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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


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

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 16. Bob Dylan & The Ideal Androgyne

On the Saturday after Brian Epstein overdosed on barbiturates at his bachelor pad in Belgravia, I went to an all night party in Barnet. I remember it well because there was a terrible sense of doom left over from the realisation that there would be no more operations from such a smooth operator yet at the same time there was cause for celebration because on that very day, Saturday 30th September 1967, the pirates had plundered the establishment and Radio 1 made its first broadcast. We all had flowers in our hair and I wore a rainbow coloured three strand set of beads.

Those all night parties were usually attended by a strange group of people and I had this friend called Reg who was able to perform an amazing party trick that impressed Mod, Rocker, Hippie, Druggie, Arty, Farty and Tarty alike. Reg was able to name, out loud and without too many pauses for breath, every one of the 60 ‘heads’ that appear on the cover of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Now you may think that is easy but I can tell you, it was fuckin’ amazin’ and always ended in applause. Never however trying to steal any limelight from Reg, I usually muttered to any one within hearing distance the thing about Dylan’s head on that album cover: that if you took a ruler from the top of the cover and drew it down slowly, the first head that you would come to, by a few strands of hair, is Dylan’s. Dylan was placed higher than any one else – which was, I always demanded, exactly how it should be.

Being engulfed by the sounds from the vinyl that never seemed to be found inside that particular album sleeve, we probably didn’t appreciate that what we were looking at was a serious item of Brit Pop Art and that one day the artist who brought it all together, namely Peter Blake, would be knighted in recognition of his contribution to the arts. Mind you, we were so stuffed full of art in those days, be it by way of fashion, on film, on a tube station wall or coming through the airwaves, there was no sense in trying to figure any of it out. Just like the Lotto – you had to be innit to winnit and that was about enough. Since then, ‘art’ has been on a roller coaster ride and now anything and everything can be treated as art which, in my view, is exactly how it should be. We are all artists for Christ’s sake! Just hand me a brush and I’ll show you what I mean.

As you are ware, my own roller coaster ride over the last 16 months has been in trying to put down in words my interpretation of Dylan’s song ‘Visions of Johanna'. I have probably confused the issue because I have referred to the song in a visual sense but that is only because I see it as a great work of art with many images and colours. Perhaps I could use the Sgt. Pepper album cover as a kind of template this time around but instead of having, as my centre piece, the fab four decked out in glorious battle dress of reds, blues and yellows, I would have another soldier: a knight-at- arms; a transvestite; a virgin; a visionary; a martyr burning at the stake. For this time and this purpose I now bring the mainstay of my interpretation from the background and use her image as my centrepiece: in whatever of her many incarnations you may see her: she is there, standing behind the potted plants and the big bass drum: Joan of Arc. I will never match the number of 60 heads that appeared on Sgt. Pepper but I have of course already mentioned a few that interconnect and surround the image of Joan of Arc. These were in the shape of Clinton Heylin, John Keats, George Bernard Shaw and a host of French Kings. Here come two more:

3. Enter Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg

For a long time Dylan fans thought that ‘Visions of Johanna' was written for or about Joan Baez. Perhaps some fans still do which is of course their prerogative and if they are happy with that interpretation then, for them, it must be right. Joan herself was pretty convinced at one stage that the song was about her. I have previously highlighted the chapter of Anthony Scaduto’s biography ‘Bob Dylan’ which went under the heading of ‘1961 – 1965: Visions of Johanna' and in particular his interview with Joan Baez when the subject of the song was raised.(107) For the sake of convenience I repeat what Joan said to Scaduto as follows:

‘He’d just written ‘Visions of Johanna’ which sounded very suspicious to me, as though it had images of me in it. I mean, I can’t ever say that publicly. But he’d been talking to Ginsberg about it. First of all he had never performed it before, and Neuwirth told him I was there that night and he performed it. And that was very odd. I was listening to the song and sort of inwardly wanting to feel flattered, but wondering whether – you know, I mean, everybody in the world thinks Bobby’s written songs about them, and I consider myself in the same bag. But I would never claim a song. But certain images in there did sound very strange. Then Ginsberg came up at one point and said “What do you think ‘Visions of Johanna is about?” And I said “I don’t know , Ginsberg, your guess is as good as mine”. He said , “No, no, what do you think it’s about? Bobby says…” And then he reeled off this pile of crap that had nothing to do with anything. And I said, “Did Bobby say that or did you make that up Allen?” I had the feeling the two of them were in sort of cahoots to make sure I never thought the song had anything to do with me. I had that feeling a lot. And I wouldn’t give any… I mean Ginsberg was trying to get me to say I thought the song was written about me, and I would never say that about any of Bobby’s songs.”

