Every Record I Own - Day 354: Bob Dylan Biograph
This is an interesting boxset in that it contains a few hits, a bunch of deep cuts, and a few rarities. Considering Dylan already had a series of greatest hits records, I’m not sure of the point in compiling this mishmash of material. But I find myself often enjoying Dylan’s collections more than his proper studio albums, and this one in particular is strangely compelling despite its haphazard track list. I bought a used cassette of the first volume at a record store in Phoenix back in 2000 after hearing “Percy’s Song” on a mix in one of my college art classes.
That cassette wound up getting a lot of mileage during the commute to one of my first post-college jobs. I gradually honed in on a live version of “Visions of Johanna”. Unadorned by the backing band that supported him on the studio version off of Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s lyrics take on an even more commanding role here. Every day to work I would listen to the opening verses where Dylan talks about shacking up with Louise while dreaming of Johanna, which seemed straightforward enough, but somewhere around verse four, things get derailed. Dylan starts talking about museums, the lady with a mustache who can’t find her knees, a mule wearing jewels and binoculars. What the fuck was going on here?
No one really knows. Dylan has always been evasive with answers about his muse. But years ago I saw some dissect the song online, and they put forth a compelling case that “Visions of Johanna” is actually about Dylan’s artistic aspirations and disappointments. Louise is the art that Dylan is capable of, but Johanna is the masterwork he’s trying to achieve. The lady in the museum with a mustache? Surely we’ve seen Marcel Duchamp’s vandalized riff on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa… and yeah, where exactly are her knees? Elsewhere there are references to T. S. Eliot and William Blake, men who Dylan undoubtedly held in high regard and whose work he felt he would likely never match. I can’t do justice to this anonymous author’s critical analysis, but they made a compelling case. Ultimately, I imagine Dylan aspired for “Visions of Johanna” to be his Ulysses… a puzzle box that will continue to reveal things for decades to come.
This whole collection is great, but I bought this on CD and again on vinyl just to continue working on that puzzle.