Why Bob Dylan's Song "Visions Of Johanna" Made Robyn Hitchcock A Singer

The Independent

January 30, 1992

Why Bob Dylan's Song "Visions Of Johanna" Made Robyn Hitchcock A Singer

by Robyn Hitchcock

I've been listening to this song since I was 13 -- a quarter of a century ago now -- and it's pretty much the reason I'm a singer rather than a painter or a writer. It's funny: The Stones and McCartney have picked up new fans on the way, but Bob Dylan is marooned in his own generation. People sit around endlessly working out what he means.

Listening to this track, you can see why he inspired that adulation. It's one of his most hypnotic songs. Very sad -- but very funny too. It triggers opposite currents in you. I understand it emotionally, but not literally -- it could be about the M25 or a strike in the New York delicatessens. all I know is the emotional state it triggers in me. It's about six minutes long, and has neat guitar by Robbie Robertson. rhe backing is very sympathetic (Al Cooper's on organ), which is no mean feat since Bob Dylan was not easy to play with. He used to go in and out of time and tune, too. Guitar strings often de-tune in a song, and there's an awful live version with him in Dublin where by the end the song is completely unrecogniseable. Mind you, even in tune, it probably doesn't make any sense to anyone outside his generation. Towards the end, he sings single lines and in between Robertson, sort of, answers him on his guitar.

It's five verses long, and he's playing acoustic guitar with a flat pick and harmonica. He plays little bursts in-between verses -- very melancholy. his harmonica phrasing then was brilliant (only nowadays he sounds like someone testing a hoover). Verbally, he crams in loads of syllables into one line regardless of meter. for example: "Like Louise always says/You can't look at much can you man as she herself prepa-a-ares for him". He has a way of stressing the syllable-before-last -- like "madonna", "Louise", "flashlight", "insane". It has great lines too, such as "Inside the museums, infinity goes on trial". He was always creating painterly images in words. "The jelly-faced women all sneeze/And hear one with the moustache/'Jeez, I can't find my knees'". You have to remember that after all that horribly slick Searchers and Beach Boys stuff, this nonsense was just what I needed: it was magic, it was wild, beautiful.

--"Visions of Johanna" is on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Sony).