From the harrowing guitar of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ to the robotic hook of ‘Poker Face’, gambling has been the inspiration behind many famed musicians’ songs. Reflecting both the controversy and glamour; the underground poker room and the neon-lit casino, each lyrical depiction gives us a fascinating insight into the role gambling has played in society over the past century. Below, Sophie Jackson from PokerListings offers a look into the background of six notable artists and their use of gambling-themed lyrics.
Looking like the Jack of Hearts…
Bob Dylan – Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
It’s difficult to know where to start with a man whose career has spanned over five decades and influenced countless musicians with his near 500 self-written songs. Recurring motifs are plentiful in Dylan’s music, from murder and injustice to drugs and doomed love. Gambling is one of such common themes in the folk legend’s lyrics, with a focus on both the tragic element of desperate souls betting everything they have, as well as the humorous aspect of an against-odds hand.
Out of his more sorrowful ballads, ‘Black Diamond Bay’ is an excellent example of how Dylan uses the materialistic and fortune-seeking connotations of gambling in a contextual setting that highlights the triviality of, not just gambling, but the pursuit of financial wealth itself. As a volcano erupts over the paradise island that is home to luxury resort ‘Black Diamond Bay’, a man stubbornly remains seated in the casino as other residents flee for their lives, telling the dealer to ‘open up another deck’. The dealer tells him ‘You can take your money, but I don’t know how you’ll spend it in the tomb’. The finiteness and ultimate insignificance of both wealth and youth is emphasised when Dylan has the residents of Black Diamond Bay, along with all their valuable possessions, engulfed in lava within matter of moments.
The ballad of ‘Gambling, Rambling Willie’ seems like a cheerier tale, with Willie’s opponent at one point folding a flush when ‘Willie didn’t even have a pair’. The gambler comes to ‘own the whole town’ through his success in poker, once playing a game lasting longer than a week. He ‘spread his money far to help the sick and poor’ and ‘supported all his children, and their mothers too’. Things take a tragic turn, however, when an opponent loses all his money against Willie and shoots him dead. Dylan finishes the song with ‘wherever you’re a-gambling now, nobody knows’, implying Willie continues gambling even in the afterlife.
But perhaps the most beloved out of Dylan’s many gambling-themed songs is the dramatic ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. The story follows Jack of Hearts, an infamous robber, and Big Jim, the town’s wealthiest man. Though Big Jim is married to a woman named Rosemary, he is romantically interested in a dancer called Lily. All four of them appear at a cabaret show during its last night in town, but all with different motives. Jack of Hearts plans to rob the cabaret vault, Lily is a dancer in the show, Big Jim wants to see Lily, and Rosemary plans to kill her husband, Big Jim.
The traditional understanding is that Lily and Rosemary were rivals for the Jack of Heart’s affections, but numerous other interpretations have arisen from the song’s ambiguity, including the theory that the Jack of Hearts is in fact Lily disguised as a man, or that Lily and Rosemary were lovers and played stud poker to determine who would kill Big Jim.
As the story unravels, references are made to high cards and suits. Big Jim is the owner of the town’s ‘diamond’ mine and described as a King, whilst Rosemarys is described as a ‘Queen without a crown’. Lily later asks the Jack of Hearts ‘has your luck run out?’. Perhaps these references emphasise the unpredictable yet interwoven nature of their lives, as if their fate unfolds just like a game of poker might.
So what inspired Dylan to feature gambling so heavily in his story-telling? Though photographs often show him enjoying a game of cards amongst band members, there’s nothing to suggest Dylan himself was a keen gambler. His father, a huge influence in Dylan’s life, was not known as a gambling man either. The answer is simple. Dylan focused on the ‘gambler’ in his songs for the same reason he focused on racism, homelessness, drugs and death – these are all matters with which Dylan had either personal or indirect encounters during his time on the road. Indeed it is these prominent yet sometimes difficult aspects of modern American life that Dylan’s lyrics capture most poignantly.
The only thing a gambler needs…
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun
Perhaps the most most classic and oldest gambler’s ballad of all time – the haunting ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is believed to have first been recorded in 1934 by Clarence Ashley, though the origin of the song remains unknown. Its mysterious origins have subsequently been the subject of much speculation and debate, with an entire book written on the tracing of its various incarnations across the world.
Its dark themes center around a ‘ruined man’, begging for forgiveness, as he spends his ‘life in sin and misery’ at a brothel and gambling establishment in New Orleans. The narrator asks us to tell our children ‘not to do what he has done’.
It wasn’t until 1964 that The Animals released their pleasingly unnerving rearrangement of the folk song with its ‘instantly recognizable circular chord pattern in A-minor’. The version has since become the most famous and popular, described by critics as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘the first folk-rock hit’. One critic went as far as to say the single ‘changed the face of modern music forever’. The song’s great success brought fame to The Animals in the US, and inspired other artists to fire up old folk tunes with an electric guitar.
Since then, countless artists have recorded the song in a wide range of styles, including Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Thin Lizzy, Bon Jovi, The Eagles, Tracy Chapman, Pink Floyd, Muse and The White Stripes. Each version seems to retain that chilling build-up of vocals and guitar which, as one might imagine, has seen the song featured on numerous horror movie soundtracks across the years.