Scaduto himself considered the song may have been about or for Joan as he subsequently wrote:

‘Certainly Dylan’s most beautiful song, ‘Visions of Johanna’ may have been written for Joan Baez – the name and the line about her farewell kiss supports that view.’

Before adding the rider:

‘But more importantly Dylan is describing an awareness that has brought him to a stage where his ‘conscience explodes’. He must be freed from the prison in which Dylan the star and the symbol has been locked. The visions hold out hope for beauty and truth in his life.’

In his very detailed study of the song (which I have also previously mentioned(108)), Stephen Scobie, considers it a major possibility that the song has a connection with Joan Baez. This is what he writes:

‘What significance can be attached to the name “Johanna”? There are two major possibilities: The first is the biographical interpretation, that “Johanna” is intended to recall Joan Baez. There is a precedent for the use of a slightly altered form of “Joan”, assuming, that is, that “Queen Jane Approximately” is also about Joan Baez. Johanna’s insistent absence in the song could then be related to the ending of Dylan’s affair with Baez earlier that year: Johanna, indeed, is “not here”.

Having thus given a reason why the song could be about Joan, Stephen Scobie promptly discounts the idea:

“The character of Johanna, and the nature of her visions, are in no way illuminated or expanded by an identification with Joan Baez. For this reason alone, I would set the biographical reading aside as being, at best, irrelevant”.

So what is my take on the possible connection between ‘Visions of Johanna' and Joan Baez? Well, let me say firstly that I believe there is never any smoke without some kind of fire and on the sole grounds that the suggestion has already entered the consciousness of some people and thus the consciousness of the song itself, there must, ipso facto, be a connection. But I think that wires have become somewhat crossed here and a misappropriation has occurred. People have been thinking about the wrong person. What may have confused the situation is that the connection is only half right and that state of being half right is of course in the name. It is the wrong Joan. The connection is not to Joan Baez but to Joan of Arc. It is simple really. Sorry Joan!

Although having thus dismissed her connection with the song, but retaining her image in my ‘Sgt. Pepper’ collage, it is Joan Baez that introduces Allen Ginsberg into the picture. Repeating again the section of Scaduto to which I have previously referred, this is how Baez reflected upon Dylan’s relationship with Ginsberg:

‘You see, he had been hanging around Ginsberg. That’s another great, funny story of how I met Ginsberg for the first time. And by the way, I dig Allen. He’s crazy but I dig him. It was at a party. I guess Bobby and I must have given a concert. I was feeling very off Bobby that night, so Bobby was trying to make it with some redhead. He got very drunk at this party, and he was flirty-flirty-flirty-flirty, talk-talk-talk with this redhead. And so I started talking with Neuwirth and hanging out with Neuwirth. I think Neuwirth had on a blue velvet jacket. Anyway, Ginsberg came up, introduced himself and announced he wanted to fuck Bobby. And I said, “Well, hello, what’s holding you back?” And he said “I’m shy”. I said “Isn’t that sad?” I can’t remember much more about that meeting except that’s all Ginsberg wanted to talk about. I was a little insulted myself. I hadn’t realised he wouldn’t have any interest in me at all and was just using me to get to Bobby. Then Bobby was completely and totally drunk. We got him out in the car and he was, oh, maudlin. I don’t remember what he was saying, but I said “Ginsberg wants to go to bed with you,” and he said “Oh, oh, far out,” and then he passed out…”

I am not sure what Baez is trying to suggest here. Is she insinuating, by relating Dylan’s expression “Oh, oh, far out,” , that Dylan would be a willing participant in a sexual relationship with Ginsberg? Who knows? One thing is for sure though, Ginsberg was serious about his intentions towards Dylan: “he wanted to fuck Bobby”.

I have previously dealt at some length with the matter of ‘gender ambiguity’ in certain songs on ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and in this I was lead by the thoughts of Patrick Webster.(109) In his exploration, Patrick may have meant something different but what I am talking about here is the use of the word ‘gender’ in describing the state of being male, female or neuter i.e. what particular sex you are. I am sure that Ginsberg ultimately had no doubt about his sexual orientation for he described his leanings, sometimes graphically so, in his poetry but, objectively, there has to be confusion, or ambiguity, concerning his gender. After all, if Joan Baez had said that that she “wanted to fuck Bobby” that would be quite natural but, when Ginsberg says it, come on, it’s not quite the same! I suppose that you have to admire Ginsberg for being so open about his sexuality where others, for whatever reason, may steadfastly deny such persuasions and there are some who would go to the extreme of taking their own lives rather than face criticism from a state of small mindedness.

Unless Dylan ‘comes out’ in ‘Chronicles’ I guess we will never know if Ginsberg’s desires towards Dylan ever came true but of course this should make no difference to my study of ‘Visions of Johanna'; I am not here to be scandalous but rather to finish my picture before the light fades. This subject however of gender ambiguity or gender confusion forms a major part of the picture and has to be touched in quite carefully.

For fear of reprisals from the academics amongst us, I do not want to become too biographical but you must not forget that I am forming images here and thus this section must start with the image Dylan portrayed in late 1965 and early 1966. In his introduction to the ‘Ivory Towers’ collection of essays ‘Do you, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors’(110) Neil Corcoran makes the observation:

‘I would add something which, surprisingly enough, no contributor mentions: that the carefully constructed and very striking image Dylan made of himself in the mid-60’s was a distinctly androgynous one, and that some of the songs of that period – on Blonde on Blonde (1966), in particular, have an element of camp.’

Although this observation begins and ends with that one sentence and frustratingly Corcoran does not elucidate on what songs on ‘Blonde on Blonde’ he considers to be ‘camp’ and why, I think we can all agree with his view that Dylan’s image from about December 1965 to the end of May 1966 was a ‘distinctly androgynous one’. Corcoran was of course writing some four decades after the event but a journalist who witnessed the image at first hand reported the same in the French newspaper Le Monde.

The report, to which I have previously referred,(111) concerns Dylan’s performance at the Paris L’Olympia on his 25th birthday: 24th May 1966. This is how the French journalist saw him:

‘His appearance comes as a shock. With his dust-coloured hair arranged like an uncombed wig around his pale but finely shaped face and with his high heels and his dust-coloured suit, he looks like Sarah Bernhardt at the end of her life, frighteningly thin. Seeming tired, asleep even, hunchbacked and fragile as a china doll, Dylan staggers to the microphone and undergoes a transformation - the small insignificant man becomes the poet of the age.’

Playing subtle games with the microphone, his head tracing arabesques around it, pointing one, sometimes both, arms he sings uttering controlled shouts as if he has difficulty in putting his words together, as if he is giving birth, painfully’.

Not only androgynous then, not only looking like ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘a china doll’ but Dylan is appropriated with the function that can only ever be performed by a woman: of ‘giving birth, painfully’. Gender confusion abounds!

Staying with this image of Dylan but returning to one of the heads surrounding the centre piece of my imaginary Sgt. Pepper collage: on the 14th February 1966, i.e. the very day that Dylan recorded the version of ‘Visions of Johanna' that is included on ‘Blonde on Blonde’ Allen Ginsberg was thinking about how Dylan looked. Is it just plain coincidence that the Ginsberg’s ‘road poem’ ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra’ was written at the very same time that Dylan was recording ‘Visions of Johanna' or is there something more to this? The poem is included in Ginsberg’s ‘Collected Poems 1947 – 1980’(112) and the extract relating to Dylan is as follows:

Angelic Dylan singing across the nation
           “When all your children start to resent you
           Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”
His youthful voice making glad
                             the brown endless meadows
His tenderness penetrating aether,
           soft prayer on the airwaves,
                    
Language, language and sweet music too
                     even unto thee
                             hairy flatness!
                    even unto thee
                                           despairing Burns!’

Perhaps Ginsberg here was writing in code and he meant something else by the use of the words… ‘Angelic Dylan……..Queen Jane……..brown endless meadows……. tenderness penetrating aether……….. hairy flatness!’ who knows? A couple of weeks later however he wrote another road poem called ‘Kansas City to Louise’ where he described the goings on in a guest room. I should warn that the squeamish or those with a nervous disposition should turn away now:

‘I lay in bed naked in the guest room
     my mouth found his cock,
          my hand under his behind
               till the whole body stiffened
                    and sperm choked my throat.’
(113)

Remember that was not written by Jackie Collins but by Allen Ginsberg. Gender confusion abounds yet again!

So let me get back to my picture and turn from one of America’s finest poets of the 20th Century, to another and to the subject of gender confusion or ambiguity, the way for which I hope that I have prepared. Perhaps the most obvious example of the confusion about which I am referring to is in the lines from ‘Visions of Johanna'

‘When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the moustache say , “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees’

So what are we talking about here? Is it a woman who looks like a man because she has a moustache or is it a man with a moustache who looks like a woman? Confused? I’d go for the former because in the line “Jeeze, I can’t find my knees” I see a woman, who would normally wear a skirt and thus her knees would be exposed, is wearing trousers so she can’t see her knees. It is a woman dressed as a man. In other words a transvestite.

I would extend, if you will pardon the expression, this subject of gender confusion to the matter of phallicism and penile activity. The ‘little boy’ who is lost and miserable could be in such a state because he doesn’t really know why he has got a ‘little boy’ and, in any event he doesn’t know what to do with it because of his gender confusion. This situation is cleverly juxtaposed in the subsequent lines of the song with the masculine type who has a ‘hard (to get) on’ which enables him to be ‘kept up past the dawn’. How can I explain this further? Well let’s say that the little boy is so useless and all, just muttering small talk at the wall whilst of course the big boy is very much in the hall. Perhaps Dylan was inventing Vagina Monologues long before the term became fashionable!

Enough of all that, let me throw some cold water on to the canvass here and refer to a further line from the song which does not obviously support my drift but contains an entire universe of meaning and certainly is another link in the chain that binds ‘Visions of Johanna' to Joan of Arc. It is the second line of the song:

‘We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing best to deny it’.

Although I am putting the cart before the horse in dealing firstly with the words ‘deny it’, I have to say that, in accordance with the images I am portraying in this section of my picture, I see this act of denial as opposite to the act of ‘coming out’: the denial refers to a refusal to confirm a leaning or situation that, when confirmed, may cause possible embarrassment. The subject of that possible embarrassment is the first part of the line. Before I get there however I would like to flag up the situation that Dylan starts the line with ‘We sit’ . That may seem insignificant but if we reverted to the subjects of penises and vaginas and their daily functions, it should be noted that Dylan prefers the female position here. After all, men stand and women sit!

Having got that out of the way, I am left with one word, which could possibly be the most important word of the entire song, that creates Van Gogh-like swirls of colour and movement. It is a word that would always be welcome in any audio-visual masterpiece. A word that, if you close your eyes and think about, you could see before you all a manner of images. The word is ‘stranded’.

The use of the word is most interesting because it is a tense of the word ‘strand’; a word that has two meanings. Firstly there is the meaning of being abandoned, of being left high and dry, but a ‘strand’ is also a rope, a cord, a piece of twine; and ‘to strand’ is ‘to entwine’. Because of its close proximity, in this verse, to the word ‘entwine’ (about much more will be written later) I prefer the second use of the word and because Dylan sings ‘stranded’ I see it as meaning suspended, by an imaginary rope perhaps, in the middle of the air, at a point that is neither here nor there; at a state that is, in my picture, neither male nor female; an androgynous state of having both male and female characteristics where gender confusion and ambiguity abounds.

It is this androgynous state that others have referred to when describing the image of Dylan at the relevant period and it is this androgynous state that forms a major part of the story of Joan of Arc. First, you have to remember that one the reasons that Joan was burned at the stake was because she was a transvestite. Joan’s dress became the subject of no less than five charges at her trial, two of which were as follows:

1. That she put off and entirely abandoned women’s clothes, with her hair cropped short and round in the fashion of young men, she wore shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together, long and fastened to the said doublet by twenty points, long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantle reaching to the knee, or thereabouts, a close-cut cap, tight fitting boots or buskins, long spurs, sword, dagger, breastplate, lance and other arms in the style of a man-at-arms.

2. That not only did she wear short tunics, but she dressed herself in tabards and garments open at the sides, besides the matter is notorious since when she was captured she was wearing a surcoat cloak of cloth of gold, open on all sides, a cap on her head, and her hair cropped round in a mans style. And in general, having cast aside all womanly decency, not only to the scorn of feminine modesty, but also of well instructed men, she had worn the apparel and garments of most dissolute men, and, in a addition, had some weapons of defence.’(114)

In her book ‘Joan of Arc’(115) Marina Warner explores at some length Joan’s complex attitude towards sexuality and in the chapter of the book entitled ‘Ideal Androgyne’ she raises certain matters which add further daubs of colour to my brush. On the subject of transvestism she writes:

‘Transvestism in women is only occasionally pathological. It is tempting today, when explanations from sexual deviations are popular, to say Joan of Arc was a lesbian. But the formula takes no account of cultural or social conditions and is totally inadequate. Historically, transvestism has often provided a device for a woman to make something of herself, a figure of speech to lay claim to a greatness beyond the expected potential of her sex. Like many devices, it is practical and yet mysterious, convenient and yet magic, all at once, and its provoking, fascinating quality has made it a motif in tragedy, folklore, mythology, hagiography, ritual, romance and children’s stories.’(116)

Perhaps, more pertinently to my picture, Marina Warner deals with the matter of being ‘stranded’, with no particular gender to call your home:

‘The state of suspension, of non-differation, acieved by a transvestite girl was confirmed by the Christian tradition as holy. Sexlessness is virginity’s achievement and a metaphor for martyrdom, as hagiography bears out. Transcendence of gender in most of these cases heralds a welcome or even a self-imposed death; transvestism becomes the transitive verb in a sentence of self-obliteration. Yet the martyrs of this kind saw their renunciation as a rebirth into an exalted state of original wholeness, where sex did not obtain. A Freudian would see this state as analogous to death, not life, because in seeking to cancel sexual difference, it seeks to arrest time and to deny the mutability to which all flesh is heir. Catherine Clément, a French analyst, in a brilliant essay on myth and sexuality, warns against the illusion that health can be discovered in the denial of fundamental laws: the law of sexual difference, the law of time and change. She quotes the case of Sidonie, an anorexic girl who told her doctor as she lay dying of starvation: “There it is, my problem, I want neither to get fatter nor thinner, to be neither boy nor girl, to have no more periods.” She wanted, as Clément, comments, to annul periodicity, “ to play the disorder of androgyny against the order of the female cycle (called règles, or rules, in French), to be neither one thing nor the other, neuter’.(117)

It is in that description of women seeking to arrest time; the wish to have no more periods, to play the disorder of androgyny against the order of the female cycle that I find has a connection to the following further lines of ‘Visions of Johanna'.

‘In the empty lot where the ladies play blindmans bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the ‘D’ train.’

Firstly, where a lady is able to able arrest the order of her female cycle, to halt her periods, her womb will always be an ‘empty lot’ because she will never be able to conceive. In that respect the ‘key chain’ will refer to a chastity belt, which prevents her from having intercourse; the ‘bluff’ is the suggestion that she actually has something behind the chastity belt worthy of consideration but the reality is there is nothing to find or see – hence the reference to a ‘blindman’.

The ‘all-night’ girls of the second line clearly have been able to arrest time, they live in a situation where it is ‘all-night’ and they can only whisper of their escapades because there is nothing, really nothing to shout about!

Before I leave this subject of the androgyny of both Bob Dylan and Joan of Arc, I want to mention another line of the song which has caused a scratch upon many a head. To preface my explanation of this line, I refer again to ‘Ideal Adrogyne’, the chapter of Marinas Warners book about Joan Of Arc:

‘Through her transvestism (Joan) abrogated the destiny of womankind. She could thereby transcend her sex; she could set herself apart and usurp the privileges of the male and his claims to superiority. At the same time, by never pretending to be other than a woman and a maid, she was usurping a man’s function but shaking off the trammels of his sex altogether to occupy a different, third order, neither male nor female, but unearthly, like the angels whose company she loved’(118)

Remember how Allen Ginsberg describes Dylan in that line from his poem ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra’: ‘Angelic Dylan’? Clearly Ginsberg saw Dylan as being like an angel. That reminder however is not my final stroke here. It is in the line:

‘Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule’.

A mule is of course a sterile creature, having no ability to either make or fall pregnant, a neuter. To ‘hang’ is obviously to suspend; and who on earth would be seen dead in that strange combination of jewels and binoculars? Binoculars were, after all invented for the purpose of seeing your enemy in times of war and thus have a masculine connotation. Jewels are for purpose of adornment and thus have a feminine connotation. Where could you combine such masculine and feminine objects? What woman would dress as a man and go to war? Joan of Arc, that’s who!

 

(107) Freewheelin’ 190. Part 2. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(108) Freewheelin’ 199. Part 10. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(109) Freewheelin’ 202. Part 12. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(110) Published by Chatto & Windus, London 2002.
(111) Freewheelin’ 191. Part 3. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
(112) Penguin books. Paperback edition. Published 1987. Page 409.
(113) ibid. page 414.
(114) The Trial of Jeanne d’ Arc. A complete translation, with introduction by W. P. Barrett. London 1931.
(115)Joan of Arc. The Image of Female Heroism’. First published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1981.
(116) ibid page 149.
(117) ibid page 157.
(118) ibid page 145

 

Dylan

 
 
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