A strong contender for my choice of best Bob Dylan song of all time is “Visions of Johanna”. The third song on the first side of Blonde on Blonde, it is the first good song on the album. The lead track, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is, as we have already established, just plain awful. The second, “Pledging My Time” is not a whole lot better, truth be told. It is this combo that always made me a little reluctant about this album.
“Visions of Johanna” is a song that I know a lot better from Biograph than from Blonde on Blonde. The Biograph version is a live recording from London in 1966, one of the two last concerts that Dylan performed before his hiatus. I could probably make an argument that it is the peak of public performing in the 1960s if I really wanted to push it – the harmonica solo is tremendous and it is a really pained and soulful rendition of the song.
By contrast, the version on Blonde on Blonde (an album I’ve listened to only sporadically in the past, but a lot in the last couple of days) seems so very different. The key to Blonde on Blonde is that it combined the skill sets of Nashville’s top studio musicians with Dylan’s poetry. For people who think it’s his best album, this is one of the primary selling points. I’m beginning to be won around to this way of thinking. This version of “Johanna” throws me a little, but always in a good way. There are very nice musical fills at the end of a lot of the lines, and it really heightens some of the musical limitations of his earlier recordings.
Poetically, this is, for me, Dylan at his absolute peak. Some of the maniacal nonsense lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited can be grating when he goes too far. Here he’s just a little bit off kilter in his metaphors and they all work so much better. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” may be my favourite song lyric of all time, and the following verse is also near perfection for me:
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.
Even over the course of a couple of decades of not actively listening to Dylan, I would still occasionally recall the entirety of this song, and I can get the whole thing stuck in my head rather than just a simple phrase.
This week the line that has been absolutely killing me is: “See the primitive wallflower freeze When the jelly-faced women all sneeze”. There’s just something about the word “jelly-faced” that has set me off every time.
This is a version from Sheffield, a few days before the Biograph version. It’s not far off the quality. It may even be better: