This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan‘s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. I listened to Bob Dylan’s earlier “Highway 61 Revisited” for this project about two months ago. That has long been one of my favorite albums, but “Blonde on Blonde” was mostly new to me. Overall, Dylan got even better in the year between the two. The writing and performance are more focused and less chaotic. In its entirety, this double LP is remarkable with incredible high points. Some songs could stand to be cut to create a fantastic single LP album.
The album opens with perhaps the weakest song, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. I like the raucous marching circus accompaniment; Still, the lyrics are really too silly to justify four and half minutes. No matter what interpretation you read into the song, yhe “Everybody must get stoned” pun doesn’t deserve this much celebration. I’ll also skip by “Pledging My Time“, a blues track that fails to grab my attention.
My absolute favorite song on “Blonde on Blonde” is Visions of Johanna. The accompaniment is primarily an acoustic guitar strumming a chord progression mostly based on I-IV-V7. The mid-section of each verse builds some suspense by repeating I-IV. A V7-I cadence closes each verse. Wistful lines of sustained notes are played on an organ in the right channel balanced by a twangy guitar’s occasional noodling on the left channel. A bass guitar in the center plays jugband bass-lines travelling the across chords. Dylan’s carries more emotion than typically heard on other songs; This is appropriate considering the subject matter, ambiguous as it may be.
The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” made it quickly my favorite. It’s not particularly clear who or what Johanna is and if the “visions of Johanna” are memories, fantasies, or something else. Whatever they are, the speaker is uncomfortably haunted by the visions; they add a tinge of sadness to real experiences in the present. In a way, the visions “that kept me up past the dawn” remind me of Poe’s raven that visited “upon a midnight dreary.”
There are two female characters: the Johanna who is “not here” and Louise who is. There are several apparent male characters: the speaker in first person, Louise’s lover, the night watchman, the little boy lost, the peddler, and the fiddler. I wonder if all of these male characters are different aspects of the same person. Even Louise can act as a mirror forcing the speaker to look back within himself. Within that mirror the speaker sees himself replaced by the ever present visions of Johanna.
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
Another song I love, “I Want You” feels more like walking alone passing through various scenes. The chorus is a straight-forward “I want you, I want you, I want you so bad”. I read somewhere that often in songwriting, the chorus provides the lens through which to interpret the verses and that’s definitely the case here. This simple chorus also provides a nice contrast to the verses in which so much happens. In all that the speaker sees and encounters, the desire for subject of the song. I actually first heard this song as covered by Sophie B Hawkins when I was 15. Here version brings out the feelings of longing and hurt more than Dylan’s, but I think both are excellent. I especially like the motif played on a clean electric guitar that plays throughout the verses of the Dylan recording.
I continue to find Dylan an amazing lyricist and I’m really appreciating his use of traditional chord progressions and instrumentation. About 10 years, I was concerned about using too many common chord progressions and basic chords. I thought of this as a weakness and that chord progressions were an area where being unusual and creative were a measurement for quality songwriting. When I started writing songs for Trip Gunn, I threw out this assumption. Many amazing songs have been written on little more than I-IV-V progressions. Variety is good, but there’s nothing wrong with the familiar.
What I learn as a songwriter from Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde” is much the same as “Highway 61 Revisited” and that includes the lesson that it’s beneficial for instruments to be in conversation with each other. The difference is that on the earlier album the individual instruments were often playing independent of each other and on this album they are working together. While the lyrics on “Highway 61” are often more inventive than they are here, there’s a greater sense of meaning and expression on “Blonde on Blonde.” There rhymes also feel more natural this time around. I like the use of imagery and setting of scenes on this album.
Unfortunately, the album versions of these songs are not available on YouTube, but I’ve provided links to decent versions that are similar. Most are live.