despite this he seems wrapped up in himself. We’re given his thoughts, but he doesn’t speak even when spoken to.
The Jack of Hearts is much more appealing. There’s no description of his appearance, from which we can assume it’s unostentatious. He’s affable, engaging others both by initiating conversation and by way of his facial expression:
‘… he asked him with a grin’.
He speaks politely:
‘”Could you kindly tell me …?”’,
even going so far as addressing a stranger as ‘friend’.
Whereas Big Jim is grasping, taking ‘whatever he wanted to’, the Jack of Hearts appears to be generous:
‘”Set it up for everyone” he said’.
Just from his manner it’s easy to see how he represents someone who’d be far more attractive to Lily than Big Jim.
Identity of Big Jim/Jack of Hearts
Despite these differences, there are a number of indications that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are to be taken as one and the same person. On this view the Jack of Hearts is Big Jim’s alter ego. The former might be taken as representing respectively a romantic idealisation of the character, and the latter the person as he currently seems to be. I shall begin by noting similarities, or a lack of differentiating characteristics, before going on to consider how the characters’ identity is supported by other considerations.
There are four ways in which the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are made to seem similar, suggesting that they are two sides of the same person.
The first similarity is that morally they are both scoundrels – one a bank robber, the other a grasping wastrel. Bias on the part of the narrator makes him downplay this aspect of the Jack of Hearts when he’s treated as just one of ‘the boys’.
A second indication is that in both the first and thirteenth verses a similar description is applied to each. Verse one has:
‘He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts’
while verse thirteen tells us that when the dressing-room door burst open:
‘… Big Jim was standin’ there, you couldn’t say surprised’.
Since both descriptions involve standing and a doorway, the temptation is to see both as involving the same person and the two separate events as having fused into one.2 Such a conclusion would have the advantage of explaining why the ‘he’ of the first verse is described as being only ‘like the Jack of Hearts’. Being like the Jack of Hearts would allow for the figure’s being Big Jim.
Thirdly, there’s an absence of differentiating characteristics in verse twelve, omitted from the recording. The expression ‘the man’ is used for both Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts:
‘the man she dearly loved to touch’
‘the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much’.
While the woman appears to be Lily, we’re given no way of telling which ‘man’ is which. It could be that Big Jim is the one she loves, especially since she ‘has his ring’. But equally it could be that the Jack of Hearts is, since her saying ‘I’ve missed you so’ seems more likely to have been said to someone she sees a good deal less of than Big Jim. There’s a similar ambiguity about the ‘man she couldn’t stand who hounded her’. We can’t say who’s being referred to since it’s not obvious that she’d see either Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as hounding her. The ambiguity is resolved if ‘the man’ in each line really does refer to either.
Fourthly, where Big Jim is said to look ‘like a saint’, the Jack of Hearts appears as a monk. Whether the descriptions should be taken ironically or not, the applicability of positive religious terms to each provides another reason for taking them as one and the same person.
Since we so often can’t differentiate between them, there’s a sense in which there’s no distinction to be made. We have reason for taking the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as the same person.
2. The Missing Jack of Hearts
The view that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are in some sense identical, is corroborated by the apparently inexplicable absence of the Jack of Hearts on three occasions.
First, since the murder takes place around the end of verse thirteen, we can see the identity of Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts would also explain the absence of the Jack of Hearts from the riverbed meeting place in the following verse. The robbers waited there:
‘For one more member who had business back in town’.
It would seem that the robbers are surprised by their associate’s absence. And ‘business back in town’ sounds vague, as if they are being forced to find a way of rationalising his absence. That unexpected absence is explained if, when Rosemary kills Big Jim, she is in that very process killing the Jack of Hearts.
Secondly, after Rosemary’s death we’re told:
‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’
We’re not told why he’s missing, or for that matter why it’s even worth pointing out. But if they’re the same person, he cannot be present since Big Jim is lying dead elsewhere.
Other explanations of these absences will be considered later on.
3. Omission Of Big Jim
A further indication that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim can be taken as aspects of the same person comes not from what we’re told, but from what we’re not told.
