by Jochen Markhorst
We owe the thin, wild, mercury sound to a flash of inspiration from producer Bob Johnston. After exhausting, unsatisfactory and mostly unsuccesful recording sessions at the Columbia studios in New York, Johnston proposes to move to the CBS studios in Nashville and to return to the recordings over there, but this time with seasoned session musicians from the country world. An unorthodox idea, to put it mildly.
The super cool New York hipcat Dylan making music with friendly, stetson wearing porch crackers in lumberjack shirts? Manager Albert Grossman foresees an image catastrophe and sends for the producer: “If you ever mention Nashville to Dylan again, you’re gone.”
But Dylan is up for it, and on Valentine’s Day 1966 the sessions begin. With on day one, after “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions Of Johanna”, the song that has been keeping him busy for months – but for which he can not find the je-ne-sais-quoi.
On The Cutting Edge the process of creating becomes almost tangible. Disc 9 and 10 contain the recordings from New York, from which we already have heard take 8 (the one from No Direction Home), and the difference is, indeed, enormous. In New York the band remains sharp, edgy, hard-rocking, but also a bit nagging, whining.
The exceptional class of the song is apparent from the start, from the very first rehearsal, and from take 4 the performance is already much more than acceptable – in terms of drive and dynamics clearly still within the scope of Highway 61 Revisited, with the addition of a Stones-like energy. Most of all in the rhythm section, with a distinctive, exciting, rolling bass part by Rick Danko and poisonous, gritty slashing by drummer Bobby Gregg. The vicious stabs from Robbie Robertson’s guitar also seem suspiciously similar to what Brian Jones sometimes displays with The Stones. Wonderful enough, and on this path a rock classic like a “Gimme Some Lovin'” is emerging – only a bit more poetic, obviously.
But it is not what Dylan hears in his head. Irritated, he breaks off take 6. “No! That’s not the sound, that’s not it.” He strikes another chord, looking for words to make clear what he wants to achieve. “It’s not hard rock. The only thing in it that’s hard is Robbie.”
The band starts to play again, but now Dylan suddenly notices at least one weak spot: the bass. He wants to get rid of that driving, hectic avalanche: “In stead of bammbammbamm just baaahm.”
Danko bammbamms again.
“No, no: baaahm!”
Danko goes baaahm one time, Dylan is satisfied, so here we go again. And Danko just plays the same old thing over again, only a bit softer. The irritation in Dylan’s voice is audible.
From the eighth take, the harshness slowly dwindles. The harpsichord is a bit more pronounced, Robertson refrains, but strangely enough, Dylan sings now more rushed. At take 13 the song is almost completely relying on the keys; the harpsichord is now the turbine, Al Kooper on the organ sets the lyrical accents. The drummer is domesticated by now, but Rick Danko will not be curtailed. Up until the last attempt in New York, the fourteenth take, the bass continues to hit more than two notes per beat.
Dylan gives up.
Three months later, journalist Shelton accompanies Dylan in a two-engine Lockheed Lodestar, a private plane. The recordings for Blonde On Blonde have been successfully completed in Nashville. Looking back at the virtually fruitless sessions in New York, Dylan analyzes: “Oh, I was really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song … It was the band. But you see, I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to think that.“
But it is true, and Bob Johnston understood that perfectly – after the meager result of those ten sessions, the despondent Dylan is open to any suggestion, even to go to that studio in the outback where those hillbillies record their songs about adulterous tramps.
Right from the start in Nashville, the dreamy, mercury-like beauty descends. Robertson’s electric guitar has retracted its nails, Koopers organ now has a thin, vibrating sound and above all: Joe South’s bass, the beating heart of this Johanna, shakes loose the subcutaneous dramatic power of the song.
A false start, an abortive attempt, another false start and then the first complete take is immediately the final take (the first one where Dylan plays his harmonica intro). Dylan’s relief in the last bars is unmistakable.
The poetic power of the lyrics is undisputed. But on what Dylan expresses, we still do not agree, after more than half a century. Of course, the richness of the full-bodied text cordially invites to industrious work by ambitious Dylan interpreters. Look, Greil Marcus says, the heating pipes of the Chelsea Hotel still cough today. And there a revision of the Mona Lisa has really been made; ‘The one with the moustache‘ is from Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. Johanna is the Anglo-Saxon translation for the Hebrew word for hell, Gehenna. And the jewels and binoculars on the donkey have almost reached a proverbial status by now – but we will never have a clue on what exactly that proverb expresses.
Biographical interpretation remains the most popular. The discussion focuses on the questions about who Louise is, and who Johanna could be. Joan Baez and Sara Lownds? Edie Sedgwick and Suze Rotolo? In any case, the poet sketches a contrast between a sensuous, present Louise and an unattainable, idealized Johanna, and lards the sketch with dream images, beautiful rhyme play and impressionistic atmospheres.
In the genesis weeks, November ’65, the working title of the song is “Seems Like A Freeze-Out”. This confirms the idea that Dylan wants to paint an impression here – a sketchy representation that freezes a fleeting moment from a hectic life. Completely in line with what he promises a year before this in the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home:
“I am about t sketch you a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening”
“It’s so visual,” the maestro adds (in the booklet with Biograph, 1985).
Above all, however, it is true lyricism; the poet expresses emotions. Influence of the admired poète maudit Rimbaud is demonstrable; the disorientation of the narrator, the chaos and his loneliness, his melancholy insight that he loses something he never had. Similar, for instance, to Le bateau ivre, that melancholy, lonely, chaotic masterpiece of the French symbolist:
Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flache Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.
(If I want one pool in Europe, it’s the cold Black pond where into the scented night A child squatting filled with sadness launches A boat as frail as a May butterfly.)
And, like Rimbaud, Visions can not be interpreted, but it does bear the scent of a narrative – the lyrics suggest that something interesting, something intimate is being told here. Dylan the Poet is here at his best. He sometimes misfires with lyrics that seem to have been written with his Dylan-O-Matic on the écriture automatique-pilot (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”, to name just one example) – admittedly atmospheric, visual, but contentless sequences of unfathomable associations, with extremes into tiring nebula. But Visions balances between narrative lyricism and surrealistic word play, balancing on the edge of clear, lucid balladry and hermetic, closed poetry… which contributes to the nocturnal alienation the work manages to grasp, those wee small hours of Sinatra.
In short, “Visions Of Johanna” is a fascinating masterpiece, the Renoir in Dylan’s catalog, the favourite song of fans and connoisseurs like biographer Clinton Heylin and the English court poet, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.
Remarkably many colleagues dare to risk an interpretation of Dylan’s tour de force. Robyn Hitchcock claims that Johanna made him want to become a songwriter, and he is certainly not the only one who puts the song on a pedestal – though his airy, soft version really is not his most successful tribute. Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia approaches the song each performance as a relic and sometimes loses himself in trance-like sessions that can last more than fifteen minutes, Marianne Faithfull emerges out of the gutter in 1971 and leaves heroin and Mick Jagger behind to record a creaking, but moving “Visions Of Johanna”.
The most successful cover, arguably, is from Chris Smither, on his album Leave The Light On (2006). Smither sings a little sloppy, which works rather poetic, plays a languid, smooth guitar part underneath it, and while gently rippling onwards, producer David Goodrich adds more guitars, mandolin, accordion to the hypnotic waltz, until the melancholy drips out of the loudspeaker boxes. Far from thin and wild and mercury, granted, but sure as Gehenna quite Rimbaudesque.
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