Safety First
(The Joys and Woes of 2003)

 by J. R. Stokes


There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born

Ballad of Hollis Brown
Bob Dylan (1962)

Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the soul Divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine,
Is it is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy & Woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the World we safely go.

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake (1803)

It’s a comforting thought isn’t it? To go safely through the world it is necessary to suffer the woes as well as savour the joys. That was William Blake’s ‘Law of Contraries’: every good deed must be balanced by something evil. Without the contraries of attraction and repulsion; love and hate, there could be no progression for, according to Blake, human thought and life need the stimulus of active and opposing forces to give them movement. We just can’t go around being happy all the time, and if we do then we ain’t getting it right. It doesn’t of course make the woes any more easy to take (and sometimes they are very hard to take indeed) but, if you carry Blake’s philosophy on board, then it certainly makes the joys more pleasurable because you know that it is your Divine right to have them! 

Dylan expresses a similar sort of thing in that last verse from Hollis Brown. Whilst on the one hand he depicts a mass suicide following the despair of poverty and starvation; at the same time he presents an image of new life with all the promise of a new start. What has always intrigued me about that last verse is the idea of seven ‘new people’ being born. Babies are born, infants are born, kids are born but, in general usage, ‘people’ are usually adults. So perhaps those ‘seven new people’ are in fact being born again, rejuvenated by some pleasure that has come their way. Whatever way you look at it, that last verse encapsulates Blake’s two pronged vision of life’s bare necessities. 

Now what you may ask (and you usually do) has all this got to do with my Top Ten of 2003? Well, I thought that I would play safe this year and try to balance the books by splitting my top ten into five joys and five woes. Once I have got that out of the way, perhaps I will go safely through the world for another year although, just thinking about the possible inclusions, it does seem that the seriousness of the woes blasts the pleasure of the some of joys out of sight. I just hope that Mr. Blake has got it right. In no particular order of preference then, but a soft one to start with: 

1. Visions of Johanna – Joy

So what was that all about then? Well, actually it was about 65,000 words: a fixation; an obsession; a bloody marathon. ‘Visions’ took over my Dylan thinking life for about two and a half years. During those idle moments over that period whenever I had time to think, like whenever I was stuck in traffic jams; or whenever I was stuck in a lift; or whenever I was stuck inside of Ikea stores and bus stations, all the characters from ‘Visions’ paraded themselves in front of me, jockeying for position, crying out to be named. Of course Joan of Arc, with her waving banner of female supremacy, always headed the procession and it was the power of she, combined with the power of Bob, who started and finished the whole thing. Blessed lady; blessed gentleman. The joy was in the ending: a return to normality: the black- eyed dog beaten. For another day. 

2. Visions of Johanna – Woe 

The woe of concentrating all my mental fight on just one Dylan subject for such a long period of time means that I have overlooked other, more recent, Bob works. For instance, ‘Love and Theft’ has gone relatively unconsidered by this scribe – including all that hullabaloo about the lines Dylan lifted from the Mafia memoirs that is Confessions of a Yakuza. Then there is the song ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ which needs some proper colouring in and of course the movie Masked and Anonymous.  ‘Strewth, I’ve not seen it on the big screen yet. For that matter, over here in the outback of the UK, nor has anyone else! I suppose that, for everything, there is a time and that my time with these Bob works will come. But please, black eyed dog, please stay in your kennel for a while, there’s a good boy. 

3. Bob Dylan in the UK – Joy 

It’s always a joy to be on the road with Bob, and this year was no exception. Outings with friends, meeting up with people at the gigs, taking time away from work are all part of the pleasures. OK, Bob isn’t the performer he was 20 years ago but, on that score, neither am I and neither are you. It was great to see him in his sixty second year surrounded by good musicians and pleasing the crowd. I enjoyed most of the concerts and  ‘Romance in Durango’ at Hammersmith was the icing on a well baked cake. 

4. Bob Dylan in the UK – Woe 

As I have said, the seriousness of the woes seem to blast the pleasures of the joys out of sight and what follows is a sad and tragic tale. Until about a week before the show, I had a spare ticket for the Birmingham, NEC show. Keith Agar knew about this and, by coincidence, he bumped into a lady friend in a supermarket in Oakham. The lady’s husband, a guy named Paul, was something of a Dylan fan and after various telephone calls, Paul got my ticket and I arranged to meet him at the venue. We duly met up and, over a pre-gig drink, Paul told me about how he had a wild weekend with his elder brother back in 1978 when they saw Dylan at Blackbushe and then went on to the British Grand prix at Brands Hatch. Paul said that he and his brother went to many Dylan gigs after that and it was something that they really enjoyed doing together. Tragically, Paul’s brother had died of a heart attack at the age of 42 and this was the first Dylan gig Paul had been to without his brother. I stood with Paul during the show and sensed his loss of the guy who should have been standing next to him. When the show was over, Paul seemed to have overcome a battle of emotion and was ultimately pleased to have been at another Dylan show that, in thought if not in kind, he and his brother once again enjoyed together. 

5. John Green Day 3 – Joy 

Despite the fire alarm in the middle of the night, and the dismal failure of the proposed panel discussion, this was another great weekend in Northampton. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and indeed we had no requests for refunds! One of the particular pleasures for me personally was to have Al Masciocchi, a good friend of John’s from the States, staying with us. There were many highlights on the day and of course Keith Agar was as cool as ever in his presentation. 

6. John Green Day 4 – Woe 

Because of the incredible amount of time required to be spent in organizing the arrangements for these conventions, to include the administration side of things, I have had to pull back from organizing John Green Day 4 which is proposed for March 27th 2004. The organization for this has been taken over by Keith Agar and I will give him all the help and support that I can. It was a decision I had to make with some real regret but with other pressures on my time, and taking into account the number of hours in any given day, the decision just had to be made. 

7. freewheelin-on-line – Joy 

I suffered a slight tremor this year when Chris Cooper, again because of the restraints of time, decided to withdraw from the Freewheelin' internet project. With the added assistance of John Nye, our wonderful Webmaster, the first Bob Dylan magazine on the internet has however, continued to flourish. In fact, over the four day period between 5th – 8th January 2004, we had 537 hits on the site: an average of 135 a day! And most of these followed through to the library at Freewheelin' House which means that the magazine is being widely read. John and I have some things in mind for the future to develop the site but it certainly is a joy to be able to publish our continuing chronicle to such a wide audience. 

8. freewheelin-on-line – Woe 

As I have mentioned, John Nye has been instrumental in the success of freewheelin-on-line and, without his efforts, the site probably wouldn’t exist or at least wouldn’t look any where near as good as it does. John and his family have however suffered greatly this year as a result of the serious ill health of John’s wife, Phil. It just does not seem to me that this woe can be balanced by any amount of joy, apart from perhaps the joy of the knowledge that Phil will make a full recovery and that John, Phil and their three daughters can put that last awful year behind them. John is a modest guy and would never ask for favours, but for those of you who are fortunate enough to enjoy the certainty that putting your hands together and bending your knees can really make a difference, I ask you to remember John, one of us, and his family in your prayers. 

Now I am going to reverse the order of joys and woes

9. Freewheelin' – Woe 

My only woe is in the departure of the Freewheelers who have left the group this year – Neil Watson and Robert Forryan. Neil, in particular, had been with the group from the outset and I know that it was a wrench for him to leave. But priorities change; other things take precedence and of course you have to follow your heart. In addition to that, I probably bored them into submission with my endless bleating on about ‘Visions of Johanna’! Both Robert and Neil provided some great contributions to the mag during their stay and they left, as they will remain, true friends of the group. 

10. Freewheelin' – Joy 

So here we still are. To strengthen the things that remain: the current Freewheelers. Two ‘new people’ have been born into the group this year namely Martin Stein and Michael Crimmins. To Martin and Michael: I hope that your stay will be long and happy. To all other Freewheelers: could I say what a joy it has been to read your words this year. Thank you for keeping the show on the road. Take a bow my friends –  you have been brilliant. But as the curtain closes and the house lights disclose the debris of the deserted audience, think not of looking back. The future is the new black. Your bums, with or without underwear, will all look great in this. And you know what I am going to say: yes my fellow comrades in words: the best is always yet to come!