Visions of Johanna
|"Visions of Johanna"|
|Song by Bob Dylan from the album Blonde on Blonde|
|Released||May 16, 1966|
|Recorded||February 14, 1966|
|Blonde on Blonde track listing|
"Visions of Johanna" is a song written and performed by Bob Dylan on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Dylan first recorded the song in New York City in November 1965, under the working title of "Freeze Out", but was dissatisfied with the results. When the Blonde on Blonde recording sessions moved to Nashville in February 1966, Dylan attempted the composition again with different musicians, and decided to release this performance. Three alternate versions of the song have been officially released: one of them a November 1965 studio outtake, and two others live performances from his 1966 world tour.
Several critics have acclaimed "Visions of Johanna" as one of Dylan's highest achievements in writing, praising the allusiveness and subtlety of the language. Rolling Stone included "Visions of Johanna" on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1999, Sir Andrew Motion, poet laureate of the UK, listed it as his candidate for the greatest song lyric ever written. Numerous artists have recorded cover versions of the song, including the Grateful Dead, Marianne Faithfull and Robyn Hitchcock.
Clinton Heylin places the writing of "Visions of Johanna" in the fall of 1965, when Dylan was living in the Chelsea Hotel with his pregnant wife Sara. Heylin notes that "in this déclassé hotel…the heat pipes still cough", referring to a line from the song. Greil Marcus reports that when first heard, "the story was that the song had been written during the great east coast blackout of November 9, 1965."
Dylan first recorded this song, backed by The Hawks, in the CBS New York recording studio, on November 30, 1965, announcing his new composition with the words: "This is called 'Freeze Out'." Andy Gill notes that this working title captures the "air of nocturnal suspension in which the verse tableaux are sketched...full of whispering and muttering." According to Marcus, Dylan introduced the song in live performances in 1966 with the words, "Seems like a freeze-out."
Some of the New York recordings, released on bootlegs, were uptempo and contain in the fifth verse the additional line "He examines the nightingale's code". Two slower versions were recorded in New York, one with a march-like tempo, which was released on the No Direction Home soundtrack in 2005, and another with a more conventional rock tempo, closer to the album version recorded in Nashville. Historian Sean Wilentz, for his book Dylan In America, listened closely to full studio tapes of the Blonde on Blonde sessions, and describes how Dylan guided the New York backing musicians through fourteen takes, trying to explain how he wanted "Visions of Johanna" played. At one point, Dylan says: "It's not hard rock, The only thing in it that's hard is Robbie." Analyzing the evolution of the song in the New York recording session, Wilentz writes that Dylan "quiets things down, inching closer to what will eventually appear on Blonde on Blonde—and it is still not right."
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"Visions of Johanna" fell into place when Dylan was persuaded by his producer, Bob Johnston, to move the recording sessions to Nashville, Tennessee. During his first day in the CBS Nashville studio, on February 14, 1966, the Blonde on Blonde version of the song was recorded. In an interview with Andy Gill, Al Kooper has said that he and guitarist Robbie Robertson became sensitive to the nuances of Dylan's vocal. Kooper added that "it's very important what Joe South's bass is doing in that"; Kooper described it as "this throbbing...rhythmically amazing bass part". Other backing musicians were Charlie McCoy, guitar, Wayne Moss, guitar, and Kenneth Buttrey on drums.
Live performances and recordings
Dylan first performed "Visions of Johanna" in public on December 4, 1965, at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Present at this concert was Joan Baez, who believed the lyrics referred to her. She said, "He'd just written 'Visions of Johanna', which sounded very suspicious to me...he'd never performed it before and Neuwirth told him I was there that night and he performed it." Heylin suggests that if Dylan performed it for anyone that night it was Allen Ginsberg, who was also present. Heylin argues Dylan considered Ginsberg to be an important influence on his songwriting at this juncture, and was keen to showcase the song for the Beat poet.
Two live versions of the song recorded during Dylan's 1966 tour of England have been released. His performance of the song at London's Royal Albert Hall concert, on May 26, 1966, appeared on Biograph, released in 1985. Asked by Cameron Crowe, for the liner notes for Biograph, how he could remember the words of such a complex song in live performance, Dylan responded, "I could remember a song without writing it down because it was so visual." A second version of the song, recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall concert, was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966.
Noting how popular "Visions of Johanna" remains among "hardcore Dylanophiles", Andy Gill suggests it is the enigmatic quality of the song which is responsible for its popularity—"forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment". Gill writes the song begins by contrasting two lovers, the carnal Louise, and "the more spiritual but unattainable" Johanna. Ultimately, for Gill, the song seeks to convey how the artist is compelled to keep striving to pursue some elusive vision of perfection.
Clinton Heylin has described what he construes as the strange circumstances surrounding the song. Written around the time of Dylan's marriage to Sara Lownds, Heylin describes it as "one of the oddest songs ever written by a man who has just tied the knot and is enjoying a brief honeymoon in the city". Connecting the songs with Dylan's experiencing a dearth of material as he commences work on his seventh studio album, Heylin speculates that "it is awfully tempting to see Johanna as his muse" who, in the song, is "not here". For Heylin, the triumph of the song lies in "the way Dylan manages to write about the most inchoate feelings in such a vivid, immediate way".
Dylan critic Michael Gray also praises the subtlety of the song. Gray acknowledges that it is difficult to say what this song is "about", since it is at once indefinable and precise. For Gray, its principal achievement lies in the way it confuses categories, using language to be simultaneously serious and flippant, delicate and coarse, and mixing up "abstract neo-philosophy and figurative phraseology".
Robert Shelton called "Visions of Johanna" one of Dylan's major works. He writes that Dylan's technique of throwing out "skittering images" evokes "a mind floating downstream"; these "non-sequential visions" are the record of a fractured consciousness. Shelton argues that the song explores a hopeless quest to reach an ideal, the visions of Johanna, and yet without this quest life becomes meaningless. He suggests that the same paradox is explored by Keats in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn".
Mike Marqusee situates the song in New York City, "a flickering, electric, ghostly, cityscape". Dylan describes himself stranded in a fog of detachment which provides a haven, and at the same time is pained by a piercing clarity: an unmediated response that is "too concise and too clear". For Marqusee, Dylan describes his predicament, suspended between freedom and slavery, yet hungry for an authentic experience. Johanna and Louise are objects of desire and yearning. "It is their elusiveness and unreality that's the point."
Guitarist and critic Bill Janovitz also emphasizes the urban, unreal quality of "Visions of Johanna", calling it a "sprawling epic". "The journey takes Dylan through lofts, the D train, a museum, empty lots, and through snippets of overheard conversation, as well as a discussion with some 'little boy lost', who 'takes himself so seriously', and who is 'so useless and all/muttering small talk at the wall'." For Janovitz, this could "possibly be a swipe at a critic".
Literary critic Christopher Ricks, in his study of Dylan's work, pinpoints the emotional effect of these same lines:
- 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
Ricks writes that the phrase "and all" turns a mood of helplessness into a sense of "aggression and baffled anger".
Trying to unravel the mystery of the song, Greil Marcus writes that the song is concerned with internal questions, rather than external ones: "Line by line, 'Blowin' in the Wind' is pious, or falsely innocent—isn't it obvious that whoever wrote "Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand?" already knows the answer, assuming he, or anyone, can actually bring themselves to care about such a precious question? But 'Visions of Johanna' is asking different sorts of questions. Such as: Where are you? Who are you? What are you doing here?" Evoking the drugged, urban milieu of the song, Marcus writes of "People wandering from one corner of a loft to another, doped, drunk, half-awake, fast asleep, no point to the next breath, let alone the next step." For Marcus, "'Visions of Johanna' makes a narrative solely out of atmosphere."
The song has been described by several critics as being a masterpiece. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed the song at No. 404 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, commenting that Dylan "never sounded lonelier than in this seven-minute ballad, cut in a single take on Valentine's Day 1966." (When Rolling Stone updated their list in 2010, the song dropped to No. 413.) In 1999, Britain's Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, chose it as his candidate for the best song lyric ever written. Motion praised "the concentration and surprise" of Dylan's lyrics, and said that, although he distanced himself from some of the singer's views about women, the "rasp of his anger" was a part of his greatness. Commenting on the song in a 1985 interview, Dylan said, "I still sing that song every once in a while. It still stands up now as it did then, maybe even more in some kind of weird way."
The Grateful Dead played "Visions of Johanna" in concert a number of times between 1986 and 1995, and both they and Jerry Garcia solo each released a live version on record. There is also a 16-minute studio version of the song on Jerry Garcia's All Good Things Redux, a bonus CD provided with the All Good Things box set of Garcia's studio recordings.
Other artists who have covered the song include Marianne Faithfull, Robyn Hitchcock, Lee Ranaldo, Michel Montecrossa, Chris Smither, former Flamin' Groovies guitarist Chris Wilson, Julie Felix, and Maggie Holland. The jazz trio Jewels and Binoculars, who named themselves after a phrase from "Visions of Johanna", recorded an instrumental treatment of the song on their album The Music of Bob Dylan. Foreign language versions of the song include a recording by Jan Erik Vold, Kåre Virud and Telemark Blueslag in Norwegian, Gerard Quintana's and Jordi Batiste's version in Catalan, Steffen Brandt's in Danish, and Ernst Jansz's in Dutch.
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