And now, "Hits of the Sixties." Tonight, the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, once hailed as the "new Bob Dylan," talks about Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" from the album "Blonde on Blonde."
I heard Dylan.. maybe in 1961 or '2. I heard his records, "The Freewheelin'," which was his second record, first. I kinda didn't like it that much. I remember a friend of mine was very excited about it and I was not enthralled. It sounded like an old black blues singer, it was somebody impersonating, those earlier records, to me...
Then I went to the Newport Folk Festival at some point in the early 60s, '62 or '63, and I SAW him play. And that was kind of a shattering experience 'cause he was so charismatic and... just this kind of scruffy, skinny guy...
But, "Blonde on Blonde" is a magical record, the songs are great, the lyrics are amazing. It's still kind of painful to listen to it -- it's just SO GOOD. Even though it's a young man, probably on drugs, and the imagery is sometimes a little silly, but it's the power of the performance, the harmonica playing, the singing, and the production...
"Visions of Johanna" fades in (first verse played up to "But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off" - fade-out)
We had just finished our first year at university. We were attending a drama school called Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.We'd stayed over in Pittsburgh that summer to work in a repertory company that went around doing mystery and passion plays, when this record came out, and we were staying in the director's basement -- I just have an image of my friend George Gerdes (?) and I hunched near some speakers, under the influence of SOME substance, and trying to figure out what Bob was saying, particularly one sentence "the country music station plays... soft" or is it "Sartre?" (that's a bad French accent).
But we kept going back and forth, because we couldn't figure out which... "No, man, it's 'soft'"... "No, man, it isn't, it's 'Sartre', what's the matter with you? Listen to it again." "Here..." (IMITATES PUFFING A JOINT) -- "It's 'soft', I know it's 'soft' not 'Sartre'..."
"Visions of Johanna" fades in (repeat of "heatpipes" and "country music station" lines - song continues playing in background)
"The heatpipe COUGHS" -- that's the word that rhymes with either "soft" or "Sartre" -- COUGH.
And heatpipes really do cough, in New York. George and I never tried to come up with 'What is the song about?' We reveled in its mystery, really.
The big over-all meaning, I think, didn't matter that much. I mean, he used to goof on people, if you look at "Don't Look Back," that great documentary of his tour actually here in England in the midsixties, probably before this record... and people would say what do the songs mean...
"They mean whatever you want 'em to mean, man, you know..." (IMITATES DYLAN). He enjoyed the fact that people didn't know what the hell they meant and I don't think that he really did, either. I mean, obviously he was inspired by... there probably was somebody that was called "Johanna," but maybe not...
"Visions of Johanna" fades in with "ghost of electricity" line, fades out at beginning of third verse
He was nasty, cool, and rebellious -- everything a young man aspires to. Sarcastic, snoddy, mean -- not in the stingy sense, you know, he was unpleasant -- to all authority figures and anybody who had short hair. In the third verse he says "Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously" -- I mean, again, if you're a young man of 19, that's YOU.
"Visions of Johanna" fades in with third verse, fades out after "muttering small talk" line
This album has a real speedy feel to it, it has a cocaine feel to it, to be honest. It feels that kind of brittle... it's not flowers and strawberry fields, yellow submarines, and diamonds in the sky -- it's gritty and dirty streets, and clanking heatpipes, and "up for five days" -- I mean, whether you drag drugs into it or not, I mean, again, I think it doesn't have to have any meaning... it's just truckloads of images and atmosphere...
"Visions of Johanna" fades in with fourth verse, fades out after "Mona Lisa" line
"But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles..."
It's just a great observation. He's commenting on it in a way that nobody had done... and yet was very contemporary, you know, the "highway blues," you know...
He came out of that tradition of Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac -- the road, hitchhiking, that long line of male guitar-slingers hitchhiking with guitars over their back, and that was related to the hobo tradition. You knew what the "highway blues" were, but your parents didn't, maybe because you'd read "On the Road" and they were reading James Michener's "Hawaii."
"Visions of Johanna" fades in with harmonica solo, fades out after first line of last verse.
He was a middle-class white guy like me. And yet he was so poetic and mysterious... and charismatic and exciting to watch that it seemed like a pretty interesting idea to be a songwriter...
"Visions of Johanna" fades in with "Madonna" line
ANNOUNCER: Loudon Wainwright III was talking about "Visions of Johanna", released by Bob Dylan in 1966...