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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


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

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 10. I Know Where I Can Find You

When I was a kid I was always pretty good at finding lost balls. I suppose it was something that I was quite proud of really and what made it even better was that the bunch of kids I used to play with also knew I was pretty good at this particular task. I certainly wasn’t a gang leader or anything like that, indeed if there was ever a gathering of our little group of misunderstood tearaways I would usually try to dissolve into the background and let the older kids direct the daily escapades of those long school summer holidays that weren’t just fun laughter for a week or two, but went on forever. 

I was raised in the country, in a small village in Hertfordshire and my father before me, and his father before him, worked on the land.  Consequently I was surrounded by greenery: the road out side my house was edged by an unkept ditch overgrown with  stinging nettles and bindweed; the field at the back of my house wasn’t laid to crop but was retained for the purpose of cattle grazing, and where the cows and the sheep didn’t linger  there were great clumps of ungrazed meadow. It was in those stinging nettles, in that bindweed and in those clumps of ungrazed meadow where I would come in to my own. 

We were a sporty lot, us country kids. We played football, cricket and, during Wimbledon fortnight, a lot of what we thought was tennis. I recall we had one old tennis racket between the lot of us and when a stand-in umpire shouted a score of fifteen love, the girls used to giggle. Oh to be fifteen again and in love! Occasionally someone would bring along a golf ball but as we never had anything to hit it with, we spent most of our time trying to cut it open to see what was inside.

There is something of an immense despondency about losing a ball. A fear perhaps that good times are over for good. And it is all so abrupt. One minute everyone is enjoying the game, running, laughing, shouting , chasing an object that has no choice about whether or not it really wants to be the subject of  such fun. Then, in  flash, it all ends. A slight frenzy of exuberance from the person who is holding the bat, all eyes fixed skywards as the object soars and soars, a bump as it lands , a bounce,  a roll and its gone. Lost in the stingers, in the weeds, in the rye grass. For good. A life cut short. Despair and despondency for the mourners. The perpetrator of the calamity gets the blame and is beaten to the ground. A few hopefuls thrash about in the long grass, for demonstration purposes only. The owner of the ball vows never to let these useless herberts ever play with his ball again. Like never, EVER. The girls don’t think it matters and start making daisy chains. The boys are distraught, just might as well be dead.

It was all a matter of faith I suppose. I always knew it could be found. Faith and perseverance. And knowing where to look of course ‘Not over there. OVER HERE! Look you dummies, here it was all the time.”

I, I will be King. And you. You will be Queen. For nothing will drive them away.  We could beat them just for one day. We could be heroes. Just for one day.

Actually, with or without the support David Bowie, in the matter of finding lost balls so that the game could restart and life could be normal again, I was a hero. For ever and ever. 

Now all that was a long time ago and, on the subject of my never ending 'Visions of Johanna' exploration, I am not looking for heroism. What I hope my readers will agree upon is that I have looked in all the right places and I have found all manner of balls that have been lost or buried in vast mounds of print concerning this very song. Before I start playing my own game with the song, no doubt using balls that are more used to juggling rather than hitting or catching, there are just a few more studies of the song that I want to bring to light.  

One work that I do wish to refer to is  a 37 page booklet written by Stephen Scobie and aptly titled ‘Visions of Johanna’(78). SS initially explains that the purpose of the booklet ‘ is in part an attempt to make up for one of the most obvious omissions from (his book) Alias Bob Dylan’ and then goes on to set out  the ground rules of his study:

‘My method in this discussion will be to go through 'Visions of Johanna' line by line, trying to spell out as much as possible of what the words mean, suggest or imply. I am not arguing that Dylan would necessarily have been aware of all these ramifications – a large part of the meaning of any text always exceeds the author’s conscious awareness or intention - but I would contend that my readings are legitimately suggested by the actual words of the song, in their common usages and associations’.(79)

