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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 8. New Books and Ranties

Some people understand my thing about Dylan; they are sympathetic towards me and it; then there are others who just don’t and aren’t. I like to think that those who care must have been touched by the hand of Bob themselves at some stage, or by the hand of Elvis, or Sweet Gene Vincent, or the Everly’s or Buddy or Chuck or by the collective outstretched, beckoning, welcoming hands of John, Paul George and Ringo; or, indeed, by any other such hand. I can always recognise these people quite easily: here’s how its done. Next time you are in pub that plays a selection of good music, force your mind away from the drone of re-told dirty jokes by the bar card or the impossible tales of sexual athleticism by the bar bull shitter and look around at people’s faces. Then, when you hear those distinctive opening drum - base- tambourine beats of ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (because all pubs that play a good selection of music get around to this track sooner or later), that dissolve into “Oh ooooooh. I bet you wonder how I knew…….” try to spot the person who is moved by that familiar sound. Catch their attention and mouth the words ‘Marvin Gaye’ in their direction. If they nod and smile, go and talk to them. You will soon find that they will have felt the rhythm. And they will understand your Dylan thing.

Outside of the Dylan fraternity, and of course it must be accepted that ‘Dylan’ people are a special breed- well most of them, I have only a few friends who understand my thing about Dylan. I want to tell you about one of them. He is a Lawyer. Now I know what you are thinking straight away, but you know, contrary to popular myth, most Lawyers are simply not out to bleed you financially dry. I have worked with Lawyers for over three decades and I have found that their major preoccupation in life is helping people with their problems. My friend, to his personal disadvantage on many occasions, has never let cash get in the way of his ardent desire to stand up for the luckless, the mistreated and the misunderstood. He appreciates the gift of advocacy that has been bestowed upon him and he uses that gift in the representation of others. I love and respect him for it.

Anyway, this friend used to be a bit of a Dylan fan himself. Nothing too serious: probably starting out with ‘Another Side’, then obviously ‘Blonde on Blonde’, and without a doubt ‘Blood On The Tracks’ - enough really to be touched by the hand of Bob. I used to see this friend quite regularly but over the last few years we have only met up at an annual do which we both attend. He knows, and quite understands, my Dylan thing and in particular he knows about my involvement with Freewheelin’ and that I have written an article every month on some Dylan related topic for the last sixteen years. In fact it has become the subject of some mirth for him every time we meet as when I answer his crooked-smile question ‘How many articles is it now John?’ with some ridiculous, ever increasing number, he smiles broadly and slaps me on the back. Not a slap in scorn but a slap in concordance. He understands.

Now I am telling you about my friend because I bumped into him a couple of weeks ago whilst we were both walking along Huntingdon High Street. I didn’t attend the annual do just before Christmas so we hadn’t seen each other for some time. After the usual handshakes, remarks about how we were both getting older, guffaws and brotherly bonding-type gestures, the inevitable question came. This time I told him something different, this time I told him that I was devoting an entire year to write about just one song. I expected a smile as broad as the Red Sea, a back-slapping that would knock me to the ground. Instead there was a stony silence and an intense eyeballing that he usually saves for the cross examination of a bent copper who is trying to stitch up one of his criminal clients. To ease the tension I explained that the particular song was 'Visions of Johanna' which was widely accepted as Dylan’s finest but it made no difference, I sensed that there was some kind of shadow hanging over us. If utterance could be given to the words that were forming in his brain I am sure he would have blurted ‘Are you mad? One year on just one song?’ but my friend, being the perfect gentleman remarked ‘well done’ instead, which we both knew he didn’t mean. He then made an uncomfortable move of looking down at his watch which prompted a fond farewell and off he went up the high street leaving me sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet, so to speak.

