By Tony Attwood, delving a little further and comparing some of the recordings from the Never Ending Tour, based on the comprehensive NET series by Mike Johnson (for which there is an index here).
In the first piece in this series comparing performances across the ages I looked at Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Now, it’s Visions.
The first recording below is just about the earliest recording I can find from the Never Ending Tour of “Visions of Johanna”, and although it is an acoustic version the emphasis made on certain words, and slight changes in the melody are there for all to hear. There is also a spaced out feel to the performance in which the tempo is not only slower than I expected, but in which there is a feel that absolutely nothing is going to speed up the events that are portrayed here. They exist outside of the song; the music is merely an accompaniment.
Indeed there is a remorselessness of this version which is almost painful. Of course 50+ years later we know the song inside out, but hearing this early live version again I felt no impatience; I am in there, trapped in this strange world of images that I feel I have only ever partially grasped. This is half way between beauty and being entrapped.
But beyond everything I have this absolute feeling that nothing, but nothing will pull us out of this world. I am trapped, Johanna is trapped, Bob is trapped, and this wonderfully silent audience is trapped. As such that final verse with its extra lines wraps us all inside it, completely. No wonder the audience explode into applause while Bob quickly retunes the guitar for the next song.
Secondly, we jump forward to 2011. The song is now 45 years old, but Bob still has something for us. The melody has changed somewhat and there are emphases on individual words as he likes to do, but just listen to what he does with
Lights flicker from the opposite loftIn this room the heat pipes just cough The country music station plays soft But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
It is half spoken half sung before he comes to the “so entwined” line – I really do have the feeling here that he has never played the song to an audience before, although of course we know that he has clocked up over 200 performances of the song on the tour.
But it not just Bob; the accompaniment is played with as well, as if we are now being told about the world that bounces around in the background. In fact I am reminded of a painting where the main character remains the same while in the background we now have a totally different environment. Whereas before there was nothing, there was only Bob and the song, now we are in a gentle countryside. And yes of course I know that Johanna is still in her room – but it is a case of where that room now is. I certainly isn’t where she was before.
Bob stopped playing the song in 2018 (at least at the time of writing, that is when the last live performance is noted), so this is one of the later visits to the song.
And once again we know immediately where we are and what this is, even though it is a stronger version. And this version makes me think this is not a re-arrangement of the original, but a re-arrangement of the 2011 version.
But above everything I hear a real affection from Bob for this composition – as Bob is saying, “yes I know she’s been with me for getting on 50 years, but I am allowed to think back to the old days, and all the people I knew then. And I still hold her in the deepest affection.”
And it really makes me wonder what it must be like to have carried a composition one created in the early days, and still have it to perform all these years later.
What can it be like to sing, after all those years, “These visions of Johanna are all that remain,” as one did 50 years before? I always feel Bob is still thinking about his lyrics as he delivers them over and over again across the years, and in a very small way I think listening to these recordings from different moments in the tour gives me just a little more insight into what it is like to take one final look at a very old friend.
In the end we are left with our memories. If we are lucky, they grow softer and we think of our lives a little more fondly than before. The battles have been fought, we’ve fallen apart, there’s nothing more to do but sit in the sun and wait for the end.