Never Ending Tour: the Absolute Highlights – Visions of Johanna

By Tony Attwood

OK, this one is going to be contentious, not least I fear with Mike Johnson who titled his review of the concert that this version of Visions in 1991 comes from “King of the Unsteady”.

Mike’s view is that 1991 was a “difficult and contentious year… Not quite the train wreck that the commentators claim, the year comes across to me more like a year of on-stage rehearsals, with Dylan trying out new arrangements and new musicians in front of audiences. This attempt to make old songs new again would not fully pay off until later years. Here we see them in their raw state, and the results are more gritty than pretty.”

And of course I take a lot of note of Mike’s views because he’s the one who has brought all these recordings together so that all of us can enjoy them and understand the context through his commentaries.   I just sit here and listen (and fiddle with the website a bit).

Beyond that sitting and playing with the website, my life in music has been a life not of great performances in front of big audiences (if only) but of “trying out new arrangements” mostly with no audiences.

And contemplating this recording makes me understand a little bit more what I am doing here.  I’m not looking for a set of wonderful recordings that could be put together onto an ultimate album of “Dylan’s greatest NET recordings” but rather renditions of the songs we know with something in them that makes me just stop, contemplate and be amazed.

Yes, I would agree that this recording is not of the highest quality (the hand clapping is particularly frustrating) and yes maybe Dylan had just worked out this approach to Visions and was trying it on stage for the first time, but whatever brought about this moment, this version of Visions is to me utterly stunning.   Forget the quality, and any mistakes you perceive in the lyrics (and I would never agree there are mistakes because Bob has treated all lyrics as fluid and open to adjustment at a moment’s notice – and why not?)

But what he does is take Vision to that “somewhere else” which I think many of us in the creative arts talented (like Bob) or otherwise (like most of us) are chasing.  That hard-to-define moment when the shade of blue in the painting, is tinged with the tiniest taste of green, when the actor pauses for just that extra second, of when the piece of music is rearranged in marginal ways and manages to say something quite different.

In this version of Visions, there is an extraordinary energy now within the song, rather than the laid-back approach which is symbolised by that famous opening, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?”    No, we are not in the grip of the night.  Rather Bob and the song together are fighting back.   It is not going to be a quiet night, we are not sitting here stranded, and we are not trying to deny reality.    That was merely the starting point.    For now we have not so much denied reality as said, “it doesn’t actually have to be like this”.

The point is that the song is a monologue from an observer of The Lost (if I may call them that) which doesn’t mean that the singer has to be part of The Lost, part of the quiet background, part of the dope heads who do nothing.  Indeed of course he is not because by the end of the song his conscience explodes.  He knows most certainly that it doesn’t have to be like this.  More, it shouldn’t be like this.

To me, this is Dylan’s best interpretation of the lyrics as the album version we are so used to.    This time the singer is angry with the cynicism of “Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?” bursting out all over.  On the album version, I always feel that the singer accepts that line and says “you are probably right, even though you are doomed”, now he’s not agreeing he is very much fighting back.  And he wants us to know it.

Thus the descriptions within the song, such as

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trialVoices echo this is what salvation must be like after a whileBut Mona Lisa musta had the highway bluesYou can tell by the way she smiles

can be accepted in a sort of “this is how life is” way, or they can be rejected.  In this latter case, Dylan is not part of the scene, but the outside observer looking in at the wretched, the lost, the junkies, the damned, the people who say “far out man” and think they have said something important (or even meaningful), the people who are so lost that their entire contribution to life is now nothing more than “muttering small talk at the wall.”

And the great part of the vision, turned this way around, is that it is not only financially well-to-do but actually unproductive middle classes who are muttering small talk, it is their opposite numbers – the dope heads in the attics who are doing the same.

I love this version.  It is the political activist who raged against discrimination and the inequalities of capitalist society shouting out, “Stop being so utterly self-centred – go out and do something”.

And further, musically I love it because I think it is a sublime arrangement of the song.  And then politically I love it too.

Smoking dope and saying “far out man” does nothing to improve the world and this time that is what Visions says.

The Absolute Highlights series

One comment

  1. I wonder why the date and venue are not mentioned…
    Since there were only 4 performances in
    1991, it was not too difficult ….
    It is San Antonio , October 26 1991.

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