There’s a significant omission in the final verse where we’re told Lily is thinking about four things – her father, Rosemary, the law, and the Jack of Hearts. One would have expected her at least to be giving some thought to Big Jim, if – as we’ve been led to believe – he was her lover or husband.
But she would indeed be thinking of Big Jim, if the Jack of Hearts she’s thinking about is Big Jim.
4. Staring into Space
Fourthly, Big Jim’s behaviour in verses five and six is more consistent with his sharing an identity with the Jack of Hearts than it is with the latter being a separate person. We’re told that Big Jim:
‘… was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts’
When someone stares into space, they’re not seeing anything. And to be staring ‘over at’ someone, is not the same as to be staring at them.
Accordingly Big Jim can’t actually have been seeing a real face when he says:
‘I know I’ve seen that face before’
If it wasn’t someone else he was seeing, the possibility is opened up that the face represents a different – perhaps more favourable – representation of himself. He only thinks he’s seeing the Jack of Hearts.
It turns out that he’s in fact staring in the direction of Lily, but presumably without seeing her:
‘… there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts’
This provides a fifth reason for seeing the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as identical. Not only are the two of them doing exactly the same thing, but the phrase ‘was only’ implies there’s just one person.
Identity of Lily/Rosemary
Just as the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, while separate on the surface level, can be seen as identical, so can Lily and Rosemary. Rosemary is Lily’s alter ego. There are a number of obvious similarities between them which bring this out.
Consider again the line:
‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’
This implies Lily was there, yet she isn’t mentioned. Other than the missing Jack of Hearts, the only people mentioned in the penultimate verse are Big Jim, Rosemary and the hanging judge. If Lily isn’t missing, the implication is that Lily is one of those people. And that would be so if she’s Rosemary.
Secondly, Rosemary is in ‘the role of Big Jim’s wife’, while Lily has ‘Jim’s ring’. Both descriptions suggest the person described could be in a unique relationship with Big Jim.3
Thirdly, Lily is referred to as a ‘butterfly’ which seems to associate her with Rosemary who ‘fluttered’ her eyelashes.
Fourthly, both are attracted to the Jack of Hearts.
Finally, they are both associated to an unusual extent with death.
This last way of seeing Lily and Rosemary as two aspects of the same person needs further attention. The characters can each be seen as sacrificing their lives.
1. Rosemary’s Sacrifice
Rosemary, we’re told, was:
‘… lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died’
The intended good deed would seem to be the killing of Big Jim. The woman who has:
‘… done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide’
may now be attempting to change course as a result of seeing what she takes to be her better self reflected in the knife.
There are two reasons why something as immoral as murder might seem good to Rosemary. It might seem good to her if it has good consequences. And it might also seem good if she sees it as inevitably leading to her own self-sacrifice.
A good consequence might be that, by stabbing Big Jim, she will be saving the Jack of Hearts from being shot by him.4
And it would seem she does see the murder as leading inevitably to her own self-sacrifice. She shows no sign of being surprised by her fate on the gallows:
‘… she didn’t even blink’.
That this fate is to be seen in terms of self-sacrifice is suggested by the imagery used in describing the scene of her death:
‘… the sky was overcast and black’.
This relates Rosemary’s death to the crucifixion when, ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Matt 27.45). Accordingly, Rosemary’s death is associated with Christ’s dying for others.
Given that it stemmed from a murder, the association must in part be ironic.
2. Lily’s Sacrifice
Just as Rosemary can be seen as sacrificing herself, so can Lily. The difference is that as a result of Lily’s action Big Jim lives rather than dies. And whereas Rosemary’s death is literal, Lily’s is metaphorical. She is just sacrificing a more selfish part of herself.
We’re told that after the show:
‘Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away’.
What we have is clearly the language of ritual. One does not normally bury one’s clothes. And the washing, in the context of ‘buried’, reminds us of the preparation of a corpse for burial. Lily, it seems, is making preparations for her own death.
