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Where Are You Tonight, Sweet Marie?

by Lou Morrison 2 months ago in 60s music
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Bob Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna', and the cataclysm thereof.

Painting by Josh Elkin.

Dylan's impact on popular culture is as incalculable as it is subversive. Even amongst a caste of the idiosyncratic, his unmistakable mind for musicianship, gallows-like humor, and transfiguration rendered Dylan the apotheosis for the counter-culture scene of the twentieth century.

Regardless of how one feels for the legitimacy of his music - both in the literal sense, and otherwise - his presence both on and off stage cemented his legendary status; for better or for worse. Criticisms directed toward his pendulous behavioural happenings are certainly warranted (his unforgettable drunken rambling in 1964, showing vague sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald,) as well as derisions regarding an unflattering - sometimes awful - voice; yet Dylan only lost public favor superficially, a concept he likely detested, anyway.

One born of the past twenty-two years has certainly heard at least the concept of Dylan, whether by osmosis from idolatrous parents, or even the electric charge that still tinges folk music today. It is those of the older generation that often mystify the master poet - and edification has seldom seen such a deserving figure - though discrepancies in one's memory of a beloved icon often veil our own reasoning for the praise itself. My father, an atheist, and a Dylan admirer (admirer, specifically, for a fan seems too attached for his taste, and as a self-described fellow intellectual, respects the songwriter immensely), was astonished at my detailing of Dylan's born-again-Christian phase, which catalyzed an almost painful introspection in his concept of fame, which history far often repeats - subject to one's own interpretation, of course - goes to the crazies.

This piece is not a fastidious examination of Dylan, nor of the history leading to such a particularizing individual - this has been done by far more nuanced and well-read people than I - merely to discuss the import his personage carries in poeticism and audacity. This is primarily dissected in two segments: a brief recounting of his public persona and its redounding effect on its audience, and the specifics involving a notably abstruse track: Visions of Johanna.

Speaks Like Silence.

Naturally, one's comments on Dylan form a feedback-loop, for he is indeed an emblem of a turbulent time, and much so its people. To discuss Dylan - both as a star and a deeply intelligent man - is to relate strife and discordance. Whence the power of words often wanes, and action belongs to the powerful, a stage seems just as mighty as the war-room; Dylan's collection of (very) early material (from 1962 - 1964) stresses an almost otherworldly alleviation in this regard. Truly, very few display such social consciousness, and remark it in such digestible, intelligible forms.

Relating to his initial cult-following in the form of nostalgic folk-ballads, such as 'Girl from the North Country', Dylan hearkened a folk revival through his own influences: Blind Willie McTell, and Woody Guthrie, two progenitors of folk music in the United States. While popular, and rightfully recognized for their latent potential, Dylan took a step further and coupled his albums with striking symbolist numbers. On the same album as 'Girl from the North Country' came 'Masters of War', a virulent anti-war statement; 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', whose meaning still wracks many-a-mind, yet evokes the same helplessness one expects in his writing; and 'Blowin' in the Wind', which amply encapsulates the black days, and the schism of confusion so frequent in the 60's. His later appearance in 1964 on CBC's 'Quest' gave Dylan the personal opportunity afforded so essentially for one whom pride in service of the underdog is of prime interest. To depict a particular talent in the midst of his subjects is equally enthralling as depicting one amongst his compeers, if only to accentuate the dichotomy of the art and its artist.

Immediately reckoning the immensity of his talent, and just how malleable his application for music later proved to be, was, for a time, an impossibility. Yet, following a run of successful, sensible albums indicative of the perceived-genius, whose rambunctious outings seemed - at worst - the importunate manners of an attention-seeking celebrity, Dylan followed his own shadow to a far more provocative era.

You Say, "Who Is That Man?"

Dylan's fortitude for rakish self-indulgence is commendable, if somewhat arrogant, especially in the backlash he received during the late 60's. It's fair to say that during this period, Dylan was downright empyreal, even amongst his contemporaries, so when he was slandered as "Judas" by an audience member at a live show, his cryptic reasoning at interviews and press conferences provided little token. Dylan was common to criticisms already however, when the release of his fourth studio album 'Another Side of Bob Dylan' deviated from the "socially conscious" narratives to one of simpler folk stereotypes; Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber moaned on Dylan's supposed "lost contact with the people" and falling prey to the "paraphernalia of fame."

