Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Bob Dylan - Visions of Johanna
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna"
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna (alternate take)" (YSI link)
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna (live 1966 "Royal Albert Hall")
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna (4.13.66 The Stadium Sydney Australia)
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna (5.06.66 Gaumont Theater Sheffield, England) (YSI link)
Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna (live 11.02.2006 Auburn Hills, MI) (YSI link)
Well, the time has come. I am finally going to discuss what I believe to be the greatest song ever written, "Visions of Johanna." Not surprisingly, this is by Bob Dylan, as I'm guessing no one expected me to think a Wang Chung song was the greatest of all-time. I feel like this is the perfect follow-up to our last post on The Mountain Goats' recent album chronicling the aftermath of a break-up. No one has ever turned that state into art more brilliantly than Bob Dylan in "Visions."
I can't remember the first time I heard this song, can't even remember if it struck me as profoundly as it does today. It comes in early (Track 3) on Blonde On Blonde, Dylan's magnum opus. That album's so jam packed and long that it could've gotten lost. It wasn't until I went through my own descent into near-madness after a break-up that this song took its place in pantheon. It was until a recent one that it was elevated to the very top, that song that seemed so much more than a song, it seems to speak to me.
From that first harmonica note on the original, you know that this is going to be a dark journey. It sounds like a cry, or maybe a crippling sigh, the sounds of a broken man. The sound is almost reserved in a way, with the eerie organ work and acoustic strumming. It's only the burst of electric chords that indicate a fire still there. For me, the song is about the aftermath of a breakup, lost love haunting a broken heart. It's a song about ghosts, the ghost of an ex-lover and how s/he never leaves you. From there, it becomes all about the lyrics, which paint pictures of a man unable to sleep in a NYC loft (I write at 1:30 am, jewels and binocular hanging from the head of a mule and much more. They're amazing, drug visions, crazy talk, words that come to haunt you as much as the memories haunt the narrator of the song.
What this song really brings home to me is how essential this notion of haunting is to the greatest works of art. Whether it's being haunted by one's influences, a ghost or memories, it's what elevates a particular work for me. It's the one condition that speaks to me, the notion that we are nothing more than memories, fighting them, trying to understand them, coming to terms with them. In "Visions of Johanna," Dylan has put all of this into one seven and a half minute song.
I've tried to put a pretty good selection of recorded versions of this song, giving you in its recorded, live, electric and acoustic variations. I put up the original Blonde on Blonde version, but everyone needs that album in their life. Buy it now, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. I also put up the alternate take from the No Direction Home soundtrack, Scorcese's Dylan documentary. It's a more electric affair and is a revelation. The Hawks are the backing band, I believe, and that electric sound really fits the song's lyrics about madness and the city. After that, three live performances from 1966 in all of their solo acoustic glory. It's stunning to hear Dylan get up there all by himself and captivate an audience, I kinda feel like this is the perfect form for this song, one man singing his heart out, alone.