SS’s study initially provides some historical background to the song including the reminder: ‘ The song was written in late 1965 and in its earliest version it was known by the title “Freeze Out.” (On one occasion Dylan also introduced it as “Mother Revisited”; a title which may refer, sarcastically, to the aspect of Johanna as “Madonna”, the mother goddess).” The study then certainly does go through the song line by line and there are some very interesting ideas about the common usages and associations of the words used. An example of this is the reference to the word ‘conquer’ which Dylan uses in the last line of the first verse. SS notes the following, about this word:

‘It is by far the most active verb of the first stanza. After a whole string of images that suggest lassitude and passivity… comes the sudden, strong, active incursion of  “conquer”. Johanna does not sidle into the singer’s mind: she takes it over by force, like an invading army.  Although physically absent from the room, she dominates the scene, she takes centre stage. The first-person pronoun, “my”, appears in the song only to surrender its territory.’(80)

Another line that is neatly dissected is the one that SS admits to being ‘his favourite Dylan line’. Considering that Dylan has written many thousands of lines, it is a bold assertion to name any one as ‘a favourite line’, but then this one is memorable. It is the penultimate line of the second verse:

“The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face”

Yes, of course, we all remember that one! SS notes that John Herdman refers it to French Symbolist poetry:

it “finely exemplifies Baudelaire’s theory of correspondances and might well have been envied by Rimbaud”.

SS enthuses further:

‘It is a beautiful line; it is a terrifying line. Perhaps it speaks of a ravaged,  hollowed-out beauty in Louise’s face; but it also speaks of death and of imprisonment. The ghost howls in the gehenna of its bones. As in the first verse, the energy of electricity has died, has become a ghost of itself.'(81)

So the study goes on, drawing out and expounding notions and theories on each line of the song A very detailed study indeed and one to which any one who wishes to delve further into the underbelly of the song should visit. In concluding his study SS presents an overview which reflects upon the general nature of the poet and his work:

‘These are the moments of poetry which remind us that behind and beyond all these characters  ­Johanna, Louise, the singer/peddler/ fidler/ - stands the figure of Bob Dylan, the creator of this song. And  for all its bleakness, cynicism, world-weariness, despair,'Visions of Johanna' remains a work of art, something created, an assertion, no matter how dark its vision, of the poets power.’(82)

From books, smaller publications and internet downloads, to the bread and butter of Dylan critique, namely the fanzines. Earlier in my own journey with this song I made reference to the writings concerning 'Visions of Johanna' in the revered Dylan fanzine  ‘The Telegraph’ (see part 5 in this series of articles). Now I wish to turn to another fanzine namely Andrew Muir’s ‘Homer, the slut’ and in particular to Issue ten  thereof which was published, I think, in October 1993. I say ‘I think’ because the issue has no cover date. 

The article that I wish to refer to is simply entitled 'Visions of Johanna'; it extends to some 9 pages and is written by Alain Blondot. The first thing that I like about this article, and I like this article very much indeed is, at the end, after AB’s conclusions, he reproduces the lyrics of the song and gives each line a number in descending order. Consequently, against number 1 appears the line  ‘Aint it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet’ and against number 48 is the line ‘And these Visions of Johanna are all that remain’. Quite simple and straightforward you may think but I have this thing about numbers linked to art and the way these lyrics are set out turns 'Visions of Johanna' into a mathematical song. It is certainly fun ( to me at least) to choose particular numbers which may have some perceived importance and see how they match up with the words that are associated with those particular numbers. Without getting too mathematical about it, the way that the lyrics are thus displayed adds a new dimension to the song. 

I find the article itself to be inspirationally informed, it is beautifully written and indeed deals with wider issues and eternal truths contained in the song. On the subject of line 3 AB writes:

‘The strong surrealistic image of Louise holding a handful of rain tempting you to defy it is also poetry, but it is difficult to come to terms with. It all depends on the symbolic function of “rain”. For Freud, water (linked to the moon) symbolises women and femininity, whereas fire and sun symbolise men. Why would Louise tempt anyone to defy her femininity (Then why not?). Rain also symbolises the forces of nature – the elements and life; is it the temptation to defy life and natural forces that are within and outside us? Is it that defiance that can lead to the visions about to occur? I am sure there are dozens of ways of receiving this line. Every listener, with his own history and experience, will “feel” it differently. Again, it is one aspect of Dylan’s mastery as a writer to give us an opportunity to play an active part as we listen.’(83)