Lily’s death, although it’s the counterpart of Rosemary’s, does not involve murder. On the contrary, she can be seen as abandoning her original murderous outlook as represented by Rosemary. She comes to abjure it by announcing to Big Jim:
‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’
The sense in which she dies is that by not killing Big Jim, she is sacrificing herself to him. True to form she ‘did whatever she had to do’ and, on this view, what she had to do did not involve murder.
While Rosemary’s self-sacrifice is explicitly associated with Christ’s, Lily’s is the more Christ-like in that her sacrifice is for his good. With respect to Lily there’s no irony involved.
Further Temporal Distortions
It becomes apparent that Big Jim both does and does not die, depending on whether he’s at the mercy of Rosemary or Lily.
In that he does die, it’s because Rosemary has knifed him. In that he doesn’t, it’s because Lily has abandoned the Rosemary-side of her character and put her trust in his better side. There’s no issue about whether he does or doesn’t die – the song represents both as being the case.
That he does not die is supported by three temporal distortions. These are over and above the spatio/temporal one we’ve already encountered concerning an appearance in a doorway in verses one and thirteen.
The first temporal distortion which allows Big Jim to be still alive at the end of the song is required by something Lily says after washing and changing her clothes in verse ten:
‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’
At face value this is meaningless, whoever it’s addressed to. There’s no reason at this stage for believing the life of Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as being under threat.6
However, the statement ceases to be meaningless provided that it’s spoken only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, and it’s addressed to Big Jim. If that’s the case, it becomes pertinent that the addressee is not only alive, but still alive at that much later time.
It’s pertinent because it directly contradicts the information that Big Jim has been killed.
That time is distorted in this way, so that the conversation occurs much later than it seems to have done, is corroborated by a further temporal distortion. This involves Lily’s warning:
‘Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand new coat of paint’.
If she’s speaking only at a time prior to the attack on Big Jim, there’s no obvious reason why there might need to be a warning involving a freshly painted wall.
However, if the warning is given after the attack, the reason becomes clear. Since no other wall has been mentioned, the wall in question has to be the one forming a barrier between ‘the boys’ and the bank. It makes sense for this wall to have been freshly painted, but only after it has been repaired following the damage inflicted by the bank robbers. And for this to be the case requires Lily to have been speaking not only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, but after the redecoration of the cabaret which is still only underway in the final verse.
A third temporal distortion provides further corroboration of the previous two. It involves a reference to Lily’s hair:
‘Lily had already taken all the dye out of her hair’.
Although this occurs in the final verse, it’s part of the process referred to in verse ten which involved washing her face and taking her dress off. This too suggests that the conversation in verse ten is to be seen as occurring much later than the supposed attack on Big Jim.
Time, it seems, is distorted on no less than three occasions to allow that, despite it’s being clear that Big Jim is murdered, it’s also the case that he isn’t.
A Spatial Distortion
The distortion just considered may be purely temporal. Nevertheless it is accompanied by a spatial one. This, again, involves the wall.
On the one hand, Lily seems to be referring to a wall in the cabaret when she warns that the paint’s wet – and maybe even to the wall of her dressing room.
On the other, the robbers can’t be drilling from inside the cabaret, since their activity is taking place ‘two doors down’. And it would be even more absurd to suppose they’re drilling from inside Lily’s dressing room.
Just as time is having to be distorted to accommodate Big Jim’s survival, so it seems is space. The wall is in two places at once.
While these temporal and spatial distortions allow it to be the case that Big Jim survives, Lily’s motivation for bringing this about becomes more apparent in the final verse. Here we’re informed that Lily:
‘… thought about her father, who she very rarely saw’.
The fact that she rarely saw her father is not necessarily surprising, particularly since we’d previously been informed that ‘she’d come away from a broken home’. Nevertheless the relevance is not immediately obvious.
It becomes clearer, however, when we consider how various characters are described.
Most of the characters are represented by playing cards. Rosemary looks like ‘a queen without a crown’. Big Jim is ‘the king’. And the missing member of the band of bank robbers is the Jack of Hearts. Curiously Lily herself, while described using a royal metaphor, is not represented by a card. She’s ‘a princess’.
