In Praise Of Johanna: One Song That Conquers My Mind... And 4 Others That Make Up A Top 5
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
- Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna"
When it comes to naming all-time favorite Bob Dylan songs, I have dozens.
There's the early folk majesty of songs like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", "To Ramona", and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)".
There are famous tracks such as "Like A Rolling Stone", "I Shall Be Released" and "Tangled Up In Blue".
There are more obscure songs like "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest", "Wedding Song", "Dirge", and "Blind Willie McTell".
There's just about every cut on Blood On The Tracks, particularly "Idiot Wind" (greatest angry, bitter song ever?), "Shelter From The Storm" and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go".
There's "Hurricane". "Watching the River Flow". "When I Paint My Masterpiece". And even the hilarious Bruce Springsteen parody/homage that he did with The Traveling Wilburys, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man".
There's the dark, sad and mournful "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)", a song that seems, at least to my mind, to foreshadow his complete mental breakdown. A breakdown that seems to have begun with his divorce a year earlier and which was soon to reach its climax when he was "born again" into a dark form of Christianity - an angry, judgmental, homophobic, right-wing, fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone form of Christianity. In this song I hear a sad, lonely, lost individual longing for his ex-wife and former state of happiness. Lyrics. Of course, Bob would deny that it's in any way personal, as he did when talking about the obviously autobiographical Blood On The Tracks.
Then, a few years later, as he emerged from that world, there's the simple beauty of "Dark Eyes" (which, incidentally, is no less dark and mournful).
Then, of course, there are these: The 25 Greatest Dylan Songs of The Past 20 Years.
One Song To Rule Them All
However, if I had to choose just one, one all-time fave, one Bob song above all others, I'd definitely have to go with "Visions of Johanna", that magical song from 1966's classic Blonde On Blonde, which also happens to be my favorite Dylan album of all time (just slightly ahead of Blood On The Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited).
And being a life-long lover of this beautiful, majestic song, you can imagine how I felt when I saw this wonderfully vivid and descriptive write-up by singer/songwriter/rock 'n' roller, Robyn Hitchcock, in The Village Voice explaining why "Visions of Johanna" is also his favorite Dylan song of all time.
His response appeared, along with a number of other well-known and not-so-well-known artists, in a piece called Let's Play "Name Your Favorite Bob Dylan Song", which is part of a series of articles celebrating Dylan's arrival in New York City 50 years ago last week.
Here it is:
"Visions of Johanna." This song began to grow in me when I first heard it at 13 years old. I'd already been softened up by Freewheelin' and Highway 61. The slightest whiff of Dylan's voice or harmonica was catnip to me -- I was transported to . . . wherever it was that he transported us to, in our millions. Blonde on Blonde was the first "new" Dylan record I heard, once my system had been rewired to receive his voice louder than any other. "Visions Of Johanna" stood out from the barbed, smoky wisdom of the other tracks because it was even more barbed and smoky. The punctuation of Robbie Robertson's guitar and Al Kooper's spectral keyboard made it all the more magnetic. The bass and drums kicked it along too, but it was measured and hypnotic, more than one of Dylan's gleeful rock 'n' blues assaults. However, the lyrics (and the way Dylan sang them) were what kept me pinned to the song over the years: They are as sad as they were funny, as despairing as they are angry. A whole emotional world that seems to go in opposite directions at once lies in the cage of that song. I didn't know the word "transcendent" then, and even that doesn't sum it up. I would shiver whenever I heard it, and played it into my friends heads and out the other side. It left me with one certainty in life: I had to become a songwriter. Then maybe I could make worlds like that. I'll never write a song as great as "Visions of Johanna," but nor will Dylan. He's already done it. And I've had to find my own way to say what I have to say. I may have missed, but it sure gave me something to aim for.
I could particularly relate to the line about playing the song "into my friends' heads and out the other side", as so many friends, especially back when I was a teenager, just didn't get Bob at all. No, they were too engrossed in the latest release by their favorite hair band or pop diva or simply too busy listening, as I did myself, to Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, and Van Halen. The difference was, even as a 13-year-old, I always listened to Dylan as well. Which, I admit, made me a bit of a freak.
It should be mentioned that Dylan himself referred to "Visions of Johanna" as his favorite song on Blonde On Blonde (though, of course, you can't always trust what Dylan says about anything).
A Top 5 List of Dylan Songs
Now, if I were forced to pick a Top 5 list of my favorite Dylan songs, I'd probably have to go with these classics, though, unlike Hitchcock, I won't be giving any long explanations as to why:
1. "Visions of Johanna"
2. "Mississippi" (the acoustic version on disc one of Tell Tale Signs... though I also love the electric version on "Love And Theft")
3. "Tangled Up In Blue" (one of the greatest story songs ever written, summing up an entire 10-year relationship in a few short minutes. I love both the version on Blood On The Tracks and the original version, which finally saw the light of day on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3)
4. "Desolation Row" (what can you really say about this sublime 11-minute masterpiece?)
5. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (the song that, at the age of 9, first made me fall in love with Dylan's music)
The order of this list, it should be noted, is not fixed. Ask me in a month and the order may have changed, and "Red River Shore" could easily have squeezed its way in there by then. However, I'm sticking with my #1 pick.
Todd On Bob
While you're in Bob mode, make sure to read this other great piece from the same series on Dylan in The Village Voice. This one is written by one of my favorite artists, Todd Snider (read my Todd Snider Rave here), and, as with all things Todd Snider, it is simply fantastic and really quite funny:
A Word From Todd Snider: What Would You Say If You Met Bob Dylan?
Make sure to check out the posted comments at the bottom of the piece to see what people would say if they ever met Dylan... or, for those who have, what they did say.
Finally, I'd strongly recommend reading all the other entries in that article from which that great Robyn Hitchcock passage came. Not so much to see which songs each artist chose, but more for their reasons, which can be quite entertaining, informative and even surprising. Here's the link again:
Let's Play "Name Your Favorite Bob Dylan Song," Starring No Age, Robyn Hitchcock, DJ Rekha, Greg Dulli, And More
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Saturday, February 5th, 2011
Now check out: My Picks For The Top 15 Albums and 5 Songs of 2010
And, if you like Dylan, you'll probably like my picks for the best music of the past ten years: The Top Albums, Songs and Artists of the Decade
If you're a fan of The Bob then make sure to check this out: The 25 Greatest Dylan Songs of The Past 20 Years
And here are My Picks For The Top 100 Films of The Decade
And for much more on all things Dylan click here: The Bob (as in Dylan)
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