By Tony Attwood
This article is written about the version of Johanna by Old Crowe that appears on their album “50 years of Blonde on Blonde”. If you want to hear it, it is available free on Spotify at this link,. The link at the foot of the article is to a different rendition of the song by the band.
I’m quite fast at writing articles and adverts, which is what I mostly do for a living. I’m fairly fast at non-fiction books too. But novels… that’s where I slow down. I’ve had three novels published, and have been working on my fourth (“Visions”) for three years.
“Visions” is based on the three characters in “Visions of Johanna” and during the off-on attempts at writing the book I’ve listened to Dylan’s performances, live and on the original LP (I still have the copy I bought as a student), countless times.
I know it inside out, upside down, back to front, and can easily play it to myself in my head. I’ve played an arrangement of it in a band I played in, and because I’m also an occasional (if commercially completely unsuccessful) songwriter, have even written a song in reply to the song (Visions of Louise) as part of my work in trying to understand the inside of the original better in order to make my novel work.
But I have been blocked, blocked, blocked. I know what the novel should do, I know what Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost should do, could do, will do, but I can’t make the book work.
At least I couldn’t until today. Because today I heard “Visions of Johanna” by Old Crow Medicine Show. It is from the CD “Fifty years of Blonde on Blonde” and in fact is an interpretation of the whole double album. It is all great stuff, but “Visions” is beyond great. It is so utterly, incredibly brilliant I am almost (but, being a writer, not quite) lost for words.
So, how can I explain?
First, the arrangement is completely different. It is half rock, half blues and half country. So there’s the first conundrum, it is 50% more than a piece of music. If by any remote chance you share my devotion to modern dance, you could dance modern blues to this. With a bit of practice. And a bloody good dance partner.
Second, the band has correctly interpreted the rise and fall of the song, the evolution of the mystery, amidst the mists that surround everything within the song. The build up to the “fish truck as my conscience explodes” is a masterpiece all in itself and would make this version worth hearing even if the rest were rubbish – which it certainly isn’t.
But back to the start. The opening encapsulates everything – the simple guitar strum, and then the violin, and then at “tricks” there is harmony. “We sit here stranded” is sung alone, “but we’re all doing our best” is in harmony. Utterly simple, utterly obvious, but my goodness does it work!
When the “Lights flicker from the opposite loft” you are there looking across the street to the house across the road, shivering in your duffel coat (if you know what one of those was) and you are so aware that there is “nothing, really nothing to turn off” – a beautiful descent of the melody
And when he asks himself “if it’s him or them that’s really insane” it really does raise the panic because while he collapses Louise is so all right, so delicate, and she is so, so sad not for him but for the fact “that Johanna’s not here”.
Yes the “ghost of electricity” really does howl without anything so crass as the obvious howl of feedback or anything like that, they still do give the sense of howling in the bones of her face. And when the visions of Johanna have now taken his place – the total loss of reality, the sense that “I am no more”, is horribly complete.
And this is why he is “little boy lost”. His only defence against the collapsing world is to take himself “so seriously”.
Then its laid back and peaceful, almost sad, reflecting on the Little Boy’s uselessness – but we know, that the Little Boy Lost and the singer are in this together because we can absolutely feel the utter, utter desperation within both of them.
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
It is so desperate and sad, there is no wonder the visions of Johanna, kept him up past the dawn.
So powerful is this interpretation, that even the abstract lines have absolute power. Infinity can’t go up on trial, but here it does. And we get that nod which ultimately Talking Heads picked up by seeing heaven as a place where nothing ever happens, because this utter utter hopelessness and abandonment is what “salvation must be like after a while”.
Then quietly the performance builds up the commentator’s annoyance and frustration of what is going on around, at all these stupid people, with what elsewhere is called their useless and pointless knowledge.
And now in this masterpiece, there’s a half verse instrumental break, but it is played not as a blues but as country music, very laid back, tempting us to believe this might all work out all right in the end because in country music we are all country people and we can all go and have some of the good ol’ country pie.
But no, “The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him”. Pretending mark you. Because he knows, which is how almost but not quite in anger he can then say, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
Yes there is almost anger, but then the put down, as his adored Louise says “You can’t look at much, can you man?”
The sadness is overwhelming as Madonna, she still has not showed and the desolation is now portrayed beyond everything. The empty cage now corrodes and the build up builds up more up as the fiddler now steps to the road and writes everything’s been returned which was owed. Take it back, I want nothing, I can’t cope any more with any of this.
And so it grows, and grows as the whole pointless mundane reality of life continues while Dylan, in one of his most powerful line ever, has his conscience explode. With that gone, there really is nothing absolutely nothing not just to turn off, but nothing left at all
Thus it is, having now played this version 20 plus times, I can see the skeleton keys and the rain and know that these visions of Johanna are now all that remain – and I can feel myself holding back the tears.
“50 years of Blonde on Blonde” by Old Crow Medicine Show.
What is on the site
1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.