Part 7. Two
Georges and The Forbidden Zone
I don’t know if Saint George was actually responsible for the festive advertising campaign for the new Marks & Spencer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was because it is quite a cute one. It goes like this: ‘describe Christmas in three words’. Think about that eh? Well the advertisers surely did and, whilst chewing hard on their Havanahs, they came up with the image of various celebrities spouting verbal triplets like ‘The Queens Speech’ or ‘Turkey and Tinsel’ or ‘Eaten too much’ or Morecambe and Wise’. Then, to round it off, we have the Thunderball; yes, you’ve guessed it: MARKS AND SPENCER – that’s Christmas in three words isn’t it George?
Actually it’s quite a good game this, go on, have a go: describe Christmas in three words. I am terrible at punctuation, I can never get the right usage for the word ‘it’s’ (if there is such a word), so I am ignoring the full title and saying that my description of Christmas in three words is: ‘A Wonderful Life’. You must remember this: ‘Buffalo Girls can’t you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight? Buffalo Girls can’t you come out tonight? Aaaaaand dance by the light of the moon’ – and all that. Call me sentimental, call me a sissy ‘cos I believe in angels but there is something about an unshaven James Stewart realising his blessings that gets to me, time after time.
Ok. Ok. Don’t be so impatient. I haven’t passed over my obsession with 'Visions of Johanna' this month; I was getting there. The link between this reduction of something as enormous as Christmas to just three words is similar to my ‘Visions’ task this time around because I have been concentrating on one of the longest pieces of writing on the song and wondering how on earth I can do the piece justice in the time and space allotted to me here. The text under consideration is contained in chapter 7 of the book ‘Jokerman. Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ by Aidan Day (AD)(64) in which the author has his way with the song for over 4000 words. I am not sure what my word tally will be when I eventually sign off from this life event but I can safely say that my words will be somewhat different to AD’s because I simply do not have the command of language that was readily available to the author who was, at the time that he published his book, a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. That’s not said though to diminish the value of either AD’s writings, or indeed mine own, it’s just to point out that they are expressed differently, that’s all. And I cannot possibly prècis the piece into just three words, it’s going to take much longer than that.
Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ is a book that may not fit
terribly well with the 90% of Dylan fans who possibly don’t like their
songs to be analysed, deconstructed or turned into some academic thesis.
These fans, who go to the concerts, buy the albums, collect the cdrs
etc., know exactly what the songs are about, they don’t have to be
preached at by the great and the good. (I am neither great nor good by
the way, so I can say what I like!). Having said that, those same
Dylan fans have probably got a copy of this book somewhere in their
collection yet, if so, it is possibly largely unread and yet, if so, it
is possibly largely unfathomed. Of course I may have got it all wrong, I
could be underestimating my fellow Bob fans, it could be that
‘Jokerman’ is the Dylan book that the majority of Dylan fans turn to
upon waking for elucidation and enjoyment, especially as the jacket
notes of the book promise that the text will make ‘intelligible
much that seems obscure and difficult’ in Dylan’s lyrics. To achieve
that state of absolute blessedness with regard to the understanding of
what Dylan’s lyrics are really all about, you will have to go back to
the book and try again. I have just been there and, apart from my own
theories which are clear to me but more like a swamp to others, things
are still pretty obscure and difficult. Never the less, the book is
greatly demanding of attention.
The title to
Chapter 7 of the book which, as I have said, deals with 'Visions of
Johanna' is called ‘That Forbidden Zone’ and AD initially sets out
to explain the reason for this title:
simultaneously thrilling and forbidding complexion of spaces beyond the
limits of the social and the rational, and the confusion of gratulation
and desperation involved in transgressing those limits were hinted at by
André Breton when he spoke of the unconscious as ‘the forbidden
The author then brings Dylan into to the picture by referring to the lyric change in the Brussels 1984 version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ thus: ‘So now I’m going on back again/ To that forbidden zone’ . Considering that: ‘The Brussels version had framed the account of desire for a condition beyond the pale of self and narrative’ AD concludes his introduction:
disconcertions touched on in the Brussels formulation are the overriding
concern of many Dylan lyrics. And, not least, of the 1966 Blonde on
Blonde lyric, 'Visions of Johanna'.(66)
This, generally then is where the author appears to be coming from: that there is an element of the ethereal, a state of cerebral other worldliness attached to the song. But it doesn’t take over 4000 words just to tell you that, for there is much more to this text as I will endeavour to show. From the ‘the forbidden zone’ that represents the unconscious, AD starts with a summary of the song that concerns the consciousness of the poet:
Johanna' violates the logic of consecutive statement more cruelly
than perhaps any other Dylan lyric. A summary of the work might say that
it presents a consciousness engaged – during what is, at least in the
early stages of the lyric, a night-time vigil – in reflecting upon
