infinity goes up on trial

I resisted Bob Dylan for a long time. For one thing, that was my mom's music, and moms, you know, they just don't understand. During my junior high years old Dylan and Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie LPs spun on the turntable downstairs, while I lurked in my room blasting Bikini Kill and Jane's Addiction cassettes and trying to make skirts out of old men's dress shirts (thanks a lot, Sassy). I scoffed at the "folkies," as I called them, those Sensitive Earnest People with acoustic guitars, and soon thereafter a friend of mine gave me one of those seminal mixtapes that had everything I needed on it - the Velvets, the Pixies, and, well, Ned's Atomic Dustbin. I fell hard for Lou Reed and began reading everything that had ever been written about him, even when it was written by Victor Bockris, and anyone who's read Transformer knows that Bob and Lou weren't too friendly. Lou believed that Bob was ripping him off, and blamed him for getting Edie Sedgwick hooked on drugs, and that was really all it took for me to dismiss Dylan completely and forever.

But I have to back up now and tell you that the girl who gave me that tape was named Johanna, and she lived with her family in a huge creaky wooden house in the middle of the farmland outside town, and inside the house it was warm and yellow and smelled like soup, and she wore long skirts and sandals and Greenpeace t-shirts with no bra underneath. She played the viola and didn't care when the cheerleaders gossiped about her ("ohmigod! she totally doesn't shave her legs!") and I was a little bit awed by her and very impressed by the things she talked about and the way she dodged the edges of high school lunacy. One day I asked Johanna where her name came from, because I'd known Joannas but never JoHannas, and she often had to correct substitute teachers. "It's from a song," she said, and I perked up, hoping she'd drop something as good as "Wave of Mutilation" on me. "It's from a Bob Dylan song," she said, and then she laughed. "Guess which one."

I had no idea. I couldn't name a single Bob Dylan song. She could tell I didn't know what she was talking about. "Are you kidding?" she squawked. "Wow. Okay. I'm making you another mixtape."

And so she did, and that was how I heard "Visions of Johanna," and I listened to it a few times and then put it away and forgot about it, but every now and then I'd remember and play it again, and the more I listened the more I had to admit it was a good song. For that matter, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was a good song, and so was "Just Like a Woman," and "Lay Lady Lay," and... goddamn. One day my mom found me sitting on the living room floor, cross-legged on the ratty brown shag rug, listening to Highway 61 Revisited. She had the good grace not to say "I told you so."

Flash forward to the present tense, please, and your humble narrator finds herself far from farmlands and drafty wooden houses and people who wear loose skirts and sandals, and last week I realized that the only sound that would shorten the distance from city to home was that song. Unfortunately, the tapes Johanna made me died long ago from overuse, but thanks to the magic of the internet I was able to get "Visions of Johanna" on the mpspod within seconds. It's a song that holds up to any environment, be it lonely Maine fields or dark Park Slope streets; I know long ago certain lines seemed Very Important to me, and now I find myself thinking about some of the 26-year-old memoirists I'm in class with ("Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously/He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously"). The song adapts well, the words are flexible, and yet it is ultimately a constant, reassuring presence in my ears.

So that's my pick of the week: "Visions of Johanna," and thanks for a little lesson learned.

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Blogger d said...

buffy! totally deserving of a soft communication testimonial. I used to lie to people & tell them that the vampire slayer was named after her & would bust out my copy of "illuminations" for proof. see? a song called "the vampire"?

10:32 AM, March 11, 2005  

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