Now the moral of this little tale concerns the dilemma we have in extending Dylan’s art into the area of serious study: to move beyond the mere rhythm into a heavy, heavy shit situation. It is ok to appreciate the songs on a certain level, but even those people who understand and are sympathetic towards my Dylan thing, even they may not be prepared to recognise that there is a very serious side to all this stuff. A side that demands and deserves thorough research and contemplation; a side that ascends the ground floor of mere appreciation. My friend’s reaction certainly doesn’t deter me from continuing my task of exploring, through the eyes of others and through my own, the song 'Visions of Johanna' and in any event I am two thirds of the way through my allotted 12 months and I ain’t gonna give it up now. Why, I haven’t anywhere near finished yet my research of the views of others about this song and my own interpretation, although reasonably well formed in my mind, does seem way off in the distance. Hopefully the next time I see my Lawyer friend I will have completed my deliberations and will be back to leading a normal contributory life. That will no doubt be good news for him, for me and I am sure for you too.

There is a double dilemma this month as I have been involved in other heavy, heavy shit i.e. the death of the public Freewheelin’ and its reincarnation as the Judas fanzine printed by Keith Wootton and edited by Andrew Muir, both former and current Freewheelers. The time required to be taken in endeavouring to sort out the mess created by this unfortunate turn of events has steered me a little off course. I was still licking my wounds and thinking about what I perceived the name ‘Judas’ to imply being broken promises, traitors to loyalty and thirty pieces of silver when my good friend and mentor Patrick J. Webster reminded me that it is quite a romantic notion to die in your twenties, when you are looking good and creatively in your prime. So, the pretty public face of Freewheelin’ made it to 22 which was the same age as Buddy Holly when he died. James Dean was 24 when he left behind his beautiful corpse; Brian Jones was 26 and Jimi Hendrix made it to 28. Lord Byron was a little older but he didn’t do rock ‘n’ roll so that excuses him. They all left behind a legend and this Freewheelin’ legend will now continue into cyber space and beyond. Take off your black tie Mama, for we will get born again. And anyway, it’s alright Ma, its life and life only.

That wayward rudder that pushed me off my study course has also been gripped by the publication of a new book on Dylan’s work namely ‘The Nightingale’s Code. A Poetic Study of Bob Dylan’ written by John Gibbens (JG)(73) which, as the very title to the book harks back to an outtake line from 'Visions of Johanna', obviously has something to say about the song. I had intended to get towards closing in on the views of others and starting on my own views but this new book has some interesting thoughts on 'Visions of Johanna' and this time around I am going to concentrate on this publication which was not available when I started out on my journey with 'Visions of Johanna' all those months ago.

‘The Nightingale’s Code’ has already received a degree of attention and indeed Paula reviewed the book in her debut Freewheelin’ article(74). It was in that article that Paula made the somewhat revolutionary remark ‘that only real poets should be allowed to write about Dylan’. To that, I say, trust me, I am a poet! Actually the link between Paula’s remarks and the 'Visions of Johanna' section in ‘The Nightingale’s Code’ concerns my other favourite poet namely William Blake. I have not seen it written anywhere else (and he has certainly beaten me to it) but JG draws attention to Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ poem ‘The Little Boy Lost ‘ when referring to that little boy lost who takes himself so seriously in Dylan’s song. There is a flaw however in JG’s reference as he puts this poem among Blake’s ‘Songs of Experience’(75) whereas it is actually found in the ‘Songs of Innocence’ collection just prior to the poem ‘Little Boy Found’ which has, as will be seen from my eventual interpretation, greater significance in my view.

The further observations that I find particularly interesting in JG’s exploration of 'Visions of Johanna' relate, firstly, to an artistic connection:

‘As “infinity goes up on trial” we move from the Mona Lisa, in her sound frame of perspective, to the “jelly-faced women” – of Picasso’s post-Cubist portraits, for example – to the wonderful and inexplicable Surrealist image “Jewells and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” which one can easily visualise in a painting by Dali, or Chagall perhaps, or as the title of one by Miro’.(76)

Then, secondly to the authors efforts as he tries to identify exactly the number of people involved in the opening of the song:

‘The foundation for the eventual corrosion and explosion of the perceived world lies in the splitting and fusing and dissolving of persons. In the begining – since “we sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it” – there appear to be at least three; namely the narrator and “Louise and her lover so entwined”. But from the next verse it seems possible that the narrator and “her lover” are one and the same, since “Louise is alright, she’s just near,/ She’s delicate and seems like the mirror”, which suggests that “she” and ‘I’ are “entwined”’(77)

