Sunday, June 5, 2016
Track of the Week: Bob Dylan "Visions of Johanna"
I just found out today that last month was the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Dylan's landmark Blonde on Blonde album, the capstone to his mid-60s trilogy of artistic peaks, also including Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home.
I came to Blonde on Blonde last, back in the days when you had to buy albums to hear them. It is such a dense work, and one with such a uniquely thrilling sound. Dylan brought organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson with him to Nashville, where a crack group of country session musicians filled out the studio band. That combination of such disparate elements and obvious musical talents really enabled something special to happen.
"Visions Of Johanna" is probably the song that exemplifies this alchemy best. At this point Dylan was writing long songs full of all kinds of poetic imagery and modernist style, even if he would pen the occasional "Just Like A Woman." I've never actually bothered to figure out the "meaning" of this song, I've just contented myself with some of the images, like "the heat pipes cough." There's perhaps none more powerful than "the ghost of electricity/ howls in the bones of her face." That line will enter my head in random moments, no matter how long ago I heard the song.
The sound is really something else, from the spare drums to the prickly harmonica to guitar twanging in the twilight between blues and country to the decidedly un-churchy organ's faint keening. The words and their abstractions somehow fit the sound perfectly. Dylan's infamous motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 took on mythic proportions, mostly because he would not return to this sound, something I'd bet he would've done anyway, knowing how fast he changes his approach, even to this day. Those who lamented the direction Dylan took after Blonde on Blonde are missing the point. The uniqueness of what he accomplished here makes it all the more special.