Unfortunately, this view would remedy itself only in the retrospect - not to say Dylan lost his admirers, for he still toured sold-out shows for years - though booing was commonplace; the installation of a band (an electric one, nonetheless) hardly quelled the protests. Robbie Robertson, who joined Dylan's dawning foray into folk-rock, spoke in 2016: "people hated it... they didn't disapprove, they violently hated it." Not that an audience in the throngs of open rebellion could care over minor adjustments to set stylings and pickings; a fundamental malady has spread over Dylan.

Biases aside - I openly admit my Dylan fascination, which sometimes dangerously borders on obsession - it's difficult to gleam the underlying falsehood in this pretentious mindset. His fifth album: 'Bringing It All Back Home', opens on one of the most thematically dissonant tracks in his entire discography; one can imagine the dudgeon a fan may have experienced, and would exacerbate over the next couple years. Meanwhile, backstage, Dylan's producers and tight-suits politely remind him of his place in the stage, and his backing band are ruining the music. Like Dylan missed the hint, when, nightly, fervent citizens charge the stage, throw their dismissal at the drummer, or resort to taunts and threats. Predictably, Dylan's apathy for approval and vacillation proved his sagacity and pertinacity. Although these were not mutually exclusive, (yet sustained his favor) when, on slight occasion, he would bust out his acoustic and harmonica for a traditional rendition of a rock song.

But how does one handle an audience, belonging to both the hall and the writer's room, that share a common inanition? Dylan's answer, it seemed, was supernal mysticism and enigmatic riddling. There's a reason no Dylan song has any definitive answer, but whether this sits in the realm of a deceptively assiduous personality, or if he in fact enjoys the speculation, the sad fact remains that Dylan's torpor (real or not) lead many fans to be captious. In good spirit, this was not the majority, and as the case with many misunderstood geniuses: fans rose with fresh alacrity in deciphering the awkward, obdurate weirdo.

The Ghost of Electricity

'Visions of Johanna' belong to those few most highly sought in meaningful resolution of his works (others being, famously: 'All Along the Watchtower', 'Mr. Tambourine Man', and 'Ballad of a Thin Man.') 'Blonde on Blonde', the album from which this song is received, is definitely an enigma; and Dylan decided to bookend his longest project yet - at seventy-two minutes - with 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35', a package deducing hardcore critics to tears, and 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', one that comforts critics to the possibility that the Dylan they love still exists somewhere. To marvel at such a precocious talent was natural, and had I been of the intellectually-cadaverous types (forgive the harshness) of the sixties, I'd like to imagine 'Visions of Johanna' would have assuaged my fears. His metamorphosis in portraying a deeply-wounded soul, Dylan's drastic, less starkly definitional view of the world, was never so upfront and honest.

Structurally, the song is divvied into five stanzas, each following a largely identical rhythmical sway. It's primary musical components are a downtrodden acoustic strum, then the high-pitch howl of a harmonica; these are backed by a stealthy bass and a shy drumbeat (also, hidden, are the small twinges of an electric guitar that pluck at sly rotes) though these pick up when the climatic final two lines of each stanza draw near, signaling a tempo shift and an ethereal beckoning of sadness and despair. Counterintuitively, as is the case with much of Dylan's work, the instrumentation takes an unfortunate backseat to his unfettered croon, and for this reason is rarely discussed. It is truly saddening, but unsurprising, that despite his obvious musical adaptability and knowledge, and his cohesion with music of stylistically different breeds, he often is forgotten for this true talent. As Dylan - and is showcased far more readily in his live performances - experiments with his lyrical timing, the instruments often play catch-up to a drawl on the final word of a line; breaks are inconsistent, even toying with the album's thoughtfulness. It's hilarious seeing Dylan playing solo and outright performing the song incorrectly to pepper extra words here and there. In fairness, there is a prominent live version of this song from a 1966 recording at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring just the primary instruments and Dylan's weird impression of a even snarlier character, that lends itself to greater emphasis on its haunting visage.

