One of the highlights of our annual Duluth Dylan Fest celebrations (held during the week of Dylan’s May 24 birthday each year) has been a display of rare Dylan memorabilia from the William Pagel archives. The display carries the title Einstein Disguised as Robin Hood, and features a variety of Dylan memorabilia including signed photos, rare original manuscripts and more. It’s spine-tingly cool and it is very likely returning in May to Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum here in Duluth.
One of the items displayed in 2016 was a 1965 Dylan Acetate Recording with three songs that later became known by other names: “Phantom Engineer” (which we know now as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”), “Over the Cliff” (which wasn’t released till 1991 on the Bootleg Series, Vol. 1–3; Rare and Unreleased), and “Freeze Out” (the early title for “Visions of Johanna.”)
For the record, even though it looks like a mass-produced vinyl album you’d buy from the store, an acetate disc is created using a special machine that cuts the groove into the surface of a special lacquer-coated blank disc. It’s a real-time operation requiring both skill and expensive equipment. They’re made for special purposes and almost never for sale to the general public. They may have been used as demos of new recordings or possibly for the artist to bring home to listen to how the song they recorded sounds.
A few notes about “Freeze Out,” or rather “Visions of Johanna.” On Dylan’s 70th birthday in 2011 Rolling Stone called it one of the 10 greatest Dylan songs of all time. Though I do not always find myself in agreement with other peoples’ lists, I agree here. Visions is a truly great song that stands up to innumerable listenings. Like “Hard Rain, “the song is densely packed with memorable images. Three or four years ago the Dylan Trivia Contest included this question (which will not be on this year’s contest): “How many Dylan songs begin with the letter V.” If you guessed one, you are correct.
Dylan has performed the Visions of Johanna 216 times in concert, the most recent being August 19, 2018. A co-worker of mine once tipped his hand to me that he was a Dylan fan by sending me an email that simply stated, “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” (Interpreted below by Daniel Botkin in three variations.)
You can tell it is a favorite of Dylanofiles, inasmuch as variations of the song have been released in nearly a dozen different forms on albums and bootlegs. It’s a matter of supply and demand. They (Dylan archivists) have a supply, and fans have demanded it.
Here’s a YouTube vid of one of the many early versions of Freeze Out…
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
Apparently it was Andy Gill who suggested that it’s the enigmatic quality of the song that is responsible for its popularity — “forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment.” The statement could easily apply to other Dylan songs, including “All Along the Watchtower” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
Part of the power of ambiguity is that it forces the listener to pay closer attention. Like a good who-dunnit mystery story, one must pay attention to the clues. The images are vivid, yet the meaning of the surreal pictures his words paint are often elusive. What’s not elusive is the manner in which he sings them and it’s the overall effect that is mesmerizing and masterful.
Dylan began recording and re-recording in New York, but having failed to get that sound he was striving for he split the Big Apple and reconvened in Nashville where after many more takes the version that appeared on Blonde On Blonde was finally achieved. Over the years collectors relished the variations they heard on the bootlegged tapes that were shared.
The Wikipedia account on this song includes Robert Shelton’s take:
Robert Shelton called “Visions of Johanna” one of Dylan’s major works. He writes that Dylan’s technique of throwing out “skittering images” evokes “a mind floating downstream”; these “non-sequential visions” are the record of a fractured consciousness. Shelton argues that the song explores a hopeless quest to reach an ideal, the visions of Johanna, and yet without this quest life becomes meaningless. He suggests that the same paradox is explored by Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.
As longtime Dylan followers are aware, Robert Shelton was the New York Times critic who wrote a favorable review about the new voice that was being heard in the Village. This review, which helped catapult Dylan to early fame, is also among the items on display at Karpeles. (How cool is that?)
Much more could be said, but instead I pass you on the Tony Attwood’s blog, Untold Dylan. Attwood has written extensively on nearly every song in the Dylan catalog, and his insights are rich. In passing you to this link, I suggest listening to the versions of the song there as well. Interestingly, he cites the Andy Gill quote that I referred to here.
Visions of Johanna: the meaning of the music, the lyrics and the rewrites | Untold Dylan
By Tony Attwood. This article updated June 2017, with the Australia 1966 recording added February 2018 and a further…
So many great lines in this song and it never gets old. “Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously.” I’ve been that little boy. I’ve been in this story. How about you?
Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com and updated here today.