various matters that concern it. Perspective and objects of attention
slide and transform themselves throughout. But there is a constant in
that the consciousness returns at the end of each of the five stanzas to
its experience of certain visions which threaten to overwhelm – and,
indeed, by the conclusion of the lyric do overwhelm – all other
The author then carefully moves through the song, bringing to the fore and into the reader’s own consciousness, images arising from his observations of the lyrics. This, in relation to the first line of the song:
‘Implications of trickery and mischief, involutions of illusion and deception……….’(68)
And with regard
to the introduction of the ‘night watchman’ in the second stanza:
between reason and unreason upon which the constructions of logic depend
is blurred for the night watchman just as it is blurred in the
surrealistic register of the lyric’s language. The sense of
suspension of rational measure and control is emphasised even by the
image of the night watchman clicking his flashlight. The detail of the
flashlight invokes the metaphor of a light shining in the darkness and
raises the possibility of explanation and clarification. …. But the
stock metaphor is called up only as a ghost of itself. It is raised only
to be parodied. For the image of a light flashing works here not to
celebrate enlightenment but to confirm a greater darkness, a larger
unintelligibility. All’s not well with a world where the watcher upon
the night , the guardian of the day’s order through the hours of
darkness, has lost his bearings.(68)
This larger unintelligibility, this violation of logic, this zone of understanding that appears forbidden, this matter of confusion is taken further when AD concentrates on the fourth stanza which he considers ‘offers one of the lyrics most relentless imaginings of the breakdown of recognised and sanctioned form’ .(69) Quoting the following four lines of this stanza:
the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
one with the moustache say, ‘Jeeze
cant find my knees’.
observes: (these) ‘four lines of this stanza envision a reduction
of form to primal elements………even gender difference becomes
confused and human contour and feature are erased’, before
forces dissolve contour and feature, so too the certainties of nominal
identity are usurped … The game of blind man's buff, serves as a
touchstone of the disorientation of consciousness that pervades 'Visions
of Johanna'. Disturbance of the surface structure of the self is implied
throughout the lyric in the elusiveness of the point of view from which
it is spoken. Throughout, the speaker’s self is splintered and
reconstituted in a multi-faceted assemblage of personal pronouns and
names. An apt analogy for the effect would be the perspectival
incongruity of a cubist painting’.(70)
I must say, I do like the juxtaposition of 'Visions of Johanna' and cubism which is something that I may possibly return to later (thank you AD for that insight). It is, in fact, with this in mind that I turn to the authors commentary on the final verse, in particular as it relates to the role of ‘the female’ in the lyric. AD considers that the ultimate energy of the visions ‘sweeps away’… ‘ worldly encumbrances and appearances’…and this ‘includes certain stereotypes of women’. He goes on:
‘If woman as
lover has been stripped of life by the visions, and if woman as
‘master’ piece has been unfixed, the fifth stanza has the power of
those visions exposing not only the countess, not only woman as rich
dissembler, but also woman as sanctified mother… Invoked, that figure
simply fails to appear as mediator or sustainer of the self under
stress…Whatever may be thought of Johanna, hers is again the
‘feminine’ that is not to be caught within positions prescribed for
As I have said, there is much more to Chapter 7 of AD’s book than I can set out here, but I hope that I have brought into focus something of the his imaginative view of the song. It is a view that is further demonstrated in the authors somewhat scary conclusion :
Johanna' raises a dread that the daemonic charge that ‘howls in the
bones’ of Louise’s face and plays with the ‘skeleton keys’ may
be not only humanly intolerable, but intolerant of the human.. Visions
of the anima, visions of the forbidden zone, may amount to visions of
Gehanna, glimpses into a zone that for the mortal self spells only
So there we have
another consideration of the song with the setting of Brettons
(and Dylan’s ) ‘forbidden zone’. I have set aside a year of my
life to study this song and to consider what others have written about
it before concluding with my own thoughts. This is part 7 in the series
of my articles, 7 months of mental strife with 'Visions of Johanna' in
mind. There is so much more to consider that I wonder if I have bitten
off more than I can chew. Ah, but the taste is so sweet and,
still, every time I listen to the song I can feel the juice running down
my leg. Forgive me, just hand me a box of tissues and let me get on with
You know some people always seem to say the wrong thing, and others have the gift of getting it just about right. I was pushing my trolley towards the check out at Waitrose when I got side tracked by the late George Harrison looking out at me from the cover of the December issue of Hello! magazine. It was George fully fringed, smartly groomed, circa ’64 and he was just looking straight at me. I couldn’t resist it so into the trolley went the magazine with its ‘15 page tribute to George Harrison. 1943–2001. The Youngest Beatle’. Whilst queuing to pay for my raspberry yoghurts and trimmed sugar snap peas I quickly thumbed through the tribute pages and found that the entire spread didn’t really amount to a hill of beans but I bought the magazine anyway.
