May 17, 1966 – Bob Dylan performs Visions of Johanna, solo acoustic
Imagine someone hearing this song for the first time, rendered by Dylan in top form
Love songs have been a part of music since, well, forever. Many are light or even trite, while some others can be truly moving.
But when it came to popular music in modern times, there were songs about falling in love, falling out of love, being a teenager in love, or a teenager being dumped, occasionally letting someone down easy, or telling them to “hit the road, Jack.”
And then there came Visions of Johanna.
In the early and mid-1960s Bob Dylan, who turns 75 on May 24, was prolific in songwriting that used poetic language and mythic storytelling to fashion exquisite gems, which cut through surface clichés about relationships, and reflected unvarnished realities of human strife and consequence, both the epic and the intimate, transcending all rivals in contemporary youth-oriented pop and rock music, and the folk music style he initially adopted and then took in new directions.
Very much like Shakespeare, whose greatest plays were re-imagined versions of well-known stories, the young songwriter often reworked traditional folk songs to create a new composition that reached to uncommon depths of philosophical insight or an elevated height of social commentary.
At other times he wrote a song from scratch, and with genius he explored the particular topic to places no one else could or was willing to go. Visions of Johanna is just such a song.
Pundits have argued that the lyrics are about the impossible quest for an artistic ideal, or mankind’s eternal question of “Who are we and why are we here?”
Sir Andrew Motion, the UK Poet Laureate nominated it for the single best song lyric ever written. And while I agree it is in the running, it seems obvious to me that it is a love song, plain if not so simple.
Well, it is a loss of love song at any rate. But it isn’t about how breaking up is hard to do, or even about how sad one gets when their good gal’s gone off and left ‘em.
It is a song wrought with the anguish that comes from someone ending up entwined in the arms of another, because they cannot be with the person they truly long to be with, but never will again, and the bleak hopelessness found therein.
It is about the innocent victim who has no idea they are just the rebound or who knowingly accepts it out of their own loneliness. It is about the callous git who knows what buttons to push by mentioning the name of the missing party, and other bystanders clueless to the internal devastation that ruins all daily events or attempts to get on with one’s life. And most of all, it is about the one who is no longer here, but never leaves.
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
A 24 year-old Bob Dylan wrote Visions of Johanna in November of 1965. After considerable reworking and re-recording with a trove of rock musicians, it was eventually released on the LP Blonde on Blonde. But it had been performed at several concerts, with just a lone acoustic guitar.
In the spring of 1966 Bob Dylan was at the absolute zenith of his skills as a troubadour who could stand alone on stage and hold thousands spellbound, even as he was turning his back on all of that to plug-in a solid body guitar and plunge headlong into the genre of electrified rock and roll. His world tour that year was remembered for crowds that sat silent during the opening acoustic set, as they hung on every word, and then booed and shouted condemnations during the raucous electric set that followed.
But, frankly, the two surviving recordings of Vision of Johanna from the acoustic sets are sublime. The phrasing of enigmatic lyrics, the vibrant elocution, the timing with the audible tap of his foot showing his disciplined tempo, the woody throb and ringing strums of the dried out vintage guitar – a Gibson Nick Lucas Special from the late ’20s or early ’30s, and the raw power of his harmonica, all framing the words, so that the telling of the tale unfolds with a focus that projects the flickering poetic imagery with crystal clarity. So very unlike the version most people came to know from the record, bloated with superfluous musicians and rife with distracting snare drums, organ peels, dated stereo effects, and thin, caustic roadhouse guitar licks.
My favorite acoustic rendition of Visions of Johanna was performed 50 years ago today, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in the English Midlands – the after Blonde on Blonde was scheduled for release in the United States, although that release ended up being delayed over a month.
Luckily the entire event was recorded. It was leaked out as a bootleg in the late ‘60s, when it was mistakenly referred to as the ‘Royal Albert Hall Concert’, which referred to two shows that actually took place in London on May 26 and 27, and featured many famous audience members. The Manchester recording was officially released on CD in 1998.
Near the end of the electric set there is the infamous heckler calling out “Judas!” between songs. Dylan responds with an incredulous “I don’t believe you… You’re a liar.” He turns to the band, so the microphones barely pick up his order to “Play fucking loud!” And then they blew the roof off the place with Like a Rolling Stone.
It is a marvelous historical record of the sheer intensity, emotional and musical, which filled such halls as Bob Dylan exposed audiences to the shock and awe of the revolutionary electric rock and roll that changed popular music forever. The impact of Dylan’s electric sets has been compared to the near-riot at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Today, it is hard to imagine music being so controversial or having the social significance it did then.
But for me, what is most awe inspiring and historic is the fact that every ticket holder at these concerts was hearing Visions of Johanna for the very first time, when their ears and minds were absorbed into the tale woven in midair by the magician that was Bob Dylan at the height of his powers, standing alone before the mesmerized throngs, casting his incantations.
The concert is being commemorated in Manchester today, as reported yesterday in this very nice article at the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36211789
Here is Dylan in late 2011 doing the same song – which has been one of the great rarities on his Never Ending Tour.
I can only hope I can feed the birds with such acumen when I am in my 70s, if I even live that long.
Bob Dylan – Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie – composed and recited when he was 21, this poem puts to rest any argument that Dylan’s writing does not qualify as “literature.” It contains imagery very much in line with what he speaking to in his lecture.
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech – with the video of the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden reading the speech at the award banquet