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THE MISSIONARY TIMES



 

Thinking About a Series of Dreams
(Not In A Shy Way)
by J. R. Stokes
 

The Freewheelin idea was, for me, an answer to a series of dreams. First and foremost in that series were the impossible day dreams I had about the pictures that Dylan painted with his songs. Day dreams that changed my way of thinking, altered the course of my life and probably caused my downfall. For a while. 

Take the picture of Hattie Carroll for instance. Can’t you see the face of Hattie Carroll? The maid of the kitchen; fifty-one years old and the mother of ten children. Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage and never sat once at the head of the table.  And didn't even talk to the people at the table. Who just cleaned up all the food from the table.  And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level. Isn’t that picture of Hattie Carroll clear in your mind? Can’t you see her standing right in front of you with her arms crossed and with a look of humble acceptance on her face? 

In 1964, when I was 17, I heard ‘The Lonesome of Death of Hattie Carroll’ and I became born again with a social conscience. And the picture of Hattie Carroll was the holy image that I started to walk behind. In my apprenticeship for a working life I trod the streets of London as a Law Clerk and happy I was in such vocation until the time of my rebirth. Then I started to see, in the faces of the people I had to deal with, marks of Hattie Carroll. I couldn’t take it so I gave it up, started working in an art shop in Fleet Street and applied to become a pavement artist in Trafalgar Square. Down on the pavement I could see life from a whole other level. Street level. What a stupid, fucking impossible dream of life that turned out to be. 

What ultimately broke that particular dream was a combination of gravity, cowardice and birth place. I didn’t have rich wealthy parents to provide and protect me and I yearned for the freedom to smoke, to travel, to shop in Carnaby Street. A balance had to be drawn and as I could draw nothing from my own bank balance I got pulled down into the notion that the only way forward was up. So, as the rain washed away my chalk from the pavement, I returned to the law firm in Lincolns Inn to earn a decent living. And all around me sighed  a huge sigh of relief. 

But, as Dylan continued to draw circles with his songs, so the day dreams continued, and I imagined all manner of people over the ensuing years: from Ramona with the watery eyes and the cracked country lips right through to the clean cut who was on the baseball team, in a marching band and who, when he was ten years old, had a watermelon stand. Close your eyes, you can see that clean cut kid too. Then, in 1985, along came Chris Cooper. 

The problem was that, at about the time that Chris came along, I was getting very restless. I had 20 years of dreams piled up and no place to out them. I was suffocating and I needed to breathe. I wanted to free myself of this head full of ideas that really were about to drive me insane. I had a new dream of freedom. 

Freewheelin was not however just to be about my own personal freedom. At the time the idea was being floated there were dark dealings going on in the world of Dylan collecting. In those days, if you had a rare Dylan recording you had to beg, borrow or steal in order to get a copy. And only then could you get a copy if you had something similarly rare to exchange. Chris was intent upon cutting through that crap and his branch of the new project was to set up a free exchange of material, no matter how rare. Boy did we get some stick for that one. We were accused of all sorts of things from stealing other’s collections to being at the forefront of a new Dylan mafia, designed to take over the Dylan world by corrupt means. But we were just two guys whose intentions were good. 

The third part of the Freewheelin project centered on the freedom of information about Dylan. For this purpose a librarian namely Terry Kendrick from Norwich joined us and he provided a monthly bibliography of Dylan’s appearances in the press. That section was eventually taken over by Mark Carter who has admirably stuck to his task with his own ‘20lbs of Headlines’ for the last 17 years. 

So the Founding Fathers of the project were Terry, Chris and I and the philosophy and ideal behind the idea was freedom. Freedom of speech and ideas, freedom of trade, and freedom of information between a circle of friends. Dylan had given us the name long before we had even thought about it: Freewheelin. Not to be confused with the name ‘Freeloadin’ by which we were called in the early days by people who ridiculed the idea that our intentions could be genuine and sincere. Now they don’t talk so loud. 

The other aspect of freedom that I attached to the exorcism of my dreams about Dylan’s songs was the freedom from editorship. I already had certain articles published on Dylan but they had been subject to cruel editing which, in my view, knocked them out of shape. With Freewheelin, I could say what I want and how I wanted to say it. I could extract those images that I saw in Dylan’s songs and put them into a different context. A context of words.  And that is exactly what I did in my very first article, in September 1985, under the general heading The Missionary Times, I wrote an article which I titled ‘Dylan’s Foot of Pride’. The following is the verbatim opening of the article and you will notice, in my first paragraph, I talk about Dylan painting a portrait:
 

Number One                                                                                                                                        September 1985

Just cast your eye over our transcript of this song. 6 long verses - 86 lines containing some of the most graphic pictures Dylan has painted to complete a full and familiar portrait:  the wickedness of man. 

So many images of modern day terror and evil are portrayed in the course of these verses: ‘They sang ‘Danny Boy’ at his funeral and The Lords Prayer’ surely refers to the terror of a ritualistic I.R.A. funeral. You’ve seen them so many times on television; black hoods, berets, rifles in the air; scurrying, violence and howls of despair. 

Then there’s the ‘retired business man named Red’, feeding off the public, off you and me ‘off everyone that he can touch’. It doesn't really matter if you die while he rips you off.  The name of the game for Red is cash. 

His assistant, Miss Delilah is one of those high class girls… not just a simple prostitute… ‘if you've got enough bread …. nice fun in bed….If you don't mind sleeping with your head face down in the grave.’ 