He lays down the King of Spades…
The Clash – The Card Cheat
One of the lesser known songs by the controversial British punk band – but an underrated and captivating one at that. The lyrics deal with loneliness, violence, death, war – and are as curiously muddled as the song’s melody. We dip in and out of the story before we’ve even been given the chance to make sense of it.
A lonesome gambler is the protagonist of ‘The Card Cheat’, whose solitary life has led him down a self-destructive and reckless road of ‘opium dens’ and ‘bar rooms’. In one particular bar room, the desperate gambler presents a card from up his sleeve which would give him a winning hand, but is identified as a fraud and shot dead. References to ‘the keeper of time’ shows how The Card Cheat gambled not just with his money but with his life. Many have drawn comparisons between the language used in the lyrics and the themes of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’, in which a Knight plays chess against Death.
The band recorded the song twice and played each recording on top of the other for the big, busy effect of the final version. Though resulting in an epic echoing effect, the double recording made the song’s studio version difficult to replicate live. ‘The Card Cheat’ appears on the timeless ‘London Calling’ album and is regarded by many as one of Mike Jones’ finest vocal performances.
All the men you knew were dealers…
Leonard Cohen – The Stranger
For an artist whose work so often reflected the grittiness of American culture, Cohen focused surprisingly little on gambling as a theme in his famously poetic lyrics. Similar in melody and style to ‘The Partisan’; ‘ The Stranger’ is an exception to this norm; a beautiful song centered around a woman who can’t help but fall for men who take advantage of her. With every new lover, she is convinced they’ll stop ‘dealing’ and ‘give up the holy game of poker’, yet they always leave and she is left ‘sweeping up the jokers they left behind’. One man makes a particularly strong impression on her and, once again, she believes him when he says he’ll ‘trade the game he plays for shelter’. Taking him in, she is saddened to soon see him leave just like the others. He reminds her, ‘I told you when I came I was a stranger’.
Typical of Cohen’s style, ‘The Stranger’ is sung in a soft and slow paced manner, each verse ringing of melancholy. Just like any true poet, Cohen has carefully formulated his lyrics to masterfully conjure feelings of loss and hopelessness in the listener. Poker is likely used as a metaphor for infidelity. The woman shares her shelter and love with these strangers only to have them cheat on her and leave, as they are unable the give up the ‘game’.
When your chips are down…
The Killers – Joy Ride
Moving on to more modern times, we venture into the world of pop icon Brandon Flowers.
It’s no secret the flamboyant singer is fascinated by the hedonistic ‘high life’. He formed The Killers in Vegas and a romanticisation of the neon city has featured in a notable number of their songs. Flowers even set the mood for his solo debut album, ‘Flamingo’, with the opening track ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’. The song uses gambling as a metaphor for life, with lyrics such as ‘didn’t anyone tell you, the house will always win?’ Yet the depiction is not entirely negative, with Vegas also described as a city of self-discovery and opportunity, if not with some bittersweet undertones.
In The Killers’ upbeat and busy ‘Joy Ride’, the buzzing spirit of Vegas is encapsulated in the showbiz-like melody and burst of instrumental assortment. ‘Joy Ride’ is also the first gambling-themed song in this list that switches from a storytelling lyrical style to a lyrics format which instead describes an on-going moment or feeling. As such, we aren’t introduced to the characters of the song but are instead placed in an atmosphere of ‘pink and dirty neon’ and ‘headlights on the highway’.
As the fourth track on ‘Day and Age’, the exciting and sensualized style of ‘Joy Ride’ fits in perfectly amongst the album’s general themes of adventure and fantasy; an album Flowers describes as the band’s most ‘playful’ record yet.
A hard pair we will be…
Lady Gaga – Poker Face
Hate it or love it, the first song that will enter most people’s head when you mention ‘poker’ and ‘song’ in the same sentence is Lady Gaga’s indisputably catchy ‘Poker Face’. The electronic mega-hit is significant not just for glamorizing the sometimes controversial game of poker, but because the song was the synthpop queen’s debut solo single and subsequent bringer of fame.
The video’s futuristic and stylish visuals compliments the bass-heavy song, with poker depicted as a game played between promiscuous millionaires. Laced with gambling-based euphemisms and innuendo, Gaga wrote the song to express her experience of dating a man when fantasizing about being with a woman instead – hence having to put on a ‘poker face’ for her male lover.
‘Poker Face’ has become one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 14 million copies sold globally. Equally successful, the music video has an impressive 237 million views on Youtube. Gaga’s piano version of ‘Poker Face’ reveals a slower and stripped down interpretation, giving the song a raw, saloon-like vibe whilst allowing the superstar to show off her husky vocals.
Any list of gambling-inspired songs will surely go incomplete, as the lurid theme of gambling continues to transcend folk, rock and pop to this day. Musicians have traditionally used poker, Vegas, blackjack and jackpots as metaphors in their quest to express the human condition. The Grateful Dead, Motorhead, Kenny Rogers, Sting, Fleetwood Mac and O.A.R are amongst other deserving artists which, alas, did not make the list. Where there’s controversy there’s rock n roll…and for better or worse, there’s no denying gambling causes its fair share of controversy.
Article by by Sophie Jackson