‘Princess’, as used here, has a significance which goes beyond the usual connotations of the term when used of a girl. A princess is the child – the daughter – of a king and queen. And such a relationship is alluded to when Lily’s described both as ‘princess’ and ‘precious as a child’. Since Big Jim is the ‘king’, he is in some sense her father – the father she very rarely saw.
In what sense? Obviously he’s not literally her father. But the king/princess relationship does suggest he has a responsibility towards her.
And the description:
‘… precious as a child’
might seem to indicate that he doesn’t fulfil that ‘paternal’ responsibility. Rather he commits himself to something else that’s precious – precious stones. He runs a diamond mine. For him, a woman’s role is just to wear his ring and to act the part of wife. He has no sense of responsibility for someone ‘precious as a child’. Instead, the ‘everything’ which he ‘laid to waste’ would have included her. She (as Rosemary) has even been driven to the brink of suicide.
Equally, though, it might be that Big Jim does accept that responsibility. Lily’s favourable attitude towards him – ‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive’ – might be the result of this. For all we know, she might really be precious to him.7
In thinking about her father, then, Lily is thinking about Big Jim – not as a lover, but as someone who may or may not have treated her just as her natural father has done. Either way, the perceived relationship would in itself justify her act of self-sacrifice for him.8
Murder or Suicide
In addition to the Jack of Hearts/Big Jim and Rosemary/Lily identities, there’s a third identity pair. Big Jim and Rosemary also share characteristics which, in a sense, and on one level, make them the same person.
The similarities between Big Jim and Rosemary which suggest their identity include their both having visions – ‘staring into space’ and ‘seeing her reflection in the knife’ respectively. They also involve falsity. Big Jim’s involves his being a dandy and having:
‘… every hair in place’.
And while Rosemary merely:
‘… combed her hair …’ –
her falsity too is characterised by the use of the word ‘false’:
‘She fluttered her false eyelashes …’
If Rosemary and Big Jim are seen as one and the same person, Rosemary’s murder of Big Jim comes across as even more reckless. She’ll not only be killing herself indirectly by bringing about her hanging, but directly. This would amount to her second attempt at suicide, because we’ve already been told that she:
‘… once tried suicide’.
Further, the identity of Big Jim and Rosemary would explain why her previous attempted suicide counts as one of the ‘bad things’ she’s done. It would suggest that she has previously made an attempt on Big Jim’s life.
Difference Between Lily And Rosemary
Although Lily is in a sense identical with Rosemary, a further reference to hair brings out the crucial difference between the sides of the characters they represent. Lily, we’re told, had:
‘… taken all of the dye out of her hair’.
By having her reject the sort of falsity which characterises both her alter ego and Big Jim, Lily is being presented as natural and honest. It’s this honesty which prevents her going down the criminal route represented by Rosemary. Rather than kill Big Jim, she makes an appeal to his better side, represented in her mind by the Jack of Hearts.
The Jack Of Hearts II
We now see that there are two reasons for the Jack of Hearts’ absence at the end of the song. The first, already mentioned, is that in murdering Big Jim Rosemary is killing his alter ego.
But even on the view that Big Jim is not killed, and the Jack of Hearts therefore is still alive, the Jack of Hearts still fails to meet his comrades at the riverbed.
This may be explained by the fact that the Jack of Hearts is the side of Big Jim that Lily is trying to reform. Her success in reforming Big Jim will be reflected in a comparable change in his alter ego. This will amount to that alter ego’s giving up of his criminality and dissociating himself from the gang of robbers.
The Jack of Hearts’ absence is a sign of Lily’s success with Big Jim. On the one hand he dies as does Big Jim. On the other he’s spiritually saved as much as is Big Jim.
The central character of the song is Lily, a rather fragile girl who’d rather not be with her present lover or husband, Big Jim. On one view she has a darker side, represented by Rosemary. If this darker side is allowed to reign, she’ll end up murdering Big Jim. If it isn’t, Big Jim lives on.
There is no straightforward answer to whether or not Big Jim lives or dies. Neither is there a straightforward answer to whether Lily and Rosemary, or the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, are one and the same person. While the song is full of ambiguity and inconsistency, rather than making it incoherent, these features enable it to present alternative responses to the moral dilemma with which Lily is faced, and to assess the moral and practical consequences of each.
Despite the mutual inconsistency of the alternatives, the song presents them both as having occurred. By rejecting her Rosemary-side, Lily is turning her back on murder and what would effectively be suicide. By giving in to her Rosemary side, Lily brings about not just Big Jim’s death but her own. She can either destroy him physically or save him spiritually. Each possibility acts as a foil for the other.
Appendix: Other Religious Imagery
That Rosemary’s death, and therefore Lily’s, is to be associated with the crucifixion is supported by other religious imagery. The opening line mentions that:
‘… the boys were all plannin’ for a fall’
While there’s no explicit indication as to what ‘fall’ refers to, it may be that the word ‘fall’ can be taken as referring to the ‘fall of man’ which Christ’s crucifixion is seen as annulling.5
In this case the robbers, ‘planning for a fall’ would effectively be planning their own spiritual demise as a result of their criminal activity. Now the robbers, including the Jack of Hearts, have the chance to be beneficiaries of Lily’s redemptive act. In the light of this Lily’s otherwise cryptic comment to Big Jim:
‘… you’re looking like a saint’,
seems more pertinent. In committing herself to Big Jim, she allows him the opportunity to redeem himself.
That Big Jim is open to redemption is suggested by his being referred to as:
‘… no-one’s fool …’.
He is thus distanced from the biblical fool by being open to renouncing his corrupt practices. (cf. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good’ Psalm 14.1).
The benign influence that Lily has on Big Jim is perhaps also indicated by the ‘gentle breeze’ which is pervading the cabaret. The breeze can be taken as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. (cf. ‘Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat’ Kings 19.12-13).
- The hanging judge represents corruption in two ways. First, he seems to be accepting favours from another corrupt customer, probably Big Jim. Secondly, his being known as the ‘hanging judge’ seems to imply he’s made up his mind about the extent of people’s guilt in advance of hearing any evidence or the jury’s verdict.
- The Jack of Hearts’ appearance in the doorway in verse one can, be taken as Big Jim’s later appearance in a doorway in verse thirteen. Accordingly there is no unique fact about the time of the appearance. Similarly there’s no unique fact about whether the appearance takes place in the doorway to the mirrored room, as it seems to be in verse one, or the doorway to Lily’s dressing room, as it seems to be in verse thirteen. Despite seeming at first to have separate locations, the two doorways are not clearly spatially distinct.
- Even descriptions which imply there are two people are consistent with their being just one. That Lily is favoured by Big Jim over Rosemary is apparent from her ‘having Jim’s ring’, whereas Rosemary is ‘like a queen without a crown’. On a deeper level this could indicate that Lily is anxious for more than she’s already got. This would seem to be supported by her wanting a third queen to match those she already has in the card game. The third would be herself. She wants to supplant Rosemary as Big Jim’s wife.
- Rosemary’s self-sacrifice might also be seen as freeing Lily to marry, or marry again elsewhere.
- On this view, it would make sense to see the festival mentioned in the opening line as a Passover celebration since that was the time at which the crucifixion occurred. The biblical celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem was a time of political tension, the Roman authorities anxious to prevent insurgents and others exploiting the chaos for revolutionary ends. The curfew in the song might also be seen as an attempt to maintain the status quo made by those benefiting from corruption in the town.
- It can’t be the Jack of Hearts who’s addressed unless we’re prepared to invent at least three reasons to support the view. We’d need a reason to explain Lily’s thinking the Jack of Hearts might not have been still alive, a reason for its being necessary to inform us of this, and a reason for its being necessary to inform us of Lily’s attitude towards it.
- Rosemary as queen (and considered as a separate person from Lily) may be different. If her one good deed is to benefit Lily, she cannot easily be accused of abrogating her responsibility.
- ‘Father’ is also the term used by Christ in referring to God. Lily’s thinking about her father again associates her with Christ.