Part 23. And In The End...
You know, sometimes the thrill of the journey exceeds the joy of the arrival. The ‘journey’ in this instance is my hankering after the arrival of the book ‘Dylan’s Visions of Sin’ by Christopher Ricks, a book that has been anticipated for some considerable time by not only me, but probably by most everyone reading this. What leant some speed to my hankering was in that very title: ‘Dylan’s Visions of Sin’. No, let me go faster, in those very words ‘Visions of….’ for in this foolhardy head of a drifter off to see the world, I connected the title of the book ‘Dylan’s Visions of Sin’ to Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’. After all, they both have that same word ‘Visions’ in the title and therefore I quite naturally assumed that the good Professor would, in his book, devote some large measure of attention to the song to which I have devoted some extra large measure of my life over the last couple of years. I was ready and willing, but not yet able, to be enlightened.
The first sign of derailment came in an article by Brian Appleyard that was published in the ‘Culture’ supplement to the Sunday Times in August 2003. Although the somewhat less than inspired title of the article: ‘Blood On The Tract’ could have indicated a red signal, from the following introduction I only saw green: ‘After 20 years of trying, the critic Christopher Ricks has finally written the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics’. Wow. That sentence alone equalled in me the wonderful feeling of delight no doubt enjoyed by all those passing my window on their way home from church that sunny Sunday morning.
The article centred on an interview between the journalist and Christopher Ricks concerning the impending publication of Ricks’ book. Before Ricks comments on the work, Appleyard provided some historical information: ‘The book on Dylan should have been inevitable, but, somehow it kept getting put off. He agreed to do it 20 years ago. Bits, like his superb essay on The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, were in circulation, and he was gradually forming unique assessments of every song. Then, finally, last year, he began to write it. It is 500 pages long and analyses hundreds of songs in intricate detail. Why not, I ask him, make it even longer and cover all the songs?’(153)
Then, in Ricks’ reply, came my near derailment: it was certainly an amber light.
‘Well, yes. I mean there is, for example, one terrible omission. I think ‘Visions of Johanna' is the greatest song ever written by anybody, but I had nothing whatsoever to say about it. It’s like Henry James – I read him all the time, but I have nothing original to say about him. And there’s no point in saying things that other people have thought out for themselves’.(154)
Whaaat? Nothing to say about ‘Visions of Johanna’ ? Nothing to say that hasn’t already been said? My God, I am just completing about 65,000 words on this very song and the Professor has nothing at all to say about it? My bright Sunday mood changed and, needless to say, I didn’t look out for anyone returning from Evensong.
Then came the day of arrival: at last the ‘Ricks’ book. Super Elliott Landy Woodstock-with-pussy-cat-and-plate photograph on the cover. What happened next? Did the cat go for the glass of milk or was it about to lick the plate? The white expanse of the cover, which matches Dylan’s hat and shirt, is a superb contrary to the black of the sin that has a connotation with that word and is used to define the word on the cover. A dip into the text is a delight but an examination of the index sees journey end on my ‘Visions’ trip. Just three minor entries on ‘Visions of Johanna' and, in the text, no more than just a few words about ‘the greatest song ever written by anybody’. And here is me with my 65,000! This has all left something of a hole in my perception of the Christopher Ricks book but the proof will no doubt be in the reading and the joy may very well be in the remainder.
In the meantime, I must set out to complete my own task and finish what I started now rather than in 20 years time. I suppose it is with some relief that I can sense the end is near but hopefully there will be more than just relief when I do come to face that final curtain. It is a journey that started out in Freewheelin' number 189, that is 28 issues ago: 2 years and four moths worth of time. If my exploration of the song can indeed be equated with another kind of journey then, with the many places that I have visited along the way, you could say that, with regard to ‘Visions of Johanna’, I have travelled each and every highway. But with the somewhat confusing notion of turning it all into a pictorial study of the song, I can safely say that more, much more than the mere journey and the 65,000 words, I really did do it my way!.
