Title: Visions of Johanna
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Blonde on Blonde
(Note: the video I feature here is a live recording from 1966 as the original is unavailable on YouTube.)
With so many books, papers, articles, films, websites, and probably even blogs(!) written about Bob Dylan, it's difficult to know what I could possibly bring to the table when discussing such an iconic song as 1966's "Visions of Johanna." This is one of those times when I remind myself that a goal of this blog is to simply present a song each day for people to ponder and I don't have to render some earth-shattering commentary in order for it to be enjoyed. In the case of "Visions of Johanna" (and probably most, if not all, of Blonde on Blonde), it's pretty good advice.
Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts about the lyric UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion called the greatest song lyric ever written (thank you Wikipedia) and some observations about the hastily recorded track that appears on Blonde on Blonde. The latter is easy. While it must have seemed a masterpiece in 1966 to those who placed the needle in the naked groove that preceded track 3, the recording now seems cluttered and full of mistakes. While Al Kooper has praised Joe South's bass line for being "rhythmically amazing," I find myself distracted by the number of instances when he's simply playing the wrong note. (In his defense, I can imagine Dylan never playing the song the same way twice.) The funk groove and isolated-in-the-left channel lead guitar licks all seem superfluous where the words are so commanding.
The lyric is something to behold and worth seeking out. It is poetry to be sure, unapologetically incomprehensible at times but never straying from its assigned tone. Dylan captures the sort of loneliness that can only be felt in a city of millions (in this case, New York City). I get a sense from the lyric that he feels a bit like a fraud, perhaps wondering if his fame has superseded the message he has spent years peddling. The song seems very personal despite being told in the third person, a detachment makes it seem cool and unsentimental. (Maybe that's what the musical arrangement was all about as the live acoustic performances seem much more personal.) The beauty of the song is that the words allow for so many interpretations and Dylan has managed to keep any personal meaning to himself for nearly fifty years.