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

by J. R. Stokes


Part 18. That Thin, Wild, Salvation Army Sound

Any one who has kept up to speed with my marathon views of ‘Visions of Johanna' may recall that I headed Part 16 of this series ‘Bob Dylan & The Ideal Androgyne’. In that part I returned to a familiar theme concerning the matter of ‘gender ambiguity’ that I saw in certain lines of the song and indeed, taking this theme further, I stood upon the unsettled waters of biography and made reference to Dylan’s own androgynous appearance when he performed the song in concert in 1966. In view of the vast torrent of words that have been amassed in this continuing study of the song, and for the benefit of those who cannot possibly be expected to remember everything that I have said, I would like to provide a reminder of the references I made to the writings of others who supported, or touched upon, my views about Dylan’s male/female confusion of the times.

The first reference came from the introduction to the 2002 published book ‘Do you, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors’ where the Editor, Neil Corcoran had this to say:

‘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.’

I then moved on to a first hand account given of a performance by Dylan at the Paris L’Olympia on his 25th birthday: 24th May 1966. This is how a journalist, writing for the French newspaper Le Monde 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’.

As I previously concluded:

‘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!’

Bearing all this in mind, I was intrigued to read the following headline in The Independent newspaper on 21st February 2003:

It ain't me, babe. Bob Dylan to be played by a woman in his life story.

The article under that headline was written by David Lister and John Walsh and went on as follows:

‘Bob Dylan has given permission for a film to be made about his life. But as might be expected with a musician who favours the unpredictable, it will not be an orthodox biopic. Dylan will be played by seven actors, including a woman ……….’

Although you have to be doubtful about anything you read in the papers, the story goes that Dylan has struck up a close personal friendship with the movie director Todd Haynes and he has allowed Haynes ‘unprecedented access to his music and previous film work’.

In a kind of unpleasantly mouth watering way the article continues:

‘Haynes, contrasts the attitude of Dylan with that of David Bowie, who did not allow his music to be used in Haynes' glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine. To the astonishment of those who know how tightly he guards his material and his image, Dylan has agreed to give the director a free hand to use his back catalogue of recordings.

Haynes, who describes the film as "a multiple refracted biopic", says: "I can use whatever I like. It's in ink." He also reveals that the screen character who most resembles Dylan will be a woman.’

I am not sure whether any one had it in for Dylan when they planted this particular story in the press but having been made aware of the rumour, I investigated further and found the following on the BBC News website under the heading:

‘Woman to play Dylan in biopic’

Music legend Bob Dylan is to be played by an actress in a film about the singer's life.

An unidentified woman will portray the singer-songwriter at the height of his popularity in the mid-1960s.
The unlikely role is one of seven stages of Dylan's five-decade career represented by different actors - who also reportedly include an 11-year-old black boy.
The film is being made director Todd Haynes, whose film Far From Heaven has won an Oscar nomination for actress Julianne Moore.
Haynes said he wanted to capture the many facets of Dylan's character.
He said: "Bob Dylan is somebody who has continued to reject all of the various personas that he has embodied over the years.
"(He) continues to move forward by discarding himself, so my idea is to put together a film of multiple characters and tell their stories simultaneously."
Haynes said although each of the actors would portray the singer, none would create "the definitive Dylan".

The woman actor would play him as he appeared in the era "when he was best-looking", said Haynes.
Dylan fans will be intrigued by the prospect of the first major Hollywood film project in recent years to chronicle his life and work.
Haynes has reportedly struck up a close friendship with the artist and gained unprecedented access to his catalogue of hundreds of songs.
Dylan's life story - also due to be told in a forthcoming autobiography - makes for a potentially colourful film.’

Whether this ‘potentially colourful film’ will ever get off the ground remains to be seen but the very idea of a female playing Dylan in the mid-60’s playing (well possibly) ‘Visions of Johanna' sends this Dylan fan into a bit of a spin, especially as I have linked my views on the song to the legend of that well androgynous character and committed transvestite, Joan of Arc. These things never really work out how you want them to but an ideal candidate for the part of the female Dylan would be Milla Jovovich who of course played Saint Joan in the 2001 movie ‘Joan of Arc’. Perhaps I should give the wink to Todd Haynes before he puts the protective plastic on his casting couch.

Turning again to Saint Joan herself, one of the reasons for her conversion to transvestism was that she wanted to look like a man so, as she led the French army to the defeat of the English and thus secure salvation for her beloved France, she would be seen and treated like a true knight-at-arms. This leads me, in a way that will shortly be revealed, to a consideration of the actual ‘sound’ of ‘Visions of Johanna’ as it is performed on the album ‘Blonde on Blonde'. The majority of my deliberations to date have centred on the lyrics of the song (and believe me I haven’t finished with them yet!) but of course any full discussion of a song mus t deal with both the music and the lyrics.

If I could use an analogy that has been prevalent in my interpretation of ‘Visions of Johanna' i.e. relating it to a visual piece of art, a painting with many layers of colour, shade, technique and style; then a separation of the lyrics from the music would be akin to stripping the brushwork down to a bare canvass and looking at the prime material upon which the first hint of colour will be daubed. The lyrics of ‘Visions of Johanna' are so overwhelming that it is often impossible to take any notice of the background sounds at all. Let me however try that experiment: let me take a turpentine rag to the picture and rub away all those wonderful colours; let me delete all those lyrics and leave a backing track: karaoke style. What do I get? Well to my ears , I get a drum beat.