I think that it was this article that first made me aware of the link between line 30 (the  ‘Mona Lisa’ line) and the artist Marcel Duchamp. Page 7 of the article states as follows:   

‘Was Dylan aware that a French surrealist artist – Marcel Duchamp – once painted a parody of the Mona Lisa, adding a moustache to her face? He called it “LHOOQ” which phonetically reads “Elle a chaud au cul”, i.e. “her ass is hot” or even “she’s got her ass on fire”, hence her urge to leave and run down the highway.’

And on the subject of identification AB writes:

‘Madonna probably refers to Mary, the mother of Christ; if so, she represents salvation. She, too, is depicted as an actress who was once on a stage, wearing a cape; this stage is compared to a cage which is now corroding. Is it irony towards institutionalised religions?  - which teach you to say prayers but not to pray. Maybe the visions have helped the narrator to think about the matter: Truth, God, Salvation are not to be found in some useless theatrical parade performed in full dress clothes, this way to handle religions is to be restrictive, like being in a cage which, thank God, is now empty, with its bars corroding away. It is the first real hint of freedom in the narrative, and if we reflect back on the song, we become aware that slowly, step by step, the characters come from a situation where they are prisoners, motionless, to one where they are free, where movement can start again.’(84)

Then, progressing from that observation to the wider picture that concerns you and me: 

‘Getting free is one of the main themes of the song, but it seems to be a rather difficult task; you must get rid of all the prejudices and hypocrisy which can inhabit your mind, you must find the balance in the forces that are within yourself, between your ideal and reality, so that “I” and “he” can be reconciled.’

And, before Alain presents the song with a mathematical curve, he provides an insightful and honest conclusion:

I have not used the word “mysticsm” yet but this process can be considered as a mystical experience after all. It is the search for truth, for God which is within yourself: and this can only be done after going through a journey to hell, a dangerous one, where your sanity is at stake. (Doesn’t “Johanna” sound very much like “Gehenna”?). If you do succeed you come back with the skeleton keys and the rain, the former can open any door and give you access to the truth, and the rain holds the mystery of life. The narrator never says he has got hold of the skeleton keys and the rain, only the wailing harmonica tune suggests  he might have had a glimpse at them, and he is left there, with his visions that remain, unable to say more, puzzled, just like we are, just like I am.’(84)

I wholeheartedly agree with Alain’s clever implication here: the song, like life, is a puzzle. A wonderfully miserable jigsaw where pieces just do not fit together at times. I may have been good at finding lost balls when I was a kid but, on the basis of looking in the right places to find things that have been lost, I often  feel that I was so much older then. As you may have guessed…this will be continued.

(78) I am not sure when this booklet was published but it was a limited edition of 150 copies and available through the USA bookservice ‘Rolling Tomes’.
(79) 'Visions of Johanna' by Stephen Scobie page 5

(80) ibid page 11
(81) ibid page 17
(82) ibid page 34
(83) 'Visions of Johanna' by Alain Blondot page 4
(84) ibid page 8

 



Bob On Sea

(At B&B in May 2002)

It was the unfairly unknighted ‘Sir’ Brian Clough who voiced the theory that you would be able to sense the outlook of particular town folk by reference to the success or failure of their particular town’s football team. At least, I think it was Cloughie. It could just have been Gerry, the Landlord of my local pub during an after hours session for absent husbands only. Who ever it was that propounded the theory, I had the chance to test it out recently when I visited, on consecutive days, Brighton and Bournemouth, two seaside towns on the South Coast, about 100 miles apart. The point is that, at the close of the 2001/2002 soccer season, the football team affiliated to Brighton Town, namely Brighton & Hove Albion FC had been promoted as Champions from Division Two of the Nationwide Football league to the First Division whereas, at season’s end, Bournemouth’s football team namely AFC Bournemouth had been relegated from the same Division Two to Division Three. So Brighton’s soccer season had concluded with resounding triumph and Bournemouth’s had resulted in an unmitigating disaster. Triumph and Disaster. Would I be able to sense these two impostors in the eyes, in the mood, in the very heartbeat of the townfolk of these two seaside towns? And if, whilst undertaking my search, I was able to treat these two impostors just the same, would mine be the earth and everything that’s in it? Ha bloody ha. If only….

