“Visions Of Johanna”
It’s Bob Dylan at his best. And that’s saying something.
It’s fair to say I have a Bob Dylan obsession. You could probably say that of most anyone who has heard him, whether they like him or not. Despite some glaring faults and murmured rumors of nastiness and artistic thievery, I love him. More accurately, I love his work. It’s a mountain sitting in the middle of any songwriter’s road. When you approach it, you know you will have to climb it or drive around it, but there’s no denying it’s there. Even if you choose to ignore it, the scale of your denial reflects on his work.
I am probably somewhere way down the list of his imitator-adorers. I had my own Dylan-ish period and still sense him looking over my shoulder when I’m writing. He’s a ghost in a lot of great songwriter’s rooms. But it’s not wise to let your your work get long-winded or writerly just because his is. He’s Bob Dylan and you’re not. His singular contribution created a lot of poets with Stratocasters, everyone of them unable to get much above base camp on Mount Dylan.
The great ones like him change the game and the argument will always be — Is it better than before? I’d wager a bet that Dylan doesn’t believe it is. His introduction of black humor and beat spirit opened the door to lyricists like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen. On a larger level, it tipped the balance of words and music so far to the literary side of the scale you almost need to attend The Iowa Writer’s Workshop to write songs now. And interviews with rock musicians, a breed that used to be so salt of the earth, are certainly less fun than ever, with writers polishing their intellectual bona-fides for all to see.
His early work, all caught up in social justice in a way he came to disparage, is brilliant. Protest songs are just about impossible to write, and he tossed them off like he was writing grocery lists. But just because he did it with such ease doesn’t mean it actually was, or is. Unfortunately, once you assume the mantle you often wind nothing more than a mantle wearer — too proud to see nothing has changed. That didn’t happen to Dylan. When you look at his protest songs, you can sense the next phase coming. The words are already borderline surreal and the absolute pressure cooker of fame, and the role of spokesperson for a generation that was thrust upon him, were too much. When the lid blew, it would result in three records that changed the game entirely.
Adding electricity for half of Bringing It All Back Home, then going completely and wildly electric for Highway 61 Revisited, the table was set. His next record, if not the first double record in rock’n’roll, probably the greatest, was Blonde On Blonde. These three seminal records are getting a closer look in his latest release, Bob Dylan 1965-1966 The Cutting Edge Bootleg Series series. Dylan completists and investment bankers can spend $600 for the deluxe set, which I assume must have an actual lock of the twisty jewfro he sports on the cover. I will opt out of the scholars view, and go for the regularly-priced, entry-level collection, having listened to way too much of the Basement Tapes last year. There’s only so much noodling and tuning I can listen to before I realize I can do it at home for free.
There’s no doubt Dylan’s method is thorough, I have heard one bootleg where he tries out a dozen or so versions of “Tell Old Bill,” before settling on the final version. “Visions Of Johanna,” in a startlingly experimental and new video from the new bootleg series, is about halfway to completion. The band still sounds like the one on Highway 61, racing like mad as Dylan spits out some of the best lyrics ever about a doomed affair. To say it works is an understatement. Here are the complete lyrics:
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 doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting 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.
In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the D-train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane
Louise she’s all right she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
Oh, how can I explain ?
It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna they kept me up past the dawn.
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower frieze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees.”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.
The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man.”
As she, herself prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.
© Bob Dylan
I think I used up half the internet on those lyrics… talk about a novel. One of the most amazing things to me about Dylan is his ability to remember reams of lyrics like this. Sure they are memorable and funny, but so many of his songs have five to ten verses. How does he do it?
At the risk of letting this column reach the length of one of his songs, let me add one more thing. This song is said to be about his girlfriend, Joan Baez, and their breakup. It probably is, but people who go looking for some kind of diary in his or anyone else’s writing are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. This song is real whether it was inspired by a specific heartache or not. I find it funny that we need to know these kind of details before we can decide if we like a song or not. This is a work of epic imagination. Every line is brilliant and the fourth verse alone contains enough poetry to supply the whole music industry. Not many diaries have lines like “The jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” Let’s not ask a song this great to be some sort of musical People Magazine.