It starts about 10 seconds into the song and remains throughout. The trip, trip, tripety trip of Ken Buttrey’s snare drum as it leads the voice and all the other instruments through the verses of the song. Trip, trip, tripety trip: like the drummer in a marching band keeping the beat, demanding that the marchers stay in step, forming a union between the point of the march and the sound of the marchers.

This ‘drum beat’ sound is more obvio us on the track that sits one song apart from ‘Visions of Johanna' on the ‘Blonde on Blonde' album namely ‘Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35’. The drummer, and no doubt the drum kit, on both tracks are the same but whereas ‘Visions of Johanna’ opens with a guitar strum and a scary harmonica, Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35’ opens with the drum beat which is very definitely marching band. Both songs are certainly ‘drum based’ and perhaps Dylan was after a similar sound or feel to the background noise over which his voice and lyrics would be laid. Others have commented upon the sound that Dylan wanted to achieve on certain tracks of the album. In ‘Classic Bob Dylan 1962-1968(123) Andy Gill writes as follows:

‘For Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35’ , recorded at the final Nashville session, Dylan wanted to try something different, and suggested recording the song out in the studio parking lot with a Salvation Army band. Drummer Kenny Buttrey felt that the local Salvation Army band might be a little more disciplined than Dylan expected, and suggested that, if Bob was after a more ramshackled sound the musicians assembled could ‘play pretty dumb if we put our minds to it’. Accordingly, he dis-assembled his drum kit, laying the bass drum flat across two chair backs and deadening his snare drum to approximate the sound of a marching-band drummer.’

In ‘Behind The Shades – Take Two’(124) Clinton Heylin also remarks on the ‘sound’ of the album:

‘Though ‘Rainy Day Women’ would open the ‘Blonde on Blonde' album with ‘ a salvation Army sound’ and Sad Eyed Lady’ would close it with ‘that real old time religious carnival sound’, the search for salvation that suffused the remaining songs was not about to be found among the charitable institutions or in dusty old fairgrounds. When he was asked, a month later on arrival in Australia, what his songs were now about, he would reply in deadly earnest, ‘The Second Coming’. Asked what he had to look forward to in the Playboy interview, published that March, he replied , Salvation. Just plain salvation’.

Rather than ‘that thin, wild, mercury sound’ that Dylan professed to be after on ‘Blonde on Blonde’ perhaps, on a coupe of songs at least, he may have actually been after the sound of an army on the march. And perhaps the sound that was in his head was an army from 15th Century France; an army on the march for salvation; and lead by a woman. You see, even in the ‘sound’ of ‘Visions of Johanna’; in that marching beat sound, I find a link to the mainstay of my interpretation of the song, namely the figure of Joan of Arc. An essential aspect of her legend is that she, against all odds, led her armies into battle for the sole purpose of bringing salvation to her beloved country. That was what she was about and if you put a soundtrack to her story it would surely feature a marching band drum beat.

In this apparently never ending series of articles, I have previously mentioned Paul Williams’ proposed new Dylan book ‘Bob Dylan – Mind out Of Time, The Accidental Art of a Performing Artist 1987 – 2000’(125) and in particular the introduction/opening chapter of the book titled ‘Visions of Madonna’ which reports on Dylan’s show at the Tramps Club in Manhattan on the 26th July 1999. In reporting on this performance, Paul reflects upon, and compares the same, to the ‘sound’ of the album version of ‘Visions of Johanna':

It starts with the same old magical incantation, ‘Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?’ But not the same, because it doesn’t arise from the harmonica wail followed by the snare drums that open the familiar original album version, nor from the guitar strums that open the live 1966 versions on ‘Biograph’ and the Live 1966 album. Instead it arises ( to the surprise and delight of the club audience, who recognise the seldom-played favourite when they hear these words) from a guitars-bassand-drums riff newly created for this 1999 version that for the first time in a live ‘Visions’ captures the martial (marching drums) rhythm that so inspired Bob Dylan as a vocalist when he sang these lyrics almost as a call-and-response duet with Ken Buttrey’s drumming at the Blonde on Blonde recording sessions’.

In emphasising the importance of the drum beat in the performance of the song Paul goes on:

‘The master of language can also be a master of non- verbal language. And on this July ’99 ‘Visions of Madonna’, as on the Feb.’66 ‘Visions of Johanna’, the two work together to produce a transcendent work of art. In both cases, the drummer deserves almost as much credit as the singer…The drum beats and tones get into your bloodstream…….’

My point of interest here is not only that Paul Williams also describes the sound of ‘Visions of Johanna' as having a ‘martial (marching drums) rhythm’ which. I contend, supports my view of the link between this song and the legend of Joan of Arc, but that he renames the song, after a change of lyric by Dylan ‘Visions of Madonna’. As will be seen from my next article, the Madonna, the Holy Virgin Mother plays a major role in the legend of Joan of Arc.

(123) Page 98. ‘Classic Bob Dylan 1962 – 1969. My Back Pages.’ by Andy Gill. Published by Sevenoaks Ltd.
(124) First published in hardback by Viking in 2000. Paperback version published in Penguin Books, 2001. Page 243
(125) Freewheelin’ 191. Part 3. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’