Visions Of Johanna (1966)
Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde is a watershed album, song after smashingly good song heralding a master poet and striving musician at peak form.
(His normally very good basic backing band was now tweaked and rounded out to become one of the greatest music gangs ever assembled.) The raucous “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “I Want You,” and the misunderstood “Just Like A Woman,” appear on Blonde on Blonde.
“Just Like A Woman”
Dylan’s Taj Mahal, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” takes up an entire side of the double-disc album, punching in at a zaftig eleven minutes, but seemingly endless with its corridors, rooms, courtyards and central figure.
“Visions Of Johanna”
“Visions Of Johanna” is something else altogether. It is, although a ballad, an out-and-out Rock song.
It carries on its back elements of the Blues, plenty of Folk lines, and something peculiarly American: experimentation that artistically bends and almost breaks the past, seriously hobbling tradition in the process. The past is not so much dismissed as it is neutralized or anesthetized.
Dylan’s lyrical work – always spinning along like its own synoptic gospel, telling the same story in the same order with different words – reaches a zenith in “Johanna.”
Unbelievably – to tell us how times really have been a-changin’ – the full lyric was published as a poem in the June, 1966, edition of Glamour magazine.
What it was doing side by side with fashion, hair and how-to-grab-a-guy’s attention articles is anyone’s guess, but there it was, naked to the world, stripped of its music, a post-Beat poem by the English-speaking world’s greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century.
The opening verse sets the tone and the physical place:
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
Doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain
Temptin’ you to defy it
Dylan dishes two types of muses in the song.
One is earthbound, available and sexual. The other is ethereal, capricious and inspirational on a different plane. The latter is the Madonna and/or the Mona Lisa and the Johanna of “Visions Of Johanna.”
Much conjecture has gone into the “who” question about these two women. The answers seems to settle down on Joan Baez as the available muse and Sara Lownds Dylan (at right) as the loftier inspirational type. Another theory has it that Dylan’s earlier New York girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, is part of the mix. In purely artistic terms, it makes no difference and is only of interest for purposes of gossip.
“Visions Of Johanna” is fraught with images of the drifting, unpredictable muse of the heavens, beginning with one of the most powerful lines in Rock:
The ghost of electricity
Howls in the bones of her face…
And there is this:
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
Dylan is dismissive of the earthy muse-goddess, which he seems to depict as one-dimensional, always there to complete the process, diametrically opposed to the drifting, dreaming goddess who demands process and more process – a frightening, but ultimately, liberating experience.
Moreover, as in the last verse (above), the heavenly one cannot be captured – the wait for her return having grown so lengthy that the cage that the narrator has built for her has become corroded and decayed. What was once attainable has now been lost.
He is tormented by the ephemeral nature of the muse, one he cannot preserve under glass, although there is a slight hint that the singer knows that by doing so would destroy her value to him:
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
There are countless sidelights that can be flicked here and there. “The ghosts of electricity” howling in her bones is a clear nod to Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s Beat masterpiece.
The all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train is a very clear allusion to T.S. Eliot’s women who “come and go, talking of Michelangelo” in The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a poem whose narrator rambles into a fractured night scene and questions everything from love to aesthetics, from the conventions of society to the meaning of life and the repercussions of death. If nothing else, Dylan is up on his reading.
His reference to a woman with a mustache is a riff on Marcel Duchamp’s famous joke painting in which he paints a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And, of course, the already inscrutable Mona Lisa is made all the more indecipherable by that bit of graffiti.
The song, in the last review, is about inscrutability. About the artistic process. About the people we end up loving. About life itself. In syntax and phrasing “Visions Of Johanna” veers from the concrete to the hard to grasp. Sometimes that which is real becomes unreal, like a smoke ring blowing away, while hazy images suddenly become clear.
Underneath it all, there is an engine of music running that is among the most innovative in all of the Rock genre’s history. You can begin with Joe South’s glittering bass line, which makes the clearest connection to the mood of the lyrics and Dylan’s vocal delivery. South has always been among the more soulful entertainers in Rock-N-Roll and no mean songwriter himself (“The Games People Play” and “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”).
Joe South’s “Games People Play”
Native Nashvillian, Kenny “Downwind” Buttrey, provides the drumming with a light, mysterious touch. Buttrey was a session drummer in Nashville who also worked with the likes of Neil Young – in the Stray Gators, as well as on albums Harvest and Harvest Moon; with Chuck Berry; George Harrison and Bob Seger, as well as drumming on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.
Veteran Nashville session man Charlie McCoy, who played with almost everyone who passed through the town from the early 1960s onward, contributed some guitar bits that are mixed far back. Al Kooper brings a layer of late-night, drug-hazed undercurrent via his magic organ.
The musical highlight, though, is what amounts to a coming out party for Robbie Robertson, (right, with Dylan) later of The Band, who bends and chews his guitar notes, peeking in at and probing the lyrics like a midnight raven poking a beak into the open windows of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel (where it is said much of the first draft of the song was written).
Robertson can scarcely resist breaking the song wide open into a full-fledged Rock-N-Roll song. He conjures up Berry, Doo-Wop, Delta Blues, country picking, and modern Jazz. It is a tour de force, a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, a mind-blower that gets better on each listen.
Dylan’s voice is filled with existential longing mingled with lust and the spiritual leaning toward Sara Lownds, his soon-to-be wife. They were married in November of ’65. “Johanna” was recorded the preceding May.
There was some inner strength in Sara that Dylan recognized and fed off. Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, her mother had a stroke when the future Mrs. Dylan was 9; her father was murdered when she was a high school senior. Sara would become a Playboy Club bunny/waitress when she moved to New York. She later met Dylan through a friend.
By contrast, Dylan often showed sneering contempt for Joan Baez’s upper-middle-class background.
The abstract impressionism of “Visions Of Johanna” remains a landmark moment in Rock. In fact, one can almost mark by it the beginning of the emergence of “Rock” from the egg of Rock-N-Roll. The genre was fast becoming complex musically and lyrically.
Suffice it to say that the Beatles in their most creative years were in thrall to the 1965 revolution that Dylan produced.
Countless artists were liberated by his smashing down of walls between popular music and high art yet somehow remaining married to street hipster attitude. Neil Young, Jim Morrison, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton of Cream, and The Who all had to react to, and eventually benefited from, the seminal ’66 of Bob Dylan. Additionally, there is the most fertile period of The Band’s playing and singing that came out of Blonde On Blonde.
Everyone was chasing the muses just like Zimmerman said.
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- George Martin – the “5th Beatle” and their producer/arranger) on the synergy: “I think Bob Dylan was an influence more on John, than anybody. I’d just been working with Bob and I said, “You know, John admired what you did enormously and you were a tremendous influence on him.” He said, “Oh, so people tell me.”
- It’s no secret that Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have collaborated many times, at many stages of their careers. One of their most interesting co-creations is “Sign Language,” on Clapton’s No Reason To Cry album, upon which members of The Band also play.
Also by Bob Dylan on SongMango.com:
- Ballad Of A Thin ManA wild, morose piece – good background music against which you might throw yourself off the nearest bridge.
- Chimes Of FreedomAn appeal to human virtue, a sense of right and wrong – a quest for human rights on every level – render the song immortal.
- My Back Pages (Live)The classic is transformed from Folk-song period piece into a grand work of art forged live in the furnace of New York.
- Like A Rolling StoneA worshipped icon, held aloft and offered as proof – of what, you can never tell.