1. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Perhaps the greatest five-verse song ever recorded, certainly the closest Dylan’s lyrics ever came to stand-alone poetry, impeccably enunciated in the voice of a freewheelingly rebellious generation for whom drugs and sex were only pawns in its game. Who cares whom it was about? When I interviewed Chris Smither in 2006, he was psyched that he had just recorded a waltz-time version. He had to excise a word or two to make the scansion work, but he ended up with a truly fine rendition, retaining and savoring such amazing lines as “See the primitive wallflower freeze / when the jelly-faced women all sneeze, / hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze I can’t find my knees.’” Steve “New Dylan” Forbert was Smither’s co-billed act during that year’s tour. But each time Smither performed “Visions,” it was clear that the “old Dylan” would always suffice.
2. “A Voice from on High” (2002): I’ve typed it before, and I’ll type it again: So much for our hero’s “Christian period”’s having ended with Shot of Love. Dylan opened seven of his 2002 shows with this Bill Monroe gospel chestnut, which goes like this: “I hear a voice calling. It must be our Lord. / He's calling from heaven on high. / I hear a voice calling, I've gained the reward / in the land where we never shall die. / He died, and he paid a dear price for me. / He died on the hill so that I should go free, / and I'll follow his footsteps up the narrow way / and be ready to meet him when he calls on that day. [...] / He died on the cross, that old rugged cross / so we would be saved from our sins and not lost....” This, in other words, is what salvation really must be like after awhile. Even curiouser: The similarity of Monroe’s opening lines to those from Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” that go “I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling, / must be the mother of our Lord.” I know, I know, more plagiarism (yawn).
3. “Visions of Johanna” (2013 Live at Adroscoggin Bank Colisée [Lewiston, Maine, 10 Apr. 2013]): A friend of mine (whose sister-in-law leads the Brooklyn, NY, band Wide Right for what it’s worth) heard this recently bootlegged version and said that Dylan sounded “like a ghost whispering into the night.” And why not? After all, that’s what Dylan will someday be to everyone of us unfortunate enough to outlive him. I might’ve described the overall effect somewhat differently--“like the ghost of eccentricity whispering in the bones of our faces” maybe--especially if I’d heard it with my own ears when I caught the Americanarama Tour three months later in Cincinnati. But by then the song had gone the way of Duke Robillard.
4. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Biograph): In his 1985 Creem review of Biograph, John “Eleganza” Mendelsohn criticized the inclusion of a 1966 live version of this track because it sounded, he said, as if Dylan were performing “from the bottom of a well.” What Mendelsohn failed to mention: that the well had not run dry, that Dylan might not have been waving but drowning, and that drowning men have exploding consciences too. Just ask Arlo Guthrie, who recorded “Drowning Man” the same year that Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming, or Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Bierce exactly one hundred years before Dylan recorded “Band of the Hand” with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the last verse of which went “And for you, pretty baby, / I know your story’s too painful to share. / One day though you’ll be talking in your sleep, / And when you do, I wanna be there.” Johanna would’ve known exactly what he meant.
5. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966): Robert Christgau duly noted that Dylan sounded bored with this song and every other composition performed on this album’s acoustic first disc. I agree. By the time he performed this version to a European crowd more than happy to prove that the “everybody” who “must get stoned” included the then-twenty-five-year-old singer-songwriter they’d paid good money to see, Dylan’s up-past-the-dawn sleeplessness had clearly ceased to amaze him. But the stark clarity of this unplugged arrangement captures the durability of the words better than any other so-far-released rendition. And the fact that Dylan was complaining about Madonna’s not showing up seventeen full years before she actually did just shows how far ahead of the times--and of the times’ audiences--he couldn’t help being.