Actually, the real purpose of my visit to Brighton and Bournemouth on consecutive days in May 2002 had nothing whatever to do with football, although, having said that, I suppose that there isn’t much in my life that has nothing whatever to do with football. There are a small number of things of course and one of such number is Bob Dylan, for the pursuit of his legend was the true reason for me visiting Brighton and Bournemouth. Dylan was playing the Brighton Centre on Saturday 4th May and the Bournemouth International Centre, the following day, Sunday 5th May 2002. A double aim then: the testing of Cloughies (or Gerry’s) theory and also catching two Bob shows on the final leg of his European tour.

Lets get the first one out of the way first: football. In fact it was entirely the wrong day to test any soccer theory because, clearly unbeknown to the promoters of Dylan’s 2002 European tour, the first gig in the UK, namely at Brighton on Saturday 4th May, was held on Cup Final day. Arsenal versus Chelsea. Both teams from London having to battle for glory in some valley miles away from the capital. So on that sunny day in Brighton, the soccer buzz of the town’s Second Division Championship season gave way to that ancient tradition of F.A. Cup hysteria. At 2.45 p.m. most of the town centre pubs had closed their doors and were body guarded to ensure that the capacity regulations were not breached. Then, later, when Arsenal’s second goal went in there was a roar from doors and windows which caused me to consider that the town was rampant with Gunner’s supporters. You never however hear a roar from a team’s supporters when a goal is conceded so perhaps the fans were evenly mixed. It certainly seemed that way when the aftermath of the match continued on the town’s pavements: a bustling throng of revellers with no apparent affinity, except to the decibels of their own voices, swept through the streets. All good natured though but the joy seemed to be attached more to the moment, to the event of the day rather than some historic episode. Certainly a difficult day for scientific study relating to the behaviour of the human animal.

Bournemouth the following day was just like the day after cup final day, which if course it was. It seemed to me that the atmosphere indicated that the party had ended and it was hang over day. The sky was filled with clouds of anti-climax. The sort of day when a bridegroom wakes to realise that marriage is not just about a stag do in Amsterdam and something expensive in satin from the Anne Summers website.

I couldn’t really blame the Bournemouth town folk for looking the way that they did though because everyone hits a low after a high. Walking along the promenade on a bracing Sunday morning I came across a guy who appeared to have made a heap of all his winnings and risked it on one turn of pitch-and-lost; and lost. Instead of starting again at his beginnings and never breathing a word about his loss, he wanted to share his bad luck with passers by. A little further on there was another, then another. In the part of town where I found myself on Sunday afternoon the streets were empty and it took a while to find somewhere open to eat. Perhaps it was just Sunday afternoon in a seaside town. Perhaps when the tide went out it took some laughter with it. Perhaps everyone was at home watching a re-run of the day before. Who could blame them?

Reflecting on the situation at my hotel during a post-siesta, pre-gig moment I considered that the apparent differing moods of the Brighton and Bournemouth town folk may not have had anything to do with the Cup Final at all and that Cloughie (or was it Gerry?) may just have been right. It could well have been a matter, in footballing measurements at least, of Triumph and Disaster. Yet, more than that, it seemed that someone had pissed on Rudyard Kipling’s statue and decided that Triumph and Disaster were not impostors at all but were events that made a real difference. I could have been totally wrong about all this, and if I have overestimated the importance of soccer to a city then no doubt my failings will mean that I will never become a Man my son. But there did seem to be a difference.