One thing that has been a constant companion with me throughout the entirety of the trip is the title ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’, with its sub-title ‘(Addressing the Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)’. Whilst my sub-title is just a play on words relating to my constant theme of ambiguity of gender (a dress in the knight), the main title consists of the two elements that have been inherent in my interpretation of the song. I have dwelt in depth and at length on all aspects of ice and fire both in connection with the song and also relating to the main character that, to me, shines through the words and the music of ‘Visions of Johanna’. Remaining with these images to the last stroke, there are just two more faces that I want to add into the picture. And to balance things up, these faces are both male and female although, having said that, their images have been gender confused on occasions. I am old fashioned enough to say ‘ladies first’, so just let me say ladies first and introduce the lady.
7. Enter Patti Smith
On the back cover of the first biography of Patti Smith, written by Victor Bockris,(155) she is described as ‘a poet, a punk prophet, a feminist icon and a living work of art’. Now that all may very well be true, but I prefer the description of her provided by Clinton Heylin as ‘New York’s latest and most androgynous new Dylan’.(156) Clinton was describing the Patti Smith of 1975 when she and Dylan set up some kind of acquaintanceship at New York’s Other End club in the summer of that year. Indeed avid icon watchers will immediately bring to mind the Dylan/Patti cuddle from backstage at The Other End Club as captured by the photographer Danny Fields where Patti is wearing a Keith Richards T-shirt and Dylan is wearing a leather jacket over a striped vest, the kind of vest that French sailors used to wear.
Before that meeting in 1975, Patti Smith, who was then aged 28 years, had been acquainted with Dylan’s work for some considerable time. Along with certain other artists and historical characters, he was a major influence towards her art. Before she released her first album – Horses – in 1975, she had already published four books of poetry and it is her first book – Seventh Heaven , published in 1972, that is of concern to me here for it draws together not only the two main players in my exploration of ‘Visions of Johanna’ , but it also takes further the elements that, as I have said, are inherent in my interpretation of the song. Concentrating on that first book of poems then, Seventh Heaven was written shortly after the demise of Patti’s passionate affair with the playwright Sam Shepard. Victor Bockris provides some background information:
‘Rather than dwell on her loss and write a lachrymose book about Sam, she penned a series of celebrations of her heroes and heroines from whose composite characters she now set out to construct the new Patti Smith, the one who would no longer place herself under a man’s thumb but would shine as her own individual star.’(157)
So Seventh Heaven became something of an autobiographical androgyne in print. It merged the male and female in the poet by reference to her heroes and provided, for this purpose, male and female counterparts. Victor Bokris again:
‘Her first book represents her most cut-and-dried self portrait in the mirror images of her male and female heroes. Having straddled the gender barrier all her life, she comes down on both sides of it. Her female models, Marianne Faithful, Anita Pallenberg, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart and Edie Sedgewick have in common that they gambled with their lives to achieve distinction and for the most part lost. The same can be said of their male counterparts: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Richard and Bob Dylan.’(158)
Now you may have recognised the names of all of those male and female counterparts but, for the purpose of my study, two characters jump from the text and land on my pallette: Joan of Arc and Bob Dylan, side by side. To take this juxtaposition one stage further, the chronological sequence of the poems as presented in the book also put these counterparts side by side, or, to be more precise, one after the other. Unlike my old fashioned approach, Patti decided to put the gentleman before the lady and the first poem in the sequence is ‘Dog Dream’.
Then, following Dylan’s dog, comes ‘Jeanne d’Arc’
Apart from their chronological sequence, what enjoins these poems is their obvious sexual references and metaphors. Whilst the poet hides behind a phallic metaphor in ‘dog dream’, she is far more explicit in the poem ‘jeanne d’arc’. It is a poem of colourful sexual language and its construction is explained in an interview between Victor Bokris and Patti Smith that concludes the formers biography of the latter. Responding to a question about ‘the poetry of performance’ Patti, maintaining her use of colourful sexual language, explains:
‘The Joan of Arc poem is almost total rhythm masturbation but it puts Joan of Arc in a new light, it puts her forth as a virgin with a hot pussy who realises that she’s gonna get knocked off before she gets the chance to come. So there is a concept there that made the rhythm worth of being frozen.’(159)
These poems and this explanation underscore my reason for bringing Patti Smith into the picture. Besides the coincidental placing of my main characters, it comes down to this matter of ice and fire for, although the poet may be explaining that written words are ‘frozen’ on the page compared to them being spoken in live performance, she is also referring to the matter of virginity being a ‘frozen’ physical state. As I have propounded in previous articles in this series, to Joan of Arc, her state of virginity, her ‘frozen’ state was of massive importance and supremacy yet Patti Smith refers to her as having a ‘hot pussy’. A wonderful example of the theme captured by my title of ‘Like Ice, Like Fire’.