This effort to identify and number the characters involved in the song is something to which the author subsequently returns:

‘We were warned from the start, though: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks……..?” And again: “We sit here stranded”. To be stranded, as well as meaning to be stuck, also means to be twisted together of separate strands, like a rope: a metaphor picked up at the end of the verse in the word “entwined”. So the different characters may all just be different strands of the same two personalities.’(75)

Although the sexual connotations of ‘in the hall’ and ‘little boy lost’ and an internal ‘farewell kiss’ are interesting, the question of actually identifying Johanna also bothers the author:

‘It has been mooted that Johanna, as well as being the heavenly woman, the “Madonna” who “still has not showed”, also echoes the Hebrew name for the pit, Gehenna’(75)

Overall, there is nothing, really nothing in JGs study of 'Visions of Johanna' that has a solid ring about it; no real naming of names, nothing too outrageous or dangerous. Perhaps that’s because the author is a real poet and thus would have the smoke rather than the flame. ‘The Nightingales Code’ however is a wonderful achievement. In his foreword, John Gibbens says that it took him 20 years to complete his book. I wonder what my Lawyer friend would think of that? Perhaps he will think that one year on one song isn’t such heavy, heavy shit after all!

(73) ‘The Nightingale’s Code. A Poetic Study of Bob Dylan’ written by John Gibbens. First published in 2001 by Touched Press.
(74) Freewheelin’ 195 . Freewheelin’ Quarterly Volume 22.
(75) ‘‘The Nightingale’s Code. A Poetic Study of Bob Dylan’ page 250.
(76) ibid page 248.
(77) ibid page 249.




Part 9. Life On The Goal Line

Whilst recently browsing through the sports section of my local evening paper – The Cambridge Evening News- I came across a quite unimportant league table. The facts and figures concerned the results and positions of the teams involved in the struggle for glory in the Cambridge and District Colts League. The division of the league that attracted my attention was the ‘under-14c’ sides and this is how it read:

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

Panthers

12

9

1

2

72

15

28

Saxton Rangers

11

9

1

1

63

11

28

Hardwick

11

8

1

2

43

20

25

Huntingdon

13

6

2

5

42

21

20

Balsham

9

6

1

2

59

8

19

Hunts A

12

6

0

6

41

50

18

Priory P B

10

5

2

3

31

17

17

Ende Dyn

12

4

2

6

44

35

14

Sawston E

14

1

0

13

32

87

3

Bottisham

14

0

0

14

5

168

0

What caught my eye was not the fact that there was clearly a battle for promotion going on between Panthers and Saxon Rangers but rather the plight of the bottom club: ‘Bottisham’ which is a small village lying a few miles east of Cambridge. Bottisham’s statistics make somewhat depressing reading: Played 14. Won: nought. Drawn: nought. Lost:14. Goals for: 5. Goals against: 168. Points: nought.

Remembering that this was an under 14 side, my heart immediately went out to the mums and dads of the Bottisham 11. Think about it: turning up, week in week out, in all weathers to support your youngster’s sporting prowess only to see the team get hammered time after time. What do you say to keep your child on an even keel after every hammering? ‘Never mind, it’s only a game’ probably wouldn’t go down too well after the 168th goal went in.

And what about the little goallie? On the basis that the under 14s play 30 minutes each half, 168 goals in 14 games works out, on average, to the Bottisham keeper letting in a goal every 5 minutes of every game. From that fact can be drawn the following conclusions: (a) his mum and dad obviously bought him the wrong kind of goallie gloves for Christmas and (b) he’s not going to grow up to be another David Seaman is he? Oh ye little Bottisham keeper, if you ever get touched by the hand of Bob and read this, let me give you some advice: next season become a striker!

Actually I have felt somewhat like the Bottisham keeper of late. As you all know by now, and if you don’t then you haven’t been reading your Freewheelin’s for the last eight months, I have been stuck in a 'Visions of Johanna' moment for what seems like an eternity. My dilemma is in the knowledge that this is my stab at the song, that once it’s done for me I probably won’t go back to it in any great detail again for the rest of my life. Furthermore, because 'Visions of Johanna' is such an important song, indeed, according to our Poet Laureat ‘the best song lyric ever written’ , I feel that I have to do it justice and provide some sort of points of reference by expounding what others have found in the song. Therein lies the difficulty of my task because there have been so many ‘others’ and they have found so much in the song. The references are relentless, they have been coming at me from all corners of the printed world and every time I see a new article or section of a book which adds a new dimension to the song it is like picking up the ball from the back of the net: it keeps me pinned on my goal line and stops me moving forward to the goals I want to score.

