Chapter 11 – Visions of Johanna (link to song included)

Joan Baez never had to learn to sing. She needed only open her pipes and let it rip. When her voice began to fail, there was no back-up.  As she begins to suffer the slow decline of her vocal powers, her pitch becomes unsteady and her range restricted. Sometimes she goes for a note and nothing is there.  It is tragic. Yet she carries on, even knowing that her only gift is falling to rust.

From the start, Bob Dylan was told that he had no voice. That didn’t stop him from learning how to sing. Even to this day, he continues to learn.  No matter the state of his voice, he always finds ways to make it work. He takes what he has and does something with it. Baez is the type of singer who can never afford to hit a wrong note. With Dylan, there are no wrong notes.

It is like that with many of the old-time blues singers, some of whom never even learned how to tune a guitar and none of whom bothered to count measures. The 16 and 32 bar blues were the invention of the bands that imposed such restrictions on the singers so everybody could agree on where the changes fell.  There are a couple of songs on “Love and Theft” that show what the blues can be like outside of these confines.

Dylan has been stretching his lines out since “Like a Rolling Stone,” an extrapolation on the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” that was popularized in 1958 by Richie Valens.  When he wasn’t stretching lines, he added them, cramming extra lines into the final verses of songs to build a longer crescendo. Two of the finest examples of this are the final verses of “Hard Rain” “Visions of Johanna…”  On the current tour, he is adding something special to that last verse of Johanna. I’m not going to even try to explain what he does.  Just listen and discover for yourself:

Among the things that make Dylan the top singer on the planet is his knack for illuminating lines that you have heard countless times without getting them. As I listened the first time to this version of Visions, I realized that the mule from whose neck the jewels and binoculars were hanging might be one of those dowdy rich women at the opera. Most of this verse consists of a humorous view of women who live in paintings, the funniest of which is the defaced Mona Lisa who is somewhat appalled by the discovery that her body is cut off just above the knees.

The bejeweled mule could well have been derived from one of the paintings in the opulent museum that are contrasted with the drabness of the empty lofts in which the artists live. The contrast between the imagination and daily life is represented throughout the song, which ends with the realization that art is the only thing that gives meaning to life. The force of this truth accelerates the final verse, which concludes here on the spookiest note Dylan has ever sung.