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.


Private Beach said...

For some reason the article is incomplete (cuts off halfway through a word). Please repost - thanks!

Anonymous said...

This must be the song that I have listened most to. Even among Dylan songs this is the one spinning the most! Funnily enough the second favorite Dylan song of mine is Jokerman. In a way it is hard to find any common denominators between these two, except for the fact that they are both extremely "wordy" and can put me in a trance any day of the week! Somehow both of them contain these images that somehow puts you in a trance: "distant ships sailing into the mist", "In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft". A short excerpt like that of course does not do the song any justice. One really has to listen to it all to get that larger than image of this guy in his room on the loft not being able to let go of Johanna. This is indeed a true master piece!

Anonymous said...

It was that electric alternate take that caused me to finally "get" Dylan (like the acoustic "Thunder Road" outtake did for Springsteen). The intense, delightful wordplay and the intense music brought it all home (so to speak).


Bruce K.

Anonymous said...

Yes but what about the harmonica work in Mr Tambourine Man from Bristol 1966?

Doctor Mooney said...

A favorite! I had a post like this in the works, now in a holding pattern. The "Royal Albert Hall" & "No Direction Home" versions are my top of pops! Great post! Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Great blog! Visions of Johanna is my favourite Dylan song as well, but I didn't realise it until I saw him do a beautiful version in Portsmouth, England in 2000.

Dylan has been playing this song once in a blue moon ever since the Never Ending Tour started. Here's a version from 1989:


I'd also recommend a version from Birmingham in 2005 which has some nice chilled out guitar solos.


Patrick R.

ericbkk said...

I've spent too much time listening to this song already, and now, thanks to you, I'm listening again.
Such a great song, you can't really go wrong with any version, but I've always had a soft spot for the two Freeze Outs from the Dylan/Hawks Studio Sessions,'65.


Both these versions include the line,"he examines the nightingale's code" in the final stanza.

anonymous recommended B'ham,'05.
It's here:
Bob Dylan- Visions of Johanna (3 live versions)
Birmingham, 18.11.05


rar pw = belubettlo

4 versions on a compilation called Old BobDylan.com Performances Revisited.

1. Visions Of Johanna - Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland, ME, 25 Feb 1999, 08:09
2. Visions of Johanna - Beacon Theatre, New York, New York, 25 April 2005, 10:21
3. Visions Of Johanna - Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis, MN, 3 Sep 1992, 06:55
4. Visions Of Johanna - Continental Airlines Arena, E. Rutherford, NJ, 13 Nov 1999, 08:54


I've put your files in a ZIP in order to post them on a couple of forums, but I'll delete them if you have any objections:


The Sunday Times September 17, 2006
Going for a song
Writers analyse the tracks that mean the most to them. This week: Bryan Appleyard on Dylan's Visions of Johanna
We used to sit in rooms waiting for the world to end. It was like that in those days. For me, it went on being like that — not the end-of-the-world thing, but the waiting in rooms. These were hotel rooms, and I couldn’t get out because people might call. So I lay on the beds and thought. Such rooms were not where I wanted, or was meant, to be. They were in-between places; anything desirable or meaningful happened elsewhere. On the other hand, such rooms do set your mind free.

Bob Dylan is the great artist of rooms. A large number of his songs are Room Songs. The majestic Where Are You Tonight?, for example, is evidently set in a motel; and, most spine-chilling of all, there is the moment at the end of Blind Willie McTell where he brings that great lament home with the lines “I’m gazing out the window/Of the St James Hotel”. It is not just that these songs are written in rooms — obviously, most are — but that the neutral territory of the room is fundamental to understanding what they are about.

I identify with all these Room Songs. My mind has often wandered from the banal surroundings of a student pad or a hotel room, wandered to other people, other places, then returned to my suddenly surreal surroundings. But there is one Room Song that does it for me every time, gets me there faster and keeps me there longer. It is the greatest Room Song ever written. It is also the greatest love song. It is Dylan’s Visions of Johanna.

Released in 1966 on Blonde on Blonde, it has escorted me everywhere ever since. I just have to hear that premonitory “Ain’t it just like the night...” and I am hopelessly lost. I still know every word, and it’s a long song.

The room shimmers in and out — “Lights flicker from the opposite loft...”, “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near...”, “the heat pipes just cough...” — just enough to set the scene. This is a room where I have been. Strange people come and go. Random decor catches the eye. It almost involves you — Louise, after all, is “all right” — but not quite. The real action is elsewhere, with Johanna, the visions of whom “conquer my mind”.

I belong to a generation destined to be for ever in transit and for ever yearning to be somewhere else. Visions of Johanna nails these truths about me for ever. But it consoles me. Its mournful tune and delivery enhance the startling, silvery beauty of the imagery. It takes me back to a time when I really did believe that poetry changed everything, and that I could hear the chatter of “the all-night girls” whispering of “escapades out on then train”. And it makes me think: maybe I was right.

Some VoJ comments here:


Thanks for the tunes.

Mike O said...

Great post -- phenomenal song. I first came to know the song through a haunting version performed by Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead in Hampton, Virginia in 1986. I literally wore that tape out and the song had been a favorite ever since. Typical of Dylan's best songs, it has the combination of musical excellence, fearless lyrics and magical singing (whether by Bob or Jerry). Garcia's magical guitar licks simply propel the song out of this world ...

Anonymous said...

Nice comments from everyone. Visions of Johanna is my absolute favorite song in the world, but I may have some different interpretations of it than some of you. First, I believe "rain" is slang for narcotics, specifically heroin. While not an "anti-drug" song, I feel that this is being written from an addict's perspective. The drugs have helped to pull the narrator down into despair and depression. Also, "Johanna" is a term for Armageddon (due to Revelation being from "John," etc. These are known in theology as the "Johannine Prophecies." I take this to be a personal Armageddon. The narrator is seeing the end, both as a vision of where society in the 60's is headed and where he is headed personally (with drugs, bad relationships, etc.) I don't necessarily take Dylan as the actual narrator. I don't know if he felt this way personally at his young age at the time, but he certainly understood the feeling. This had been one of my favorite songs anyway, but about six years ago I had surgery for colon cancer. As I lay in the bed at night (on morphine or oxycodone) this song would go through my head continually. Not knowing if I was going to live or die, I completely "got" this song. Because of this, I particularly like Jerry Garcia's version on Garcia plays Dylan. He died less than a month after singing it. He probably realized that he didn't have much time left and he made the lyrics his own. (My favorite version, however, is Dylan's on the Live 1966 album.)

Anonymous said...

Chris Smither has a great waltz rendition of the song on his "Leave the Light On" album. A very different take, but the slow waltz adds a certain majesty to the sadness of the song. I recommend it to anyone who wants to "hear" this song again for the first time.