Recently, another goal went in. This time it wasn’t from any publication to which I can refer you dear reader but rather from the Internet. Andrew Muir passed this article on to me and I contacted the author, Karen Feller, for permission to reproduce it in its entirety here. I particularly like this article, which was written very recently, in fact about a week ago as I write. It has a freshness about it, some interesting new ideas and an insightful honesty. In the past I haven’t set out in full anyone’s writing on 'Visions of Johanna' but have just highlighted certain themes that have appeared in the text and then referred the reader to the source. The published home of Karen’s article however is in cyberspace, a gargantuan black hole where source can sometimes be unfathomable. As I think though that attention should be brought to the article I must assume here the position of ground control. Major Tom may never return to planet earth but ‘Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”’ by Karen Feller certainly has. Read on:

‘The instrumental introduction with the harp's plaintive wail sets the mood for the five verses that follow. The scene is set for us as an urban, bohemian loft on a rainy winter evening. Because of Dylan's history we can assume it is in The Village. I consider this song to be autobiographical and therefore Dylan to be the narrator in the song. Dylan has lost Johanna yet the fire still burns for her. Dylan Louise and the absent Johanna are all trying to make the best of the situation that they are currently stuck in. Louise offers Dylan the fleeting gifts of consolation, companionship and casual sex. In the first verse he is in bed with Louise but he speaks as if he is someone else since his body is with her while his spirit, mind and heart are with Johanna. This reoccurs in this song and he places himself in the roles of several different characters. This frequent splitting into his Gemini twin, mixing up the pronouns deliberately, and his use of mirror images to look at a situation from all sides is a common trait in Dylan's writing style. Joan Baez has long been suspected of being Johanna but Dylan has never explained any of his 500+ songs, so we do not know.

The second verse takes us away from the loft to the streets of the city outside the windows. Blind Man's Bluff (Buff) is a game where a child is blind-folded and spun around then wanders around trying to hug a person in the group. If the child catches someone they are "it." If it is a flirting situation then the group teases the two that they are in love. Obviously, someone would have to want to be caught since it is rather easy to sidestep a blindfolded person. The child would pretty much have to stand in their path waiting to get the reward of being hugged and teased. When Dylan says the ladies are playing this with the key chain, they are flirting with the men in an empty lot and offering the key to their proverbial hotel room but with strings attached.

The other whispering women he observes, the all-night girls, are The Village party girls who are blatantly out for a wild time. Dylan very often uses a train metaphor in songs. We can picture a guard and hear the clicking of his flashlight as he shakes his head at them all and wonders if his boring dependable life in his dead end job is crazier than the lives of these irresponsible wild
young people who are out running around, having fun. He has authority over them and he must chase them away with his flashlight from embracing each other in the dark corners. Dylan is careful not to hurt Louise and knows she is delicate. They are aware they are using each other.

"The Mirror" may be a reference to the Picasso painting by that name as it ties into art references in a later verse. He needs Louise but it is painful to see her in place of Johanna. The ‘lectricity line is as powerful as any from this prolific poet's pen. He transcends the physical and make the visions a reality momentarily till the x-ray image of a lightning flash reveals the truth and wakes him back out of the fantasy that he is with Johanna.

The powerful delivery of this line comes to a climax along with the music. It is the ‘ghost' of the true electricity he had with Johanna and again we find him leaving his body; this time Johanna is now all that is left of him and he is spent. Dylan was influenced by his beat poet friends during this decade, and "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg who was a close and constant friend comes to mind in this line when Dylan uses the word howl.

Here again the pathetic, whining, ‘little boy lost' is Dylan. He knows that people don't want to hear him going on and on about Johanna. He is waiting in the hall for his own inside ‘little boy lost' to stop the muttering and get on with life. Here is the main hint that Joan Baez may be Johanna. She gave him a famous kiss on the head when she finally walked out on him in Europe on the '66 tour. The real life moment is preserved in the film "Don't Look Back."

In his Oscar-winning song "Things Have Changed", he says "the next 60 seconds can be like an eternity"; this is echoed in the lyric "Infinity goes up on trial". I hear in this line that he feels he is being tested by the seeming unending endurance of time he must suffer through. To me, he literally wandered around museums to get away from his aching mind but he didn't succeed since his memories altered his perception of the art works he saw. The other visitors' voices echoed off the marble floors and the high ceilings of the museums he visited, and this sound was not missed by his musician's ear.

These otherworldly sounds and the warping of time and space in his distraught state of mind led him to wonder about salvation. Is heaven infinitely the same eventually? When he looked at that famous smile he thought of Mona Lisa as a person sympathetic to his own need to wander. Van Gogh may have been the source of the ‘primitive wallflower freeze/frieze'.

It is interesting to note here that "Visions of Johanna" was originally called "Freeze Out" while Dylan was formulating it. It is the spelling of freeze that throws us off and as often with Bob Dylan, it is just the kind of intentional jolt he uses on people who over-analyze his lyrics. Up till now, the first four verses have the same rhyme scheme but this verse is longer with the "freeze", "sneeze", "jeeze", "knees" and more pronounced, just for the sheer fun of the words' sounds. "Jelly-faced women" conjures up a visual of wealthy old matrons who commissioned portraits despite their jowls, sag lines and wrinkles. Bust portraits have the top half only and Dylan handles this with a wonderful touch of humor. More humor for the matrons with their opera glasses and ostentatious jewelry slung around their necks. (The Rolling Stones liked this line so much that the cover of their album "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out" featured a mule with binoculars and jewels around its neck.)

Dylan is the peddler who is selling himself to Louise/the countess. She gets to use Dylan and he gets to use her as a crutch to help him make this time a little less lonely. It is all pretend as it has been since the beginning of the song when he said they were stranded and doing their best to deny it. She mothers him as many women in his past have done for Dylan, according to his many biographers. Everyone needs someone, and Dylan appreciates Louise accepting the truth of it and playing along. Madonna/Johanna is not coming back and he is devastated that she is not center stage in his life. The performer, the fiddle player, in Dylan is going back on the road again to his never ending tour. He has paid the price and everything stinks. He is beginning to accept his share of the blame of what went wrong in the relationship, and this line about his conscience comes across as tortured. Harmonicas are manufactured to play one specific musical key such as G or E. Skeleton keys are used to open any locked door. But what do harmonicas playing skeleton keys AND rain sound like? Dylan has said in interviews that he captured what he calls a "thin, wild, mercury sound that is metallic and bright gold" on Blonde on Blonde. This is the sound he was speaking of.

People have pointed out that the Hebrew word for Armageddon is "Gehanna" and that is what the song may be about. In that case, everything I said is entirely wrong. Dylan clearly has an apocalyptic feeling to much of his writing; however, I don't see it in this song.

This tune is haunting with its organ, harmonica, drums and guitars feeding the lyrics and the gypsy-like intense vocals. The amazing part is that all of this and so much more is enclosed in this one song. There are so many layers of meaning and complexity and so few words that he uses to get it across. My interpretation is of course not entirely accurate or factual. I have come to these ideas through numerous Dylanologist's theories that I have read over many years.

When Dylan is asked what a song is ‘about' he answers with a remark like "it's about -7 and a half minutes." "Song writing is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something. And I don't think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything." - Arlo Guthrie

Bob Dylan makes Shakespeare look like Billy Joel. - George Harrison

Bob Dylan has so many sides’

As you may agree, a well written exploration of the song with some interesting discoveries. It almost makes me feel like getting the ref to blow the final whistle and dismantling the goal posts before I have the chance to turn striker. But it’s a game of two halves and I might soon just start rebuilding my team! As, for the Bottisham 11, I will keep you informed of their progress but take heed all who turn your backs on loyalty and disregard the strength of unity: the slow one now will later be fast.

 
 
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