As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
MIKE SCOTT: A song from the top of the mountain. It doesn’t get better than this.
IAN MaCDONALD: Dylan’s first departure into free-association surrealism, “A Hard Rain” unrolls in long chains of nightmare image, too serious and urgent to brook disagreement on the listener’s part. Embodying the breakdown of all sense and connection in the face of nuclear destruction, “Hard Rain” terrifies in a Bergmanesque vein of apocalyptic visionary awe – at once the greatest and most extreme protest song ever written.
JOAN BAEZ: A song like this still has relevance today. As an anti-nuclear holocaust song, it has less meaning in the post-cold war period. But looking at the ozone layer and air pollution and acid rain, sure, it still has meaning. With Dylan’s songs, it doesn’t matter what the exact words are and what the exact content is because the song throws you into a context of meaning again.
RICHIE HAVENS: It’s all inclusive. All the different characters we’ve met in our lives are in there. The great thing about Dylan’s songs is that they’re both universal and individual at the same time, and this is one of those. I’ve sung “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” many times. In fact, I’ve sung every song on my list and some of them, like “Just Like A Woman” and ‘Maggie’s Farm”, are still in my set to this day.
PETE WYLIE: Like with Bowie doing “Song For Bob Dylan”, it was through Bryan Ferry that I first heard this song. I love Ferry‘s version, and it was also the first song that I learnt to play on the guitar using chords instead of one finger. After learning these three chords for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, I became a guitarist as opposed to just somebody who owns a guitar. But Dylan’s is just a landmark recording. The apocalyptic lyrics, setting off so many ideas in your head. And the way he sings, you just know it’s serious business. It’s that thing of attitude and the performance being every bit as important. Because he wrote such great words, people tend to underrate his tunes or fail to realise that if it wasn’t for those tunes, and that attitude, the lyrics would never have gotten across. It had to be a combination of all these things.
JACKIE LEVEN: To me, this song says that no matter how hard your personal rain may be, there’s always someone out there with a worse rain. I was thinking about times in my life – like when l was struggling through London in the cold hard rain and a heroin comedown and also being turned away from the dole office in Newcastle in no uncertain terms. I had no money at all in the pissing rain in Newcastle – thinking about how tough that was when I thought, actually, what pissed me off was I wanted to go to the pub and had no money. So this is an admonishing song, saying that you’ve got to get these things into perspective. Otherwise, what will kill you is a paralysing sense of complaint and, in as much as I believe that about this song, it’s a sobering song. It veers towards making you sad for the people and events in the song but always straightens you up before you can get to that. It’s a teaching song.
PAUL BURCH: It seems to encompass everything he puts into his writing – a little bit of Blake, a little Rimbaud, a little Torah and a little bit of Old Testament. And it’s one of those songs that, as a writer, it seems very inspired, because some of the verses just fall so easily – it’s relentless. At the same time, it’s like a series of Cassius Clay punches. Very biblical. And it’s something he seems to come back to again and again. It’s not so much a narrative but very old school and new school at the same time.
JACK BLACK: His best song, by far. “What did you do my blue-eyed son . . .?” “ like the melody and the words . . . I always fuck ’em up, but I know I like all those thousands of miles he describes. I heard that when he started writing that song, he thought the world was just about to explode. It was during the Cuban missile crisis. So he had all these ideas for songs and he wanted to get them all out in writing before the whole game-show exploded. He crammed all these different songs into one. At least that’s what I read on some liner notes. Not that I‘m the kind of guy who studies liner notes. I like music, yeah, but I prefer silence.
ROBERT FORSTER: Dylan wrote this when he was 21 – which is extraordinary. “Blowin’ In The Wind”, which he wrote before this, was impressive enough, but when this came out it really stunned everyone. It’s long and it’s so much more advanced. For a 21-year-old to write all those images that build up in layers. Every line is amazing. It’s incredible that he just drifted out of the mid-west and came to New York and wrote this song. It’s the biggest surprise in Dylan’s career because you just don’t see it coming. Stunning.
MICHAEL GRAY: The original album version for me epitomises all those long pre-electric masterpieces like “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and “Chimes Of Freedom” through “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” to “Mr Tambourine Man”. The song has also been a brilliant vehicle for wholly different live performance styles in many periods of Dylan’s career.
3 Visions Of Johanna
From Blonde On Blonde (May 1966)
HOWARD DEVOTO: I don’t play the old Dylan stuff that often, and to me Blonde On Blonde has not aged that well. I was going to pick “Just Like A Woman” because it’s near perfect, but in truth “Visions Of Johanna” was – and still is – THE track from that album. Like “A Day In The Life” would be on Sgt Peppers a year later. When I got Blonde On Blonde home and it got to the third track, like every other Dylan-idiot in the world I knew: this one is REALLY something. “The best damn thing since the dawn of musical time,” as someone once put it. But it’s seriously flawed. The first three verses are what make it. On the last two verses I find that increasingly intrusive answering electric guitar that – I assume – is played by Robbie Robertson jarring in a way that detracts from the mood. By then the words have just turned into a sort of beautiful nonsense, too. As you know, when he did the famous 1966 tour, just before Blonde On Blonde was released, he performed “Visions Of Johanna” acoustically – unplugged. Well, in the States rapt audiences actually laughed at some of the lines. It’s probably just that they felt they needed to be seen to be appreciative of the wit of “the hippest cat on the planet”. And, Lord knows, maybe Dylan even prompted them. But laughing along to “Visions Of Johanna“, doesn’t that seem weird? The mono mix is better.
ADAM SWEETING: Difficult to pin down exactly what Bob meant by this, but it pairs some of his most evocative music with his gift for knitting chains of imagery into a seemingly infinite tapestry. The accident-prone Blonde On Blonde recording epitomised his ragged but dynamic studio methods. The acoustic Live 1966 version, by contrast, is performed with walking-on-eggshells delicacy. Dylan deliberately holding back the tempo and enunciating every syllable with stunning clarity. From Louise with her handful of rain and Mona Lisa with the highway blues, it contains some of his most arresting metaphors, most unforgettably, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”.
HOWARD SOUNES: Every track on Blonde On Blonde is superb. But “Visions Of Johanna” seems to retain an edge because its mysterious and truly poetic language hasn’t become explicable. Who knows what this is about? Yet the lyrics ring absolutely true. Researching Down The Highway, I spent some time in a suite at the antiquated and cockroach-ridden Hotel Chelsea, where Dylan lived when writing Blonde On Blonde, and each morning before dawn, as the hot water came up from the boiler in the basement, the vibrating and expanding heat pipes in the old walls did indeed seem to “cough“, as Dylan puts it in “Visions Of Johanna”. Only a poet would describe it thus.
LYNDON MORGANS: A mesmerising masterpiece, Dylan at the absolute peak of his powers. How does it feel, as a songwriter, to have written something so perfect and unforgettable? Apparently the original title was “Seems Like A Freeze Out” – so even the stuff he rejected for the song is fucking great! When I’m groping for a song in the dead hours of the night, this is what l’m wishing I could summon up! And if I could swap my soul for the talent to write lines like. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”, I’d do it. What’s a soul compared to that level of poetic expression?
ROBERT FISHER: From the opening sound of the solo acoustic guitar, and as the harmonica, drums and organ leak into the stream of the music, the pacing moves insistently forward to support the incredible variety of images as they flirt with everything from the mundane to the hallucinatory. I am never tired of this song.
LEE RANALDO: The live version of “Visions Of Johanna” on Biograph [recorded June 1966] completely tipped the scales for me. Some time in 1988 or 1989 while Sonic Youth were on tour in Europe, someone lent me cassettes of Biograph. Although I’d heard the Blonde On Blonde version many times, this solo acoustic rendition of what has to be one of the great poetic songs of all time just blew my mind. From that point on Dylan stood head and shoulders above all others – not just a poet, not just a musician, but a mercurial, magical, incredibly masterful combination of the two. This song, all by itself, is enough to secure his place in the pantheon of 20th-century composers.
EILEEN ROSE: This is just beautiful – a lovely mood, all the sounds are round and warm. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet/We sit here stranded though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it” – what an opening lyric. Poetic and smooth – really draws you into the rest of the song. The band are brilliant on this one – you can hear how they’re just following him, not really knowing what’s going to happen but grooving along with the narrative.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: ls it about Joan Baez? Is it about Edie Sedgwick? Is it about Nico? Who knows? All I do know is that when I listened to this as a teenager, the melody and the words “Jeeze! I can‘t find my knees!” – just everything about it summed up where I wanted to be at. l was totally bowled over. I heard “Visions Of Johanna” and was never the same again. That was it for me.
PETE WYLIE: Those songs where he’s piling up layer after layer of imagery, they’re better than movies, better than virtual reality, because they’re so succinct. It’s like bang, bang, bang – this big fireworks display of words. I went to see him at the Big Top in Liverpool last summer. At exactly 9.30 he was playing “Visions Of Johanna”. l was standing with me girlfriend, Angie, and he sang that line, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”. And I just went “Fuckin’ hell, that is the BEST line ever written”. And then I turned to her and said, “But I haven’t got a fucking clue what he’s on about”. I was talking to Martin Carr and he says that’s his favourite line as well. It’s one of those things where you don’t know what he’s on about, it conjures up so many images, just in that one line, it has a domino effect in your brain. Even if it was all blag and he was writing nonsense then it’s still the most convincing nonsense you’ve ever heard. Mind you, his novel, Tarantula – help! I actually thought about reading that again the other week, but then I thought “fuck that”. Life’s too short for two goes at Tarantula.
CP LEE: A pure ballad of the utmost grace, skill and beauty, and one which perplexes me to this very day. What the hell was it all about? This is a standout because the first time I heard it was in May 1966 at the [Manchester] Free Trade Hall before it had been released, and I never thought I’d get to hear it again. I couldn’t believe it when it came out on Blonde On Blonde. It was the harmonica solo that got me. It was like being inside a cathedral. Frightening. And the lyrical imagery . . . For me, Dylan is a very cinematic writer.
DAN BERN: This song, and songs from this period, sound like some weird archangels are speaking through him. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face . . .” – no one else wrote like that.
NICK JOHNSTONE: Hypnotic and screwy and beautiful all at the same time. The way he sings the words “gall”, “all”, “wall“, “hall” are the stuff of legend. Again, he has a poet’s phrasing, he plays with the words, bends them, rolls them, makes them suit his agenda.
The lyrics are so imagistic, so liberated, so free-flowing that listening to the song is to take a journey. If you listen to it drunk or after too much coffee or when you’re stoned or when you’re tired or when you’re irritable or when you’re jet-lagged, no matter what, it shifts in every possible way every time you hear it. That’s great music for you: of its time and timeless.