“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts“, is a song by Bob Dylan released on the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, known for its complex plot and long running time. It is one of five songs on Blood on the Tracks that Dylan initially recorded in New York City in September 1974 and then re-recorded in Minneapolis in December that year; the later recording became the album track.
There have been two screenplays written based on the song: one by John Kaye and commissioned by Dylan, and another written by James Byron. Neither screenplay ever became a film.
According to his official website, Dylan has played the song live only once on May 25, 1976, in Salt Lake City.
Hearing the lyrics read to her by Dylan just after they had been written is thought to be the inspiration for the 1975 Joan Baez song “Diamonds & Rust“, which is based on her and Dylan’s own relationship ten years earlier.
The song has a long list of characters. The inspiration behind several characters in the plot has been long disputed among fans.
- The main character in the song is “The Jack of Hearts”, who has recently come into town as a leader of a gang of bank robbers. (“The boys finally made it through the wall and cleaned out the bank safe… but they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts.”)
- Major women in the song are Lily and Rosemary. Both are referred to in royal terms (“like a queen without a crown” and “Lily was a princess”) though not royalty. Rosemary is Big Jim’s long suffering wife, who ultimately is executed for his murder (though the song is very much nebulous about whether or not she was innocent and was framed by the Jack of Hearts). Lily is a dancer who is Big Jim’s mistress (wearing a ring symbolizing this) and also a former lover of the Jack of Hearts.
- Big Jim is the wealthiest person in town: “he owned the town’s only diamond mine”. He is married to Rosemary and having a longstanding affair with Lily. He is killed at the climax of the song, though Dylan leaves it ambiguous who does the deed. The lyrics describe Big Jim as a greedy man who destroys all that he touches, which contrasts with his well groomed appearance.
- The Hanging Judge; a patron of the bar where the plot plays out. The character is referred to as a drunk and is intoxicated for the bulk of the song. However, he is sober the next day when he oversees Rosemary being executed for Big Jim’s death.
Clues and interpretations
There is an extra verse on the Bob Dylan website and in the published sheet music that is not in the album version (right after the “backstage manager” verse):
Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch,
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much.
“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, and he felt she was sincere,
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear.
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts.
This verse can be found on the Blood On The Tapes and Blood on the Tracks (New York Sessions) bootleg version. This version is slower and more somber, even mournful, reflecting the approach of the other New York sessions. The version on Blood on the Tracks was recorded later, in Minneapolis, and reflects Dylan’s attempts, following his brother’s advice, to make the album less difficult and intense. The same contrast can be seen with the New York (Bootleg Series) and Minneapolis (album) versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind”. The verse also appears in the Joan Baez recording of the song.
The song also contains a number of references to playing cards – the Jack of Hearts himself, the fact that Big Jim owns the town’s “only diamond mine”, the description of Rosemary looking “like a queen” and Big Jim like a “king“, and in the third verse, Lily is playing a game of poker with the other girls in the cabaret.
The song takes place in a cabaret that is being renovated in an unnamed town where most of the residents “with any sense” have already left. The town’s bank is being targeted by a gang of thieves led by an enigmatic figure called “The Jack of Hearts”, and are using the renovations at the cabaret as a cover for their robbery – they are able to drill into the bank without causing suspicion. The Jack of Hearts appears inside the cabaret right before the show, with the intention of meeting up with Lily, a beautiful a dancer in the cabaret (Lily and the Jack of Hearts have a history together which is never explained). Big Jim and his wife Rosemary are in attendance of the show, though they arrive separately and it is apparent that Big Jim intends to use the night to pursue his affair with Lily. After her performance, Lily meets the Jack of Hearts in her dressing room with romantic intentions, but Big Jim makes his way to the dressing room as well, followed by Rosemary who has been driven to despair by her years of mistreatment at the hands of Big Jim. Big Jim is going to shoot the Jack of Hearts but is killed by a penknife in the back wielded by Rosemary (her “one good deed before she dies”). “The next day,” Rosemary is executed, a hanging overseen by “the hanging judge”, another figure in town who is in attendance at the cabaret the night before.
The fate of the Jack of Hearts is left ambiguous, but it is implied that he reunites with his gang, who have fled to the nearby riverbanks waiting for their leader with the safe from the bank (having drilled through the wall to retrieve it). The next morning, after Rosemary’s execution, Lily thinks about her father, whom she rarely sees, along with Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
Or could the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim be different aspects of Bob Dylan, while Lily is Joan and Rosemary is Sarah. The robbery is CBS and the Jim part of Dylan, losing to the Jack of Hearts who escapes with the diamonds.
There are a vast variety of interpretations of the story line, and at this time it is unknown which is the most accurate since Dylan has yet to comment on the plot.
- According to Tim Riley of National Public Radio, “‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ is 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.”
- Joan Baez included a performance of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” on her 1976 live album From Every Stage. This includes the extra verse from Dylan’s first recording.
- In 2002, Mary Lee’s Corvette included “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” in their song-for-song live cover performance of “Blood on the Tracks”
- American singer-songwriter Tom Russell recorded a cover of the song with Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely for his 2004 album, Indians Cowboys Horses and Dogs.
In popular culture
- “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is heavily referenced in the song “The Getaway” by the American indie pop band TV Girl on their first studio album French Exit.
- The Dylan recording was featured in Manchester by the Sea (2016) starring Casey Affleck.
Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts
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 HeartsHe moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin
“Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts
Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair
Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide
A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts
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
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
“I know I’ve seen that face before,” Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself
“Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody’s shelf”
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the houselights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts
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
The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No, nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts
Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts
Lily washed her face, 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
Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint
I’m glad to see you’re still alive, you’re lookin’ like a saint”
Down the hallway footsteps were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts
The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair
“There’s something funny going on,” he said, “I can just feel it in the air”
He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts
Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much
“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts
No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts
Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it’s said that they got off with quite a haul
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts
The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts
The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law
But most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts