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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


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

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 17. It Used To Be Called That And Now Its Called This...

Paying full attention to the recommendations of C.P. Lee concerning the album ‘Jerusalem’ by Steve Earle (see item number seven on C.P.’s Top Ten for 2002 - Freewheelin' 208) and taking full heed of C.P.’s call to support the threatened artist, I went out and bought the album. My only regret in this purchase is that I had left it so long for I should have been listening to this album earlier, a lot earlier. Indeed, I recall that the last time a Steve Earle album was recommended to me was back in the 80’s when the late John Green insisted that I should listen to Earle’s album ‘Copperhead Road’. Now it could have been that what attracted JG to that particular album was the track ‘Johnny Come Lately’ which was recorded with another of John’s favourites – ‘The Pogues’ and included the lines:

‘We’re gonna drink Camden Town dry tonight
If I have to spend my last pound’

That plan of action would certainly have met with JG’s approval but I am doing John and Steve Earle a disservice here by taking those lines out of the context of the song. In fact the song tells the story of a fighter pilot in the American Airforce who visits London during the Second World War and falls in love with, and subsequently marries, a girl from North London. The narrator of the song is the grandson of the fighter pilot as is disclosed in the final verse of the song:

‘Now my grand daddy sang me this song
Told me about London when the blitz was on
How he married Grandma and brought her back home
A hero throughout the land’.

Although this song is clearly anti- war, the message contained within it is double edged because, whilst ‘Death was rainin’ out of the London night’ in the course of the war, Grand daddy found the love of his life. So out of something that was incredibly bad emerged something else that was incredibly good. And on the subject of being incredibly good, I would go along with C.P. and say that, had I spent some time with Steve Earle’s latest product in 2002, it would have got into my top ten too.

The song ‘John Walkers Blues’ from ‘Jerusalem’ that C.P. highlighted in his Top Ten also makes reference to war. Again the message is double edged for, in the mind of John Walker, his death in war would be a sacrifice that would bring him to paradise by martyrdom. So, on the one hand you have the immense suffering that war inevitably brings, but on the other, for this particular soldier, the ultimate penalty for taking part in war would be glorious:

‘If my daddy could see me now - chains around my feet.
He don’t understand that sometimes a man
Has to fight for what he believes.
And I believe God is great, all praise due to him
And if I should die I’ll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him.

We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong.
As death filled the air we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom’.

A chilling state of affairs indeed and I can quite understand why the song sends shivers up and down C.P.’s spine whenever he hears it. How can you possibly hope to understand, or deal with such fanaticism?

My favourite song on the album is the final track and indeed the track from which the album takes it’s name i.e. ‘Jerusalem’. Again the song relates to war and the venue for the conflict in this song is that tinder box that is at the centre of what appears to be a never ending struggle i.e. Jerusalem.

The scene is set by an ever familiar image of that particular part of the Middle East:

‘I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
Death machines were rumblin’ cross the ground where Jesus stood.
And the man on the TV told me it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say.’

Then, in a school of thought that is decidedly Lennonesque, Earle imagines a different scenario: he takes a sad song makes it better:

‘Well, may be I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school.’

But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls

And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.’

Imagine that. It’s not easy if you can.

The idea of the lion and the lamb lying down together is not new in rock lyrics and of course Dylan has used this image in one of his songs. In fact, if you relate certain ideas in the song ‘No Time To Think’, written 25 years ago, to the current situation of impending war, you will appreciate just how prophetic Dylan can be:

‘Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid you
Where the lion lies down with the lamb.
I’d have paid off the traitor and killed him much later
But that’s just the way that I am.

Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality.
But the magician is quicker and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink
And there’s no time to think.’

Sacrifice and paradise, mortality and reality, traitors, tyrants and magicians are straight from the headlines of today’s newspapers. I have however written a great deal in the past about Dylan’s prophetic qualities and, to bring all this together and to preface my continuing work with ‘Visions of Johanna' I want to turn briefly to another poet and prophet, namely, William Blake. The connection between Steve Earle’s album and Blake is quite easy to make for it is contained in the title of their respective works namely ‘Jerusalem’.

Between 1804 and 1820 Blake worked on a massive project involving engravings and poetry that he called ‘Jerusalem’. This has however nothing to do with the popular hymn well known as ‘Jerusalem’ the verses for which are in fact taken from another of Blake’s works namely the poem ‘Milton’. In the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ (which is not in fact Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, for he didn’t give it the title ‘Jerusalem’) Blake also refers to a ‘lamb’ namely ‘the holy lamb of God’, and this obvious reference to Christ is probably the reason why this particular work became a hymn for it was adopted by the church but then given a completely misleading, and, in my view incorrect, connotation. The extracts from ‘Milton’ are in fact a passage describing the power of, and the delight in, the unfettered use of the imagination and, connected to this, masturbation! If you mention Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ to most people however, the title evokes images of church services and meetings at the Women’s Institute! How misleading a mere title can be!

There is another link between Steve Earle’s song and William Blake’s hymn: they not only both refer to Christ but they also make reference to how the ‘holy Lamb of God’ uses his feet:

Earle:

‘Death machines were rumblin’ cross the ground where Jesus stood’

Blake:

‘And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?’

I wonder if Earle was aware of the cross over images between his ‘Jerusalem’ and Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’? Perhaps there is more to the title of Earle’s song and the title of his album than meets the eye but then, I have always found, that the titles to any work are most intriguing and, moreover, most important. I turn accordingly to the alternative titles given by Dylan to his masterpiece ‘Visions of Johanna'.

As I have previously pointed out,(119) there is no entry in the index of Clinton Heylin’s Dylan Biography ‘Behind the Shades – Take Two’ to ‘Visions of Johanna'. A remarkable omission you would think, in particular as Heylin, in his said biography, refers to the song as Dylan’s ‘most perfect composition’ Instead Heylin lists this song under the heading ‘Freeze Out’ which was the original title of the song and the one with which Dylan introduced the song when he premiered the work at the Berkeley Community Centre on the 4th December 1965. Clearly not being satisfied with just one title (or two when you take into account the title officially given to the song of ‘Visions of Johanna’ when it was recorded on Valentines Day in 1966), Dylan made it three when, during the 1966 tour of Australia he introduced the song as ‘Mother Revisited’. So what was the point of these alternative titles and have they any relevance to the essence of the song itself? I happen to think so. I would go further and suggest that they have a deep and meaningful relevance.

Not many critics/authors/reviewers have made much of the alternative titles to ‘Visions of Johanna’. Indeed the heaviest book of all on Dylan’s art namely Michael Grays ‘Song & Dance man III – The Art of Bob Dylan’ doesn’t even make reference to the situation that the song had alternative titles at all: in my view a regrettable (but quite common) lack of observation having regard to the view expressed by many critics that ‘Visions of Johanna’ is one of the most important songs in Dylan's canon. Stephen Scobie, in the introduction to his booklet ‘Visions of Johanna’ to which I have previously referred(120) mentions the alternative titles and has a stab at an explanation:

‘A few historical notes’. (about the song) The song was written in late 1965, and in its earliest version it was known as “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.).

Whilst I am not sure about the inference of sarcasm in Dylan’s alternative title to the song, I think that Scobie has a very good point indeed when he links the ‘Mother’ of the alternative title to ‘Madonna’, as I will endeavour to explain later. But first, a consideration of the entire lyrics of ‘Visions of Johanna' shows that the same do not include the word ‘mother’ from the second alternative title anywhere, but they do include the word ‘freeze’ from the first alternative title: the line being:

‘See the primitive wallflower freeze.’

I have previously referred to my stance of painting a picture with this extensive interpretation of ‘Visions of Johanna' and in those three words : ‘primitive’, ‘wallflower’ and ‘freeze’ I see all kinds of images that set my brush hand starting to work furiously. I make no apology for the deconstruction of Dylan’s words here, and this is not a guessing game as to what those words could possibly mean in a cold , academic literary criticism sense: I am doing my own thing here: adding to my canvass until I can walk away from the song and say ‘It is finished’ . In the meantime…

Let me take that word ‘wallflower’ first. A reference to the flower itself perhaps: the Cheiranthus cheiri that blooms with golden yellows and oranges in late summer. Or an image of any flower hanging on a wall, like a painting. But there is another meaning to the word ‘wallflower’ i.e. a person who is alone and without a partner; and the word is genderless so the person thus described could male or female. It is this matter of being without a partner that intrigues me in my interpretation of the line for such a condition implies the absence of sexual activity. In this respect I revert to part16 in this series of articles and in particular to the women described there who have denied themselves any sexual activity for the purpose of playing the disorder of androgyny against the order of the female cycle. In expounding on the lines:

‘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.’

I wrote:

‘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!’

Turning to the use of the word ‘freeze’ in ‘primitive wallflower freeze’ I tend towards the same expression of ‘arresting’ or ‘freezing’ time; of making time stand still to ensure a certain condition prevails. So my wallflower is a woman with a ‘frozen’ womb who denies herself sexual activity. Seems like a ‘Freeze Out’ in anyone’s book! And ‘primitive’? This is perhaps the key linking word of the three because it suggests an original state of being: so I see an image of a womb frozen in it’s original state; before any possible incident of impregnation: and, lower down the scale, before the penetration of the vagina by intercourse. The state of virginity.

If only through half closed eyes you can see my image of the title ‘Freeze Out’ as relating to a virginal female, then I challenge you to open your eyes wider when I join this title to the further alternative title of ‘Mother revisited’. Stand back for a moment and see the resulting combination: a Virgin Mother. In fact, the most famous Virgin Mother of all time, or, in my view, a representation of the Virgin Mother in the form of the Madonna. I am with you Stephen Scobie!

Now ‘Madonna’ is a word that Dylan uses in the song by the following line:

‘And Madonna she still has not showed’

Following my drift relating to females who arrest their periodic cycles, and taking a ‘show’ as an indication of the commencement of such condition, it seems clear that Dylan’s Madonna still has no periods and could not thus conceive. But this is getting all very gynaecological and I may be accused of straying too far down below the surface of my canvas so I will change tack, but only slightly.

In another song on another album Dylan portrays a situation where he feels ‘frozen’ in a position and unable to move. The song is ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ and the album is ‘Infidels’. This feeling of being ‘frozen’ is portrayed as follows:

‘But it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting
That’s hanging in the Louvre
My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches
But I know that I can’t move’.

Compare this image to a description concerning the position of probably the most famous painting in the world :

‘Why is that, of all the six thousand paintings in the Louvre, it is the only one to be exhibited in a special box, set in concrete and protected by two sheets of bullet proof glass?’

This description comes from the introduction to the wonderfully illu minating book ‘Mona Lisa. The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting’ by Donald Sassoon(121). I will have much to say about ‘Mona Lisa’, who of course appears, with ‘the highway blues’ in ‘Visions of Johanna', in my next article and I will be quoting extensively from Sassoon’s book (he does in fact quote the line from the Dylan song). As a start, this is a little bit if history that Sassoon provides about the Mona Lisa:

‘This is, allegedly, the portrait of a Florentine lady, Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy merchant. She would have been addressed as ‘Monna’ Lisa , Monna being a contradiction for Madonna (mia madonna). The spelling ‘Mona’ is erroneous……’ (122)

So, the Mona Lisa is really a Madonna, or, as the book suggests, it could be Leonardo da Vinci himself in drag. We are thus back to ambiguity of gender and transvesticism. One of the reasons why Joan of Arc was put to death. The other reason of course was because she had visions. And, just in case you need a reminder about my French connection, the Louvre is a museum in France!

(119) Freewheelin’ 189. Part 1. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’
(120) Freewheelin’ 199. Part 10. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’
(121) published in 2002 by Harper Collins
(122) ibid. page 2

 
 
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