With such obstreperously difficult lyrics, this songs rarely forms a consensus with regard to even a fundamental meaning; though a common suggestion is in reference to a former lover, Joan Baez (herself a popular contemporary folk singer), as the theoretical 'Johanna'. Interestingly, this song was written (allegedly) whilst Dylan was staying at the Chelsea Hotel with his pregnant wife, Sara, during a blackout. Recalling former flames during such manners is exceedingly haughty, if the interpretation is solid, and even then, it only solves a fraction of the symbolist maze. This lover is contrasted by the more carnal 'Louise', who's first mention in the line: "And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it." annexes with the more spiritual Johanna, as someone more elusive. Louise then, whilst referring to drugs in a colloquial tongue, rain, offers her the physicality and reality required for the narrator. Even the Chelsea Hotel is granted animated grace: "Lights flicker from the opposite loft, In this room the heat pipes just cough." Apparently, this was an apt characterization, according to Clinton Heylin, an extensive Dylan writer; yet these lines show greater prowess in his world-building capacities that any other.

This is the end of the common. One is understandable for passing the first stanza, feeling overwhelmed, and abandoning the project. From now, the thematic connection between lines grows increasingly disparate, and one interpretation melds to another. It reminisces in a sense of nineteenth century gothic literature - besides the gloomy, intense deprecation - of payoff happening after its mentioning. Looking out the window, the narrator notes: "In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman's bluff with the key chain, And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the "D" train." Whether this be the self-induced hallucinatory ramblings of a claustrophobe in a stifling environment or not, much like the earlier literature, the view extends beyond himself and to the world, for the next lines follow: "We can hear the night watchman click hid flashlight, Ask himself is it's him or them that's really insane." Again, the desperation for relief, not resolution, lays in Johanna. Louise, while a seemingly amiable lover, is foreshadowed in skeletal imagery for Johanna's purpose of possession; and, truly, the only sane one left.

A new character, the 'little boy', is revealed in stanza three, yet his ambiguous caricature and opprobrious demeanor have far more in unison with the narrator, where thoughts seem intertwined (or, perhaps, alternate takes on a similar mindset) and in deep competition. A hanger-on, or a passionate devotee of Johanna, regardless, the narrator evokes anger and resentment at his existence: "He's sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all." Other characters are introduced later, though this is the only one with personal attachment to the speaker, and there's a certain distance from the audience in this regard. Except Madonna (another reference to Joan Baez, whose nickname was 'Barefoot Madonna') who still, at the end of the song, has not showed yet remains impervious to the 'highway blues'; pertinent to the supposed rest of the world. Of strange remark is that of the Mona Lisa, who has the aforementioned blues by way of an askew smile, and the impact of an innocent young girl seeing a similar look in older women, sows not resentment, but a universal groan.

Undoubtedly, there is an uncomfortable tension of hopelessness and corrosion in the fallible pursuit of love. So why is it, in the final stanza, the final character, the fiddler: "... he now steps to the road, He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed." - an apocryphal statement, anyway - relents the misery and plays it all as a plan? The fiddler is almost Christ-like, and may be the muse the narrator ultimately blames in supreme arrogance for his lust for Johanna, and has therefore exonerated Louise from her buffer.

That Light I Never Knowed.

This may not have been a traditional analysis - and there is much more to dissect - though this I feel is a loving acknowledgement of the creative spur, which rests on a precarious tenure, that one experiences in the presence of a soul they admire, and discover new methods of admiration with each passing. I say this, and with unusual definition (simply because I am almost always incapable of finishing anything I start, and I recognize my inability to relate succinctly or clearly), but there is a necessity in all of us to adore something for some inexplicable reason, and an analysis of that feeling is to subterfuge its creator, in this case, Dylan himself, which removes much legitimacy of its extol. So, without sounding supercilious, I can confirm that the greatest lyric (objectively) of all time is found in 'Visions of Johanna': "The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face, Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place."

60s music

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Lou Morrison

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