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

by J. R. Stokes


Part 12. Are You Ready?

So, my journey along the high roads and low roads of interpretation regarding what  has been lauded as  Dylan’s ‘most perfect composition’ and ‘the best song lyric ever written’  ends in the  place that I started out from, namely Freewheelin'. It was a journey that began over a year ago in Freewheelin’ number 189 (May 2001) and along the way I have sat beside the babbling brooks of the biographers Scaduto, Shelton and Spitz; I have been shown the view from the mountaintop by Clinton Heylin; I have stumbled at the misdirected road signs and the utter pomposity of Michael Gray (and, in that respect I know whereof I speak); I have touched the beauty expressed by Alain Blondot; I have visited the paranthesised world of Paul Williams; I have spent some time on the internet with Karen Fuller; I have taken subway trains with David Pichaske and Wilfred Millers; I have strayed into the hallowed halls of learned debauchery to meet Aidan Day; I have stood like a ghost at the back of the Manchester Free Trade Hall with C.P. Lee; I have reopened issue number 9 of The Telegraph with  John Bauldie and Nigel Hinton; I have got burnt by the intensity of Stephen Scobies brainwaves; I have tried to catch a nightingale with  John Gibbens; I have come across many high places of  darkness and light with a collection of other travellers and I have even dueted with Bob Dylan and The Soggy Bottom Boys.  A journey, according to my automatic word count, of  (to date) some 33,950 words. Words all about just one song. 

But here is the thing: the words that I have found most pertinent to my own interpretation of the song are to be found in articles that have appeared first here in Freewheelin’. In fact in Freewheelin’ numbers 180 (August 200) and in 199 (March 2002). The first article was written by Patrick Webster under the title ‘Blonde on Blonde & its Hetereosexual Assumptions – An Open and Shut Case’ and the second by Russell Blatcher under the title ‘Visions of Johanna. Through Pain to Salvation’. Both articles contain perspectives that I have not found in any other studies of the song and both articles have links to some of my own thoughts on the song. Links that are as secure as the newly restructured Millennium Bridge that runs over the ancient River Thames from St. Paul’s to the Tate Modern on Bankside. I trod that bridge recently and there was no sign whatsoever of a wobble!

The article that I want to mention first here is Russell Blatcher’s mind sweeping opus which was his second article for Freewheelin’. I consider that the subtitle to Russell’s article i.e. ‘Through Pain to Salvation’ disclosed a particular insight to the song and indeed those two ingredients of humanity i.e. ‘pain’ and ‘salvation’ will be important features in my interpretation. There are in fact many cross-over images in Russell’s view of the song when placed against the picture that I intend to paint and, although I will not go into detail here to illustrate those images, (the article was quite recent and should be fresh in our minds)  I would like to draw attention to certain observations put forward in the article.

In his introduction to the article Russell honestly declares that he does not wish to be prescriptive in his analysis but he wishes simply to increase his understanding of the song. What better way to do this than putting down in words, if even only for one’s own personal order and clarity, your individual thoughts on any subject matter? That’s exactly what Freewheelin’ has always been about to me: a place to offload my head full of ideas which, if I kept them within, would surely drive me insane!

Russell then sets out his stall thus: 

‘Visions of Johanna explores the various forms of salvation possible by transcending the apparent limits of physical existence. These take several fairly well known forms:

1  Pleasures of the flesh
  The beauties of the natural world of art or music
  Human love
  Religious faith’

The article then goes on to consider the song, verse by verse, with these four forms of salvation as the overriding key to understanding. Russell observes:

‘Johanna is neither a girl nor any kind of character in the narrative…..Verse by verse the visions embody the possible forms of salvation. At the end only faith in some other form of reality is left. Dylan concludes that without this life is unbearable.’

Using references to a grammatical code, in particular the use of personal pronouns, Russell further explains his view that a prominent feature of the song is the use of focus and he masterfully charts an overview of the personal pronouns adopted in the lyrics. Although of further great interest to me, in the light of my proposed interpretation, is the part of the article which provides an explanation of Dylan’s focus on empty relationships and sex, Russells  observations on ‘the night’  of the first verse, and his conclusions,  contain the most inspired and powerfully written views that I have read on ‘Visions of Johanna’ in all my journeys with this song.

On ‘the night’:

'The night' is not just the night time; it also represents the night of death, which follows the day of life.  'Deny it' and 'defy it' are linked, both by the half rhyme and by their position at the end of the lines. Both refer back to 'the night' and hence to death. We deny the existence of death, essentially by ignoring it as long as we can (Footnote 4, second part), even though we are all stranded in the reality which death circumscribes. One way to defy death is through love, which is the 'handful of rain' which Louise has falsely offered. This is sometimes seen as a drug metaphor, but there is no justification for this in the text.’

