Monday, May 9, 2016

From Freeze Out to Visions of Johanna: An Original Dylan Acetate

1965 Dylan Acetate Recording at Karpeles
Yesterday Duluth's 2016 Homegrown Festival marched into history. Today, in less than two weeks (May 22) we're going to kick off our 2016 Duluth Dylan Fest with the launch of our first of five new events, the 48 Hour Film Fest in which filmmakers have just 2 days to make a music video inspired by a Bob Dylan song. This kick-off event will begin at Carmody's on Sunday at 7 p.m. at which time filmmakers will each select from a pre-selected list one song that they have 48 hours to turn into a music video. The film viewing is slated for May 24th at 7 p.m. at Zinema 2. (Rules and other details can be found Here.) Afterwards, stick around for the annual Dylan Trivia Contest which starts at 9. In the modern vernacular it's not only a good warm-up for the week, it's a form of edutainment.

Two events are already underway here in the Northland Daniel Botkin's Dylan-themed art exhibit was hung last week at the Red Mug Coffeehouse in Superior. There will be music and an artist talk on Monday the 23rd, but why wait till then to see it. The Red Mug makes great soups and sandwiches among other things, so bring someone to lunch this week or next and enjoy the show.

The second event already underway, and creating an ongoing buzz, is the Einstein Disguised as Robin Hood exhibit at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. The exhibit is purportedly one-thousandth of one percent of the William Pagel collection of Dylan memorabilia, photos, rare manuscripts and more, but it's spine-tingly cool. And it's surprisingly at home here at Karpeles.

One of the items on display (see photo above) is a 1965 Dylan Acetate Recording with three songs that later became known by other names: "Phantom Engineer" (which we all know 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 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 song 215 times in concert, the most recent being July 16, 2015.

A co-worker of mine 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 here 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, bootlegs etc. It's a matter of supply and demand. They have a supply, and fans have demanded it.

Here's a YouTube vid of one of the many early versions of Freeze Out...

Catch the anguished moan at the end of it.

* * * *

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

The Wikipedia article on this song cites Andy Gill as suggesting 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." 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 tapes that were shared.

The Wikipedia account includes Robert Shelton's take on the song:

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 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 I'd rather share the most memorable version of the song.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.

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