FORUM CONTRIBUTION BY Timothy Hampton, University of California, Berkeley
Bob Dylan’s epochal recording, Blonde on Blonde (1966) hits its stride on its third track, the majestic “Visions of Johanna.” Here the great themes of the album — memory, debt, betrayal, fidelity — come into focus, against the backdrop of a smoky room, after hours:
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.
The rhymes of the four lines beautifully reflect the sense of stasis that penetrates the song. The vowels of the four rhyme words link up through assonance. But within this sameness there is difference. The first and third rhyme exactly, as do the second and fourth. There’s stasis, but also change, in the rhymes, as there is in the story of the song.
What strikes one most powerfully, however, is the final line. There’s nothing to turn off. We get it. But why is there “nothing, really nothing” to turn off? Why the insistence? Why the herky-jerky clause? It is true that the line mirrors the metrics of what precedes — two short syllables followed by a long syllable, ta-ta-taaa. But it gives us too much information. Dylan could just as easily have sung, “But there’s nothing to turn off.” The melody would have worked fine. What kind of sentence is this, anyway? Would you ever say “there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off” in a normal conversation? In what context? It’s a line that calls attention to its own artificiality, to the fact that it is colloquial diction, used in a completely uncommon way.
This little verbal blip teaches us a number of things that we can recall, now, at Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, as we listen as fully as we can to the whole range of his music. In the moment of Blonde on Blonde it announces the curious, conversational mode of that album. After the somewhat grand public pronouncements of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, we are now moving to a quieter, more private lyric mode, in which the lyricist seems to be talking to intimates, or in some cases, as here, to himself. It’s a new step forward in Dylan’s marvelous mastery of English poetic diction.
But it also delivers a message about what makes up art, and about the relationship between poetry and social experience. Though Dylan plays with “Visions of Johanna” on various outtakes (released, now, on The Cutting Edge), “nothing, really nothing” appears to have been part of the lyric throughout the different versions. Either way, by its emphasis, it calls our attention to what we might “turn off” if we were, for example, in the business of turning things off. We could turn off the flickering lights. We could turn off the heat to keep the old radiator from rattling. Or we could turn off the country station. But the point is that to turn off any of these things would be to shut down the moment, to impoverish the density of this scene, this instant, this memory. There is really nothing to turn off.
We are being educated here, taught about poetry and the senses. There is no “I” in the scene, so far. Only a vague “we,” an undefined “you” (“tempting you to defy it”), and a mention of a mysterious woman called Louise. The real story only begins a few lines later, when the singer announces that he’s overcome by visions of Johanna. Dylan is here working as a stage manager, a manipulator of décor. As the poet Rimbaud reminds us, poetry is built out of a mixing of all senses, a confusion of our learned categories for making sense of the world. Here, Dylan is applying this disorientation to set a scene in which there is no hierarchy of the senses. Everything, from the most irritating radiator noise to the most beautiful country ballad, is essential to the moment. The extra language, “really nothing,” is, thus, not really nothing at all. It is, in fact, the most important detail in the scene, since it reminds us that everything is music, that sensory experience makes up the material of art.
This is one of the lessons that Dylan has taught us — to open our ears, not only to the grand multi-part harmonies of the Staple Singers, or the zinging guitar solos of the Butterfield Blues Band, but to the music of everyday life. And of everyday speech. Not only do the songs blend high culture and street speech, Blake and Bebop, but the performances are marked by moments where we learn to listen to things we never thought were music. We hear it in the mumbled lyric of “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” “When, uh, he built a fire on Main Street,” where the “uh” is as important as anything else in the line. Or in the interjection in the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone,” (“to nnnnnahh, be on your own”). Or in the rickety vocal duets on Desire, where Emmylou Harris struggles to harmonize with Dylan’s eccentric delivery. All of these bits of sound — these grunts, groans, hesitations, rattles, misplayed notes, urgings — are as integral to Dylan’s work as the harmonica solos. They are the stuff of everyday speech, but also, when integrated into the form of the song, the stuff of great art. Like the subway tickets stuck into the paintings of Picasso, or the bits of advertising talk in the sonnets of Ted Berrigan, they are Dylan’s way of teaching us that beauty is all around us. The poetry of the everyday is part of the compositional world of his songs. They are not the only place it can be found. But without them, we might not pay attention to it. Listen! There is really nothing to turn off. With Dylan, we can hear music everywhere, in the heat pipes, in the country music station — but, also, in the sky above, in the tall grass, and the ones we love.