I quoted lines from visions of Johanna in one of this week’s blogs and this (as I hoped it would) sparked my Dylanologist friend Derek Scott to send me some great comment.
Although Blonde & Blonde was released in 1966, I didn’t buy it with some of my paper round earnings until 1968. It was the (double) LP I played and played again and again as I studied for O level exams in Scotland (it was mostly S&G’s Bridge Over Troubled Water LP which got me through my Higher exams the following year). Visions of Johanna would always make my Top 20 list of Bob songs after that.
Sadly Dylan dropped the song from his setlist between 1976 and 1986, and the only Dylan concerts I attended with pleasure were both in 1978 at Earls Court and the Picnic at Blackbushe, so I’ve never heard him sing it live. But my older friend George was at Dylan’s Glasgow concert in 1966, so he heard it then in the first half acoustic set.
I’m not much interested in people trying to explain or interpret Dylan’s lyrics. When I first heard the song I presumed it was about Joan Baez, but now I don’t think it was. This example suggests it’s an answer to TS Eliot, who also features in Desolation Row: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/7 but I wouldn’t pay it any mind, although the Marianne Faithfull version linked in the article is interesting?
When I’m asked to sum up my appreciation of Dylan it’s that he gave me the inspiration to use language, more than any of my excellent English teachers ever did. And yet when I took part in a Dylan workshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival led by Alan Taylor, the group ended up discussing my visit to Hibbing in May 2015 (I was outed as the only one who’d been there) and that I’d witnessed first hand the exceptional high school he attended and I knew a little about Bob’s own English teacher, the late Boniface “B.J.” Rolfzen.
I can add to this. When I went to college, I found I could rock up to lectures given by Christopher Ricks where I listened to Dylan tracks through his ears.
I got used to the huge amount of referencing in the songs – Eliot and Pound were favorites then and now. But it was Ricks’ teasing out of the Edgar Alan Poe stuff in love minus zero that stuck with me (my love is like a raven at the window with a broken wing).
Recently, I’ve been enjoying Ben Burrell’s album by album analysis of Dylan – on spotify he’s got 6 episodes on Blonde on Blonde.
More from the pen of Derek Scott
Derek found this 2013 piece he’d written from when he was asked to explain Bob to a new listener, another huge Beatles fan for whom Dylan had up until then been an oversight:
Dylan transformed/reinvented himself several times:
He moved to New York from Minnesota before he was 20 in 1961. He said his parents were dead (they weren’t). He said he’d run away with circuses, freight cars, etc. as a child (he hadn’t). Unthinking journalists and sleeve note authors perpetuated these myths for several years.
But he did drop out of college early and he must have put in a lot of practice on little sleep. Even before he made his first record in 1962 he had played harmonica on three albums, including one with Harry Belafonte. So although most people in the 1960s thought he couldn’t play (or sing), he was good enough for session work at session rates from an early age. He sings like a Minnesotan (eg mirror is me’er).
He “headlined” with Joan Baez (one of his love interests at the time) at the Martin Luther King I-have-a-dream March on Washington in August 1963. His guitar playing was never great (and he tended to compose on a typewriter and a piano, neither of which he was particularly adept at), but session musicians returned his favours. His best albums were recorded in Nashville, not in New York. He’s written ten times as many recorded songs as Lennon-McCartney, but they only had 8 years together in that respect, whereas Dylan’s now in his 52nd year as a recording artist. His first album had only two of his own songs, his second album had only two or three songs which weren’t his, and then all the songs were his until recurring episodes of writer’s block from the 1970s onwards, so he wrote with others and also sang songs by others again. The Beatles’ double album was in 1968, Dylan’s (Blonde on Blonde) was in 1966.
His longest running backing groups were pretty useful in themselves – The Band, The Rolling Thunder Revue (including Mick Ronson), Eric Clapton at Blackbushe in 1978, Mark Knopfler in the studio, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, etc.
He dumped Baez in 1965, but she came back for more several times in the 1970s and 1980s. He married in 1965, got off the treadmill in 1966 by crashing his motorbike, came back as a country singer with and without Johnny Cash whom he’d known since 1964, wrote a memorable “divorce” album (Blood on the Tracks) in 1974, switched emphasis from Judaism to Christianity after someone threw a crucifix on to a stage in 1978, recorded his first Christian album with Mark Knopfler in 1979, etc. etc. (He returned to Judaism during the 1980s. He appears to have been married three times, but the first one was the biggie, to one of his muses, Sara, mother of Jakob of the Wallflowers, and he kept the other two marriages fairly secret at the times, just as he kept Sara hidden from Baez for quite a while; yet both appeared with him in the Renaldo & Clara film made around the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Abba’s relationships are straightforward set alongside Dylan’s.)
He does appear to have an incredible recall of detail, people, old songs, American history, and his Never Ending Tour started in 1988 and is still going, averaging over 100 shows a year. He’s 72 this year. He’s been honoured by St Andrews University (where a leading Dylanologist, Neil Corcoran, was an English professor before moving, ironically, to Liverpool), but not by Ziggy’s!
[Ziggy’s is a well known restaurant in St Andrews with much rock and roll memorabilia on its walls from Beatles to Bowie, but nothing of Dylan, a restaurant not to be confused with Zimmy’s in Hibbing which is sadly now closed.]
In further correspondence, Derek opens up on how he manages his marriage around Dylan. I have similar issues with my partner who insists on listening to Elaine Paige’s Sunday radio show. There are times when you just have to fast forward and I fast forward to the Cockpit.
I tend to describe my own narrow musical taste as running from A (Abba) to B (Buddy, Bob, The Beatles and The Byrds). But happy to chat if/when we get back to meeting up. Sadly my wife detests Bob’s voice and if she’s in the car with me I have to fast forward any Bob in playlists unless it’s Just Like A Woman, and she only likes the BoB version, none of the other many versions I have accumulated over the years. My favourite version of that song is from Concert for Bangladesh, although the original is as good, and it was Bob’s late mother’s favourite, allegedly.
Can you tell us your best Dylan moments?
I get a lot of pleasure hearing people’s reactions to Dylan and their memories of him and his music over the years. The last time I went to see him he was playing the Hammersmith Apollo. I turned up with Stella only to find that I’d arrived a week late.