There was however no difference, mathematically speaking, in the two Dylan shows on consecutive nights at Brighton and Bournemouth. Both contained 21 songs and both lasted about two and a half hours. For the record, here is what we got:

Brighton on Saturday 4th May 2002

1 I Am The Man, Thomas (acoustic)
2 If Not For You (acoustic)
3 It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (acoustic)
4 To Ramona (acoustic)
5 Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
6 Can't Wait
7 Subterranean Homesick Blues
8 Lonesome Day Blues
9 Mr. Tambourine Man (acoustic)
10 Masters Of War (acoustic)
11 Tangled Up In Blue (acoustic)
12 Sugar Baby
13 Summer Days
14 Cold Irons Bound
15 Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1st encore)
16 Man Of Constant Sorrow
17 Like A Rolling Stone
18 I Shall Be Released (acoustic)
19 Honest With Me
20 Blowin' In The Wind (acoustic) (2nd encore)
21 All Along The Watchtower

Bournemouth on Sunday 5th May

1 Wait For The Light To Shine (acoustic)
2 If Not For You (acoustic)
3 Desolation Row (acoustic)
4 Mama, You Been On My Mind (acoustic)
5 Absolutely Sweet Marie
6 Floater
7 Subterranean Homesick Blues
8 Cry A While
9 Boots Of Spanish Leather (acoustic)
10 A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (acoustic)
11 Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (acoustic)
12 Summer Days
13 Not Dark Yet
14 Drifter's Escape
15 Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (1st encore)
16 Not Fade Away
17 Like A Rolling Stone
18 Forever Young (acoustic)
19 Honest With Me
20 Blowin' In The Wind (acoustic) (2nd encore)
21 Highway 61 Revisited.

A total of 42 songs with only 6 songs being duplicated, so that’s 36 different songs over the two nights with 7 songs from ‘Love and Theft’. Those statistics alone are quite mouth watering but there was something more to the shows that quenched my thirst. It was the somewhat fluid subject of Dylan’s voice. I have heard a few performances of late (just a few? Some might say) where I could have joined the accusers who suggest that Dylan’s vocal delivery is a painful rasp and indeed there are times when I have heard the sound of his voice echoing the kind of noise you get when you take a razor blade to a hedgehog. Not so when Dylan performed certain songs by the sea. The third and fourth acoustic songs at Bournemouth and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ at Brighton were a delight and carried a vocal lilt that I haven’t heard in a while. If Dylan’s vocal range has been reduced by the number of his years or by the wear and tear that we have demanded of him, then most of the songs he performed over these two nights found him at home on his current range. I certainly had nothing to complain about from that point of view.

Visually, Dylan and his quartet were interesting. I can’t remember the last time I saw Dylan live with a hat. The creation that was more of a head dress than a hat from ’87 and the trilby in the early 90’s spring to mind but the white cowboy hat from this tour looked great. The open necked Charlie Sexton looked like he was having a fight with an adder for part of the evening but it was really an addictive pull at his guitar lead that caused his bending and twisting movements. With his straight shoulders, long hair and Wild Bill Hickock beard Larry Campbell had the presence of a general from the Civil War and Tony Garnier’s mischievous grin when anything untoward, or even approaching the untoward, occurred made me yearn for something untoward to occur. Behind them the shaded and mighty Jim Keltner was formidable in his energy and delivery. On both nights Dylan’s Oscar (or surely, a replica) sat high on an amp at the back of the stage and at Bournemouth a statute also appeared. Chris Cooper said it was Bart Simpson but it looked more like Little Richard to me. Dylan persisted with his ‘gang of outlaws’ formation at the end of both shows and at Brighton he forget about his grudges against his audience and actually blew us a couple of kisses. Apparently they were for Rita Miller from Cambridge - or at least that’s what she told me after the show! Dylan blowing kisses to his fans didn’t look quite right to me, I hope he doesn’t do it too often!

I really enjoyed both shows but then it could be said I suppose that it would be impossible for me to be impartial about seeing a live Dylan show, for so many other things come in to the equation. To borrow a line from a song on the new Tom Waits album, impartiality from this scribe is akin to balancing a diamond on a blade of grass. After the shows I only sensed Triumph and in that, I am proud to say, I found no impostor. Above all, being a crab by sign and by nature and whether football, Dylan or no: oh! I do like to be beside the seaside.

 
 
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