And what about the gurus, our Leaders who will teach us ‘how to walk through doors’ and even ‘enter into the Gates of Paradise’  without being known for what we really are. Well they are only in it for the purpose of lining their own pockets. For them it’s all an act; shouting out loud the names of their particular charities, they promise to ‘take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in’. But hah! It’s all a big joke! They ‘sing Amazing Grace all the way to the Swiss Banks.’ We will get fooled again, and again. 

We all know about the sort of people Bob abhors in verse 5 - The Manson type commune dwellers of Southern California. Beautiful people, symbols on their foreheads, faces to the sky, hands outstretched. ‘They kill babies in the crib and say ‘Only the good die young’ . They don’t believe in mercy’. 

The common denominator to these various terrorizing, money loving, fun seeking, kick crazy people is pride.  Pride in their ways of life; pride in their wickedness and in their evil deeds.  But Dylan says that, in the final hour, in that accounting hour when neither you nor I knows what happens (‘cause we haven’t been there yet),  in the hour of their death, the very foundation of these people’s existence - their foot of pride - will come down against them.  And, for them, there ain’t no going back. 

The final verse is very interesting. ……. I  think that Bobby here is talking about himself. After remembering how he climbed that hill (of religion), he asks the question: ‘Did he make it to the top?’ And then answers:  ‘Well he probably did and dropped.  Struck down by the strength of the will’. There is that element of self doubt there - uncertainty as to whether his beliefs were real or not. If indeed they were, he was bound to get struck down by the will of the world anyway. 

That same element of doubt and difficulty permeates through certain tracks on ‘Empire Burlesque’. But with the artist living out the lifestyle of a rock musician,  what did you expect?  The opening lines of the new album tell their own tales ‘I had to move fast, and I couldn’t with you around, my neck’. I keep seeing visions of Bobby taking off his crucifix, placing it in his top drawer to ‘stay warm’ and going out into the dark night seeking a hot blooded singer, singing ‘Memphis in June’.

How anyone could relate certain lines in the song to an IRA funeral or see a vision of Dylan taking off a crucifix after hearing that line: ‘I had to move fast and I couldn’t with you around my neck’ was a total mystery to some people but it didn’t matter to me. I had unleashed a dream from my head; it was over, done, out of the way. FREEDOM.

Actually, I have to mention that the Freewheelin project was almost over before it began because, as I was collating issue four, in December 1985, my six year old daughter Abigail tragically died. All ideas of creativity were crushed, any dreams that I had were banished. This was the article that I wrote for Freewheelin number 4.

Number Four                                                                                                                                 Christmas Eve 1985

I can't see my reflection in the waters,
I   can’t  speak  the  sounds  that  show no pain,
I can’t hear the echo of my footsteps,
Or can’t remember the sound of my own name.
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’,
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’,
Only if she was lyin’ by me,
Then I’d lie in my bed once again.

***********************************************************************

In memory of my treasured daughter Abigail Amber (24/4/79 - 11/12/85).

***********************************************************************

I had drafted a 4 page retrospective to be included in Freewheelin 4 when the tragic death of my daughter Abbie occurred just 14 days before Christmas day. Abbie’s life had always been a struggle since her birth, but she had been doing so well over the past 12 months. We were shattered, totally devastated. It was a time for a complete reconsideration and reappraisal of my life, my recreation and my beliefs. I’m not yet picking up the pieces, I’m still searching for the place where the pieces are hidden. People say you get an ‘inner strength’ at times like this; I’m still waiting, for that strength to arrive. 

I told Chris that I couldn’t possibly have anything to do with Freewheelin 4 but as those long and empty days passed I remembered some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry which predominantly related to the experience of death. I looked back to my contribution in Freewheelin 2 - every one of those poems was relevant and helped me. Then in No. 3 I wrote about that devious wind that blows us all awry. I thought I was pretty certain about where things were at but now the bleak north wind that haunts every corner of my home has scattered any certainty I had in my mind; an icy wind has frozen my emotions and left me staring out of the window at the Christmas robin, making me realize that this little creature with it’s fragile legs knows as much as me about the purpose of life. All is just a wisp of vapour, a puff of wind, a mere breath - nothing you could get your hands on; the nearest thing to zero. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. 

This page is dedicated to the memory of my treasured daughter. From now until the day I die, a day will not pass when I do not grieve for her. When I can start to listen to Dylan again I hope I will find some comfort in those songs that Abbie and I shared together during her very brief time with us.

Reviewing that article now, just over 19 years later, I realize that every one of those words still rings true…. like they were written in my soul. 

But it was certainly Freewheelin that helped me to recover from the depths of my loss. With the encouragement and patience of Chris and others I put pen to paper again and so I have been doing every month ever since. I have tried to stay true to my original purpose of exorcising my day dreams about the pictures that Dylan paints with his songs and no more so that with my ridiculously long series of dreams about Visions of Johanna. A considerable number of my articles have appeared in many other Dylan magazines and I could probably say that, with only a couple of exceptions, all have been misunderstood! I have come under some heavy criticism and indeed abuse on certain occasions but so what?  For what is a man, what has he got?  If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels; and not the words of one who kneels. 

And so, the end is near and I face the final curtain. In Freewheelin 234 (February 2005) Mike Wyvil wrote about  ‘the time spent on this wonderful Dylan voyage’. Mike is absolutely right, it has been a wonderful voyage: of discovery; of illumination and of companionship. One thing is for certain though, Freewheelin wouldn’t and couldn’t have been Freewheelin without all the Freewheelers who have taken a ride on this magic bus with me. In the final Freewheelin I will have something more to say about that and I hope that we will have full crew to row us merrily into the sunset.

 
 
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