Culturespill » Visions of Johanna

Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.

Dylan: The “Collector’s” Edition That Isn’t

3rd April


Culturespill memo to Sony: An album is not a “collector’s edition” just because the record company says it is. Too often major labels create pseudo events like this tenth–yes, tenth–Dylan greatest hits package to rake in the dough. Sony markets this 3-disc set as a “collector’s edition” as if it contained something even “Dylanologists” would prize, when in fact there turns out to be “no there there.” Enough! It’s time to call these bastards out when they lie to our face after they’ve got our 20-dollar bill in their hands.

It may be true that reality is increasingly manufactured in slogans and catchphrases such as “Operation Enduring Freedom” (protest that one, smartass!) but the fact remains that “Collectors” are people who prowled the streets for those vinyl copies of Neil Young’s The Beach or Reactor (I’m raising my hand) before he finally re-released them on CD. Easily two of his most fascinating projects, Young dangled both albums before his fans at the end of a string that he withdrew the second they reached for it, offering instead ephemeral promises to release them “someday.” Given that the release of his alleged “Archives” boxed set was again delayed this year for the 1,857,906th time–with the stunning news that it will be comprised of DVDs and not CDs–it’s clear that when Young resorts to words like “someday,” you can expect it to hit the shelves of a store near you around the time we’ve terraformed Saturn’s thirteenth moon.

And that’s exactly the point: A “Collector’s Edition” is valuable to “collectors” because it allows them access to prized moments in an artist’s career that they could not have procured on their own—only Neil had the authority to make those great LPs widely available in CD-quality sound. That’s why fans frothed at the mouth when Tom Waits released that embarrassment of riches, Orphans, 3 discs-worth of ass-whoopin’ outtakes that rival any fine moment you care to recall. And it’s why they sniff around in underground record shops for volumes of the storied “Genuine Bootleg Series”.

Dylan Kicking Shit in the Street

Far from a “collector’s” edition, Sony’s haughtily-titled Dylan (questions, anyone?) is a shamelessly cheap marketing stunt that contributes absolutely nothing to Dylan’s legacy, as a bonafide “collector’s edition” ought to by definition, and the only way to NOT see that is to consciously delude ourselves. While so many other compilations serve as platforms to release new material that sometimes rivals the “hits” (Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Something in the Air,” or Springsteen’s “Murder Inc.”) Dylan offers not a single track that you can’t get on any of the man’s 32 studio albums. And as with Sony’s 9 previous attempts at compressing a career of five decades into a track list that seems chosen by the all-reliable “catch a tiger by the toe method,” this one is more remarkable for its omissions than for its contents: For the love of Christ, a Dylan “greatest hits” without “Visions of Johanna,” “Idiot Wind,” “Desolation Blues”!? It’s catastrophes like these that reveal the genius of bands like Devo or Jefferson Airplane, with their “Greatest Misses” or “The Worst of Jefferson Airplane” retrospectives, as in, “will someone please remind us again how it is that we consented to this vulgarity?”

Once again, Sony peddles recycled glories while those that languish under a film of dust in vaults remain unheard. Dylan is notorious for withholding his greatest songs or superior renditions of released material off of nearly every album–often using the excuse of feeling “too close” to them or sighing that “the world doesn’t need anymore Bob Dylan songs” in moments of dire self-pity, infuriating the very producers who helped reinvent him (as in Daniel Lanois, who pled desperately for Dylan to allow the sublime “Series of Dreams” to take its rightful place on an album it would have made a masterpiece, 1989’s Oh Mercy.) While Sony deigned to release “Blind Willie McTell” and “Series of Dreams” along with earlier outtakes from the Freewheelin’ and Times Are-A-Changin’ days like “Seven Curses,” they continue to withhold a firing line of ferocious (and widely bootlegged) blues numbers from the Freewheelin’ sessions, including electrifying tunes like “Watcha Gonna Do,” “Witchita,” “Solid Road,” “Emmet Till” and a vastly superior alternate version of “Hollis Brown.” The most powerful version of Dylan’s brilliant “Carribean Wind” of 1980 remains withheld, as does the lauded electric version of “Blind Willie McTell.” A truckload of outtakes and alternate versions — from Blood on the Tracks, Shot of Love, Oh Mercy, you name it, ranging in quality from interesting to explosive, continues to gather dust in some New York City safe. Instead we get these “collector’s editions” that “collect” only what we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Dylan doing “Visions of Johanna,” among other things

Columbia’s mishandling of the Bootleg concept began at the onset, when the original 1991 Bootleg Series was planned as a four-disc set and then narrowed down to the three CDs we got, eliminating a wealth of essential material. And Dylan himself has admitted that bootlegged packages of the so-called Royal Albert Hall shows–which feature 8 CDs, posters, postcards and informative notes (I should know: I threw down 200 bones on a copy years ago at a rare disc shop in NYC)–represent Dylan with more competence than his own label, while the renown “Genuine Basement Tapes” series remains by far the most commendable effort at bringing Dylan’s unveiled genius to light.

The point is not that Dylan is some sort of “sell-out” or that Sony should be crucified for cashing in. What can possibly be more boring than the groaning chorus of “punks” and purists everywhere who weigh each band up to the light of their elitist notions of authenticity? Dylan and his label are entitled to make all the money they want—and I wish them all the best in their efforts to do so—but to horde such shining treasure is to rob the American story of many unmined diamonds—an act of cultural burglary if ever there was one.