Before I melt away into the background and let my finished portrait do the talking, there is that final image to be coloured in. The man that comes after the woman. He really needs no introduction so I will give him none. Let me just say:
8. Enter Bob Dylan
Now here you may expect me to be writing about Dylan with a direct reference to ‘Visions of Johanna’. That expectation will however come to nothing I am afraid because I am here just putting the final touches to my work and concentrating on the use of those two elements – ice and fire – in my title and how they tie in to the main characters contained in my pictorial study of the song. I have I think already said enough about Dylan with a direct reference to ‘Visions of Johanna’ and, if you doubt me on this, then go back to my beginning and start again. If you have the time and the energy that is. If not, then just trust me.
It is not then from the album ‘Blonde on Blonde’ that I want to refer to here but to another song from another album. The song is from the album ‘Infidels’, recorded and released in 1983, but before I come to that particular song, I want to mention a yet further song from the same album which many critics(160) have linked to ‘Visions of Johanna’. This third song is ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ and the link is that, in the song from 1966, Dylan refers to the Mona Lisa and, in the song written some 17 years later Dylan sings:
Now you don’t have to be a great lawyer or scholar who is able to distinguish between a leper and a crook to realise that the Mona Lisa is a painting that is stuck inside the Louvre, so it is perfectly permissible to bridge that impossible 17 year age gap and draw these two songs together. Indeed I have already done so myself in building the background to my study. But if you think about Dylan’s physical state in those lines and indeed the state of the Mona Lisa as she was caught on canvas 500 years ago, you could say that they are both ‘frozen’ to the spot where they are represented. Both motionless, stiff, hard-set, rigid, frozen. Like ice.
The first take of the song ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’, which was recorded at the Power Station Studios New York in the spring of 1983 was discarded and it was the second take that made it on to the album ‘Infidels’. Recorded at the same sessions were just two takes of another song and again the first take was discarded and it was the second take that was included on the album. The song is ‘Jokerman’ and although there were other lyric changes between the two takes of the song, it is in the change of lyrics in the final verse that becomes relevant to my picture of the song. Dealing with the second take first, this is the verse that made it on to the album:
If you are trying to trace a signifier of what I about here, it is in that word ‘heat’ in the fourth line, a word which denotes the by product of flame. Like fire.
This then is that final verse from the first take:
So there we have a perfect circle from Bob Dylan to ‘Visions of Johanna', to ice, to fire to Joan of Arc and back to Bob Dylan. There is nothing too clever or very scientific about these signposts in the circle, they merely represent my final step back from the easel. And in taking that final step back, the entire, completed picture of ‘Visions of Johanna' comes into view. A final canvas with all its brush strokes of the characters portrayed correctly in place; with its images like ice like fire, which very words started the whole thing going and remained with me throughout, correctly in place; with the countless confused combinations of male and female in various depictions correctly in place and with that final coming together of my central characters namely Bob Dylan and Joan of Arc correctly in place. It is done. Frame it, forge it, fuck it or forget it. There is nothing more to do, or say.
Well actually there is. It is said that an artist should never try to explain his work: when it is completed let others make of it what they will. I am not really concerned about what others will get or take, or if indeed they get or take anything at all, from my study of ‘Visions of Johanna’ - my piece in the process of appreciation has finished. I do know however that it has changed the way that I think about many of Dylan’s songs, and in particular Dylan’s songs that are about, or relate to, women.
This change in my way of thinking was brought home to me when my mind was not entertaining any thoughts or ideas whatsoever about Bob Dylan or ‘Visions of Johanna’. I was reading Take 66 of ‘Uncut’ magazine which had a feature about the film director Sam Peckinpah, my actual interest in this feature arising from my recent viewing of the classic and controversial Peckinpah film ‘Straw Dogs’. For those with no inclination towards movie history, Peckinpah was always regarded as the ultimate misogynist for the way that he treated women in his films, and in particular in the film ‘Straw Dogs’. Indeed it was the way that the female lead was treated that caused this movie to be dubbed the most notorious film in British movie history and the reason for it being banned from public screening for 18 years. The feature in ‘Uncut’ included an interview between the film critic Stephen Dalton and Katy Haber, Peckinpah’s former girlfriend and assistant on the film. Before Dalton probed the matter of the infamous director and his relationships with women, he first set the scene of Straw Dogs.
‘Straw Dogs takes place in a primordial moral fog where men routinely hit women and women get off on it. Since the director was given to violently jealous rages and even screen-tested one of his many girlfriends, Joie Gould, for the role of Amy, the film begins to feel like a tour of Peckinpah’s own dark places. The fact that he added a rape to Williams’ novel ( the screen play was taken from the Gordon Williams novel The Siege at Trenchers Farm) only adds to the sense of unchecked misogyny’.
When Dalston put the observation about Peckinpah’s misogynistic traits to Katy Haber, she retorted:
‘Sam loved women but he resented the need for them. He feared the control they had over him’.
And that is when I realised the underlying force of my study of ‘Visions of Johanna’: that the word ‘androgyny’, so often used, could merely be a flare to shed light on and disclose a further word: misogyny. Because of the way Dylan has, in certain songs during his career, referred to women, from the condescending ‘and she breaks just like a little girl’ in ‘Just Like A Woman’ to the subservient ‘can you cook and sew make flowers grow?’ in ‘Is You Love In Vain’ to the low down rude ‘There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring’ in Sugar Baby, and by similar references in other songs, Dylan has been accused of outright misogyny. Yet, the main character that shines forth from my study of his most classic song was the first feminine icon, a woman of great strength of mind and will, a woman endowed with the absolute power of the ‘she’. Many of the characters that are included in my study had the driving force of a dominant female, whether it be mother or lover, behind them. They did not hate this driving force but accepted it and held it in great esteem. Could it be that in these songs Dylan is not denigrating women but exalting them, knowing his need for them and fully appreciating the control they have over him? An appreciation borne out of a full acceptance of that need and control rather than a struggle against it. Is this not really what Dylan is about in his love songs? An acceptance of the power of the ‘she’ as so exemplified by Joan of Arc? I believe so and thus the net result of all my work on ‘Visions of Johanna’ is that it has changed my way of thinking.
If my pictorial study of the song and the above conclusion raise more questions than answers then I can say that I am happy with what I have achieved in my 65,000 words on ‘Visions of Johanna’. Art is meant to leave you restless so I hope that you don’t go away from my painting perfectly satisfied. If you do, then you have surely missed something!
(153) The Sunday Times Culture Magazine. August 10th 2003. Page 7
‘When I paint my masterpiece, I had better acknowledge that one day it may need to be restored. According to Visions of Johanna’, “Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues”, but the greens that are now highly visible in the painting are viewed with suspicion inside the museums-world. But then every restoration, whether political or painterly (the pristine Sistine?), goes up on trial. For history is like infinity with its Louvre doors. “If the doors of perception are were cleansed,” William Blake said, “everything would appear to man as it is infinite.”
It is in an infinity of ways that ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ has been restored by Dylan. Not that he has ever been stuck with a song, or stuck inside of one. (Maybe Maggie's Farm, there for dear life, until the worm farm). The songs are on the move, although love-life, imagined within a song may be rather the reverse:
Dylan, king of cats, majestically lets the songs lead their own ninety-nine lives.’ (page 259)
With its talk of painting masterpieces and colours and William Blake and cats in this short extract alone it could be that this book will be, for me, an eternal delight!
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