The thing about Hello! is that it’s the image that counts, first, last and every time. And the image of course has to be recognised: it’s a 21st Century pick-up point for saddos like me who just love images whether they be on a Christmas card, a tube station wall or on the cover of a glossy magazine. So the ‘tribute’ to George largely consisted of photographs of the easily identifiable with little captions underneath, quoting the words that these heads had expressed in their moments of grief. There were photographs of fellow Beatles; a Knight of the Realm; a red headed scouser; a well known comedian; the Prime Minister; the weird woman that John Lennon got involved with and one of QE2 wearing her Remembrance Day hat. Underneath this particular photo were the words: ‘Saddened by the news – HM The Queen.’ Aaahhh. As the Sex Pistols once said : ‘God save The Queen’.
To capture some words that were more appropriate on the demise of one of my heroes I turned to his nearest and dearest because the feature also included the following statement issued by George’s family:
this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and
at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said, ‘Everything
else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one
The ability to
string words together in a way that is meaningfully fit for the occasion
is surely a gift. I should have known better: I should have gone
straight to Dylan to unwrap his gift of words on the death of his friend
George Harrison. Not printed in Hello! (his current craggy features
wouldn’t enhance the cover of any magazine ) but found elsewhere, this
is what Dylan had to say:
That wonderful string of words ‘He was like the sun, the flowers and the moon’, in conjunction with George’s own ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait…’ created something of a stir and for some strange reason known only to that part of me that has no image whatsoever, I went to my bookshelf and took down a small volume on the subject of Tarot cards. The book was a little dusty which indicated that I probably haven’t felt a mystical need for quite some time but clearly, as the book was in my hands, a need had arrived that just had to be satisfied.
Now, I’m not big on the Tarot, I can’t even remember the place or the purpose for buying this little book but on looking through the pages I realised that the Tarot was scattered with identifiable images too, the difference being that these images represented symbols of a state or circumstance that were capable of being interpreted. With the impatience of George’s ‘search for God’ in mind, part of the introduction to the book was interesting:
Greek injunction ‘know thyself’ is capable of reaching it’s
supreme fulfilment in us through a dedicated search for the
eternal truths hidden in the Tarot. The 22 Tarot trumps are ideal for
this purpose, for they correspond to the 22 Paths on the Qabalistic Tree
of Life which chart man’s pilgrimage via created matter to the
uncreated Divine Being’.
An investigation of the images on those ‘22 Tarot trumps’ became even more interesting, in particular when I came upon two of the cards in the Major Arcana pack which are named ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Moon’. With Dylan’s words on George hanging in the air, I read further. This, relating to the images that are shown on the card named ‘The Moon’:
interesting point worth noting in connection with the card is that on it
are shown…tiny jets of ascending flame. These are spirits of the
departed hovering between earth and the moon, to which they were
believed to pass before returning earthward for reincarnation, or else
passing on to the sun.’
relating to the card named ‘The Sun’:
now shines forth in its full brilliance. After the moon tide of its
despair, the soul emerges into the light of a brighter day. Man must
awaken to the realisation of how great is the darkness encompassing him,
feel how near he is to blindness, before he can look with new eyes upon
the world. It is always darkest just before the dawn.’
the question of ‘the flowers’ in Dylan’s tribute. This was the
hardest to grasp and yet, because of that, was probably the most
significant. I continued reading the explanations given relating to the
images on ‘The Sun’ card:
other side of the wall are to be seen the heads of sun flowers. As the
sun flower always turns its face towards the sun, so must the soul of
man ever look upwards to the Celestial giver of light’.
those words I realised that my own narrow search through the confusion
of this episode was almost at an end. I closed the book and reached for
another which just happened to be a book of poems from the 18th Century
written by William Blake who somehow always managed to see the sun, the
flowers and the moon in every man. It was a more well thumbed and more
well read book and indeed in its pages I have found, on many occasions,
what I perceive to be the correct answers to some eternal truths.
The poem I turned to concerns the search for salvation, both in this
life and the next. The title to the poem is, of course: ‘Ah
death, George’s search for his sweet Lord has ended or continues, only
he now knows. What we know is that his spirit became weary of time here
and that his travels on the long and winding path of life are now truly
done. What he has left behind is music that has, and will forever,
accompany many millions of people along the paths they have to take
until, they too, become weary of time and their journeys are also done.
I am just one of those many millions of people. Your music has been
great company, George.
It is a very long and winding path indeed that leads from William Blake, Mad Mystic of the 18th Century to Abba, Scandinavian popsters of the 20th, but, what the hell I am going to take that path anyway. For, I ask in all honesty, what would life be? Without a song and a dance what are we? So, George, I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.
(64) ‘Jokerman. Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan’ by Aidan Day. Published in hard back in 1988 by Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford.UK.
(65) ibid., page 110.
(66) ibid., page 111.
(67) ibid., page 112.
(68) ibid., page 113.
(69) ibid., page 115.
(70) ibid,. page 116.
(71) ibid., page 121.
(72) ibid., page 124.
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