And Russell’s conclusion which, because of its vivid imagery that enhances the sheer force of the argument, needs must be repeated in full here: 

‘As the song concludes, the physical world is stripped away. 'This empty cage' is our body, which imprisons us.  So we must watch the gruesome spectacle of our own putrefaction.  'Cape of the stage' is also a metaphor for the physical body, the part or character we assume for life, and must abandon. I see the fiddler as a musician in a funeral march in the streets of New Orleans.  The phrase 'Ev'rything's been returned which was owed' mirrors a line in the funeral oration: 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust', meaning that in death we give up our physical bodies and return them to the earth. 'The fish truck that loads' then is the hearse, with fish again echoing the rotting motif.  The word 'conscience' is expanded to encompass consciousness.  Those without the ‘visions’ must assume our consciousness 'explodes' into nothingness at the moment of death. The seven lines linked by the persistent rhyme scheme mentioned above are involved in the description of bodily and spiritual collapse.  The vocal delivery is accelerated throughout, until by the last he seems almost breathless (appropriately enough).

In the closing couplet the funeral procession marches on in the rain, music still playing. It is no accident that music should be involved in Bob Dylan's concept of salvation. For all the stillness and sparseness of the instrumental arrangement of the Blonde On Blonde recording, the closing bars always leave a sense of exultation. The ability of artists like Dylan to construct such masterpieces and our ability to hear them are a key feature of humanity’s salvation and ultimate triumph over death.  The last line then represents not despair, but triumph that we are capable of glimpsing those transcendent realities.’

Russell concludes his study with footnotes relating to the name ‘Johanna’ and with biographical information that are not only useful but are an illustration of the research and thought endowed upon this powerful piece of writing.

The article I previously mentioned by Patrick Webster that appeared in Freehwheelin’180 (August 200) under the title ‘Blonde on Blonde & its Hetereosexual Assumptions – An Open and Shut Case’ widens my scope a little as it relates to the entire ‘Blonde on Blonde’ album. In the context of Patrick’s findings however the article does refer to ‘Visions of Johanna' and in any event Patrick’s views are so original, and have such a bearing on my portrait of the song, that I find it essential to refer to them in order to prepare my canvas. 

Patrick begins his article by referring to the publication ‘Eyes Wide Open’ which was Frederick Raphael’s memoir of the film director Stanley Kubrick and in particular the authors involvement with Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut. In a clever link, Patrick then moves on to the album ‘Blonde on Blonde' :

Blonde on Blonde consisted of fourteen songs, songs that I think it fair to say have generally been interpreted as being, for the most part, a collection of love songs. Bob Dylan, or so his biographers and commentators consistently tell us, is a great writer of love-songs. However, it seems to me that Blonde on Blonde can be more accurately interpreted from a differing perspective, it seems to me that this collection, deliberate in its ambiguity, purposeful in its ever-present subversive discourse, set out to undermine the hetero-sexist hegemony it was operating within.

It was a record that began with a song dedicated to a specific number of women – ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35’ and a record that ended with a song dedicated to one specific woman –‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, however, the authentic theme of the record - or at least this is what I want to argue - was to be found outside the discourse of heterosexual love.’

Thus, having laid the foundation of his views, Patrick moves on to enlarge the crux of his argument which, basically, is that the majority of the songs on the album are purposefully ambivalent, or ambiguous, concerning the matter of gender. Regarding the song ‘Pledging My Time’ he says:

It is one of the many songs on Blonde on Blonde that is non-gender specific, we don’t know the gender of anybody in the song. Anybody, that is, apart from the enigmatic hobo, who is designated as male:

Well, the hobo jumped up, He came down naturally. After he stole my baby, Then he wanted to steal me.

What, we might fairly ask, is going on here? A hobo jumps up and then, obeying Newtonian physics (i.e.: the law of gravity), comes down again. He then steals the narrator’s baby and then - in a typically Blonde on Blonde manoeuvre - ambivalent in its gender discourse - attempts to steal the narrator too. The word steal - or stole in the past tense of the song - seems to imply a sexual motive. What, we might fairly ask again, is going on?

A further question is asked concerning the song ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’ which, Patrick says:

‘……… again non-gender specific. There is a ‘you’ and an ‘I’ in the song, that is as much as we are ever told. It is part of hetero-sexist assumptions that construct masculine and feminine characters. There is mention of a third party in the second verse:

When you whispered in my ear
And asked me if I was leaving with you or her ...

However, the gender of the third party, the ‘her’, offers no concrete identification to the gender of the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ elsewhere in the text. Once again this would seem to me to have a purposeful ambivalence’.

Patrick then refers to the ‘gender ambiguity’ which he had found in the song ‘I Want You’ before moving through further songs on the album to underscore his theme. On the subject of ‘Visions of Johanna' he comments: ‘It is a song that finally has a literal orgasmic climax, logically at the end of the song’s final verse:

While my conscience explodes ...

