USA, 1966, folk rock / singer-songwriter

Bob DylanBlonde on Blonde

“Visions of Johanna” is everything I have ever wanted a song to sound like, what I’ve wanted a song to say to me. It is my favorite song of all time, across all artists, time periods, and genres. “Visions of Johanna” is a masterpiece of symmetry, returning to its main theme just when it’s supposed to, neither a moment too soon nor too late. It is a song wherein the present wrestles with the past, where mundane life struggles against (and ultimately loses to) shining memory. It possesses some of Dylan’s most unforgettable and most poetic lyrics, simultaneously clear and inscrutable, such as “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles” and “Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously.” It’s like Dylan is talking about something particular and universal at the same time. And then there is the pure word painting, where the music comes to life in frightening clarity: “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” or “the harmonica plays skeleton keys in the rain”. And through it all, the visions of Johanna haunt him. He cannot be free of her, no matter what he does, no matter where he runs, no matter whom he fucks. Every day the sun sets, the world quiets, and he is left alone with his thoughts, full of visions of Johanna. All night long. I don’t know a more perfect song. If “Desolation Row” is a world unto itself, “Johanna” is the world of one man’s mind, and that is just as vast.

There are three musical gravity wells on this album: “Visions of Johanna”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. For me, the whole album revolves around these three masterpiece tracks.

Like Johanna in the song about her, the woman in “Just Like a Woman” is both specific and general, showcasing the personal heartbreak a man might feel when faced with a messy breakup as well as the lashing out he might do against the entire opposite sex. But more than this, it’s clear he is criticizing a certain type of woman, not because she is a woman but rather because she is vapid and vain, like a socialite or a debutante. The lyrics “just like a woman” are like some kind of beautiful triple spondee, where each word is stressed, driving home the message in what looks on paper to be overkill but in reality turns out to be just what the brain wants to hear. Like the last word in an argument. This is Dylan sneering, and his sneer can pull anyone down from his (or her) horse. As Bowie sings, “a line from your old scrapbook could send her home again.” Words are weapons, and Dylan is a master smith.

Dylan sculpts a woman out of words on “SAd eyed lAdy of the LOWlaNDS”, a beautiful, epic meditation–almost religious in music and song construction–on the effect Sara Lownds is having and going to have on his life, how her footsteps toward him are the footsteps of doom, woman…come to tear down the pride and riches of a world-famous musician. The way to her is barred, however, as long as his warehouses are laden with silver, gold, and every trinket embodying the vanity of man. Shall he leave it all by her gate? Like the other two anchors on this album, “Sad Eyed Lady” feels at once intensely personal (autobiographical) and generally philosophical, as if–if you were but to crush it a little–you can apply this song to any woman you might know intimately.

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