Friday, February 11, 2011

Songwriting Spank Material - "Visions of Johanna"

So, I’ve decided I need to have some blogs about songwriting. I do a lot of songwriting (in addition to my art and regular writing), and as such, I listen to a lot of songs. This series “Songwriting Spank Material” is my attempt to introduce you to some of my favorite songs, and give you some reasons why I like a song. I think it will be fun, and it might make you look at a song and artist differently. Who knows? You might find a whole new kind of music to like.


I could write a whole bunch of these posts about Bob Dylan. I don't think there is another songwriter in the whole of American music that has had more peaks and valleys than Dylan. I look at Bob Dylan the same way I look at Paul Newman. Newman was one of the greatest actors in Hollywood, but he did a lot of shitty movies too. When your career spans nearly fifty years you're going to see a lot of high points and low points. Dylan is no exception.

Of all the songs Dylan has written, there is one that stands out above the rest as my favorite - "Visions of Johanna." I really don't know what point Dylan was trying to convey with this song. This song came from a point in Dylan's career where all his songs seemed like cryptograms (to this day I have no idea what "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" is about). At this time, Dylan was defying a lot of conventions, and I think songwriting itself was a convention he was trying to defy, which might explain why the songs are so cryptic. Drugs and alcohol might explain it too.

Despite the cryptic nature of the song, I still get an impression of pure despair from the song. The singer is lamenting about someone named Johanna who has taken his place in the mind of someone else, presumably a lover. Whatever the case, or the point, might well be, the song is still chalked full of interesting tidbits. One tidbit in particular has always stuck with me, and is probably my favorite line of any song ever written - "The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face..." I don't know exactly what it means, could be yearning, could be anger, could be both. I only know that it resonates in me on some level that I can't explain. As a songwriter, that's the kind of line you want to write.

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