However, it still appears to me to be a song with unconventional ‘straight’ connotations, the sexual discourse it portrays is far from straightforward.’

Summarising his views and in an endeavour to reinforce his argument, Patrick continues:

So what was Dylan really up to on Blonde on Blonde? The argument I want to put forward encircles the idea that such a play on the subversion of gender stereotypical roles was a quite deliberate intent on Dylan’s part. The title of the collection offers a clue of a kind. Blonde on Blonde as a title has become so familiar as to almost exist as a proper name in its own right, we just call it that without thinking very much further. However, presumably there was an artistic textual intent in the title - although as far as I know no one has ever come up with a meaningful response to it. It has been pointed out that it is a mnemonic for Bob, which I don’t think gets us far at all. Patti Smith, in a poem about Edie Sedgwick, suggested ‘Blonde on Blonde’  referred to white on white, to the nothingness of the drug-taker’s blissful oblivion. However, I am sure I am not alone in seeing a more  literal depiction of the title, one that works to neatly subvert our hetero-sexist assumptions. Blonde on Blonde, envisioned literally, suggests a blonde on another blonde. One might be accused of adopting an overtly exaggerated sexist approach, but such an image does encourage one to envisage some kind of association with a ‘lesbian’ embrace.  It seems to me that this may have been a part of Dylan’s intent. One thing we do know about the title is that Dylan originally called the record Blond on Blond, and then retitled it: Blonde on Blonde, and the addition of those ‘e’s’ do suggest a purposeful feminisation of the title’.

The article then repeats some Dylan quotes……   ‘the first quotation is from an unspecified date in 1966, Dylan on his private jet, in a deep mid-western night somewhere over Nebraska, is discussing his attitude to love and sex with his part-time Boswell, Robert Shelton:

Love and sex are things that really hang everybody up. When things aren¹t going right and you’re really nobody if you don¹t get laid in one way or another, you get mean, you know. You get cruel. Now, why in the world sex should force this is beyond me. I truthfully can tell you that male and female are not here to have sex, you know, that¹s not the purpose. I don’t believe that that’s God¹s will, that females have been created so that they can be a counterpart of man’s urge. There are too many other things that people just won¹t let themselves be involved in. Sex and love has nothing to do with female and male. It is just whatever two souls happen to be. It could be male and female, and it might not be male and female. It might be female and female or it might be male and male. You can make fun of it and be snide, but that’s not really the rightful thing.’

On the subject of quoting Dylan, Patrick warns:

‘It is sometimes perilous to attempt to link an artist’s work and his public statements.’

Before he provides another powerful conclusion to his article:

‘……..but I think the above quotations do help in illustrating one of the primary discourses of Blonde on Blonde. I believe the majority of the songs on that collection were quite deliberately subverting gender stereotypes. They were songs fully attentive to the idea that gender was (and always has been) a social construct of whatever the dominant discourse might be. They were songs aware of the significance of this fact, songs that were able to go against the common-sense, taken for granted-ness we inhabit. We live in a world where our identity is almost wholly ruled by our sense of what gender we might be. The mistake here is to confuse sex with gender, the possession of a penis or a clitoris need not signify masculine or feminine ways of acting. It seems to me that a great deal of the trouble we find ourselves in, usually at the behest of religious prohibitions, revolves around this. We might do well to recall that nearly all the world’s great religions have always had more to do with preserving patriarchal authority than with any supposed spiritual content. The fact that Bob Dylan bought into this power structure at a certain point in his life is of some interest……….., ‘

So, where does all this leave me? Picture this. A small sparsely furnished room above a bordello in the Montmarte district of Paris; the weather is hot – nearly ninety degrees; a naked model lays on an unmade bed in the corner of the room, waiting to be painted and paid (remember Patrick’s observations on gender ambiguity? What makes you think the ‘model’ is female?); a bohemian storm is brewing; an artist and a writer sit at a table, contemplating the model, smoking, drinking cheap wine and discussing just how they can encapsulate the images of truth, beauty, freedom and love in one work of art. There is a knock at the door. Sven Goran Eriksson enters the room with Freida, the brunette from Abba: they are both draped in the Swedish flag. Sven hands in his resignation, trumpets sound and the bells of St. Catherine chime Rule Brittania.

OK. I’m ready to go. Are you ready for this? The canvas is on the easel, brushes in hand. But first I must roughly sketch the subject who will be the mainstay of my interpretation. A real life person. Someone who was damned because the pleasures of the flesh were forbidden to her; someone who was damned for her human love; someone who was damned because of her religious faith; someone who was martyred because of her many visions; someone who was martyred because of her sexuality and, in particular, because she was ambiguous of her gender; and someone who, on the 24th May 1431, at a cemetery of the abbey church of Saint-Ouen near Rouen in France signed her name: