A couple of years ago, one of the Brit papers played off the broadcast debut of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (the DVD has been out for about a week) by asking various celebrities to name their favorite Dylan songs. Some of the replies were unsurprising (Patti Smith loves “Like A Rolling Stone”); one was a cheat, albeit a fun one (Tom Waits names all of The Basement Tapes); one was unexpected (Respect MP George Galloway is keen on “Tangled Up In Blue”). I guess that’s one of the defining misfortunes of being famous: people think nothing of calling you out of the blue and asking you questions like, “What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?”
But if some reporter comes knocking on my door one of these days, I’ll have my answer locked and loaded: depending on my mood, either “Visions Of Johanna” (off the incomparable Blonde On Blonde) or “Every Grain Of Sand” (from the underrated Shot Of Love). In the universe of great songs Dylan has created, those are the two stars that shine the brightest for me.
“Visions Of Johanna” is, among other things, a treasury of great lines, starting right from the opening: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?”. Intriguing, puzzling and inviting, it makes the listener hold his breath and listen as the song sketches in a finely observed, somewhat rundown apartment in a closely-packed building (“Lights flicker from the opposite loft/ In this room the heat pipes just cough”). If I were writing a novel and hit upon that kind of opening line, I’d be torn between knocking off for rest of the night, or crashing forward for another few hours in the hopes of capturing its mate.
A seemingly tossed-off phrase (“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial”) generates a stream of lines that creates, in the viewer’s mind, a veritable museum of absurdist imagery (“When the jelly-faced women all sneeze . . . Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”). But it always comes back to a vision of someone who isn’t there — someone the singer longs to see.
It could be romantic longing, but the writing doesn’t support that. Indeed, the song’s most famous line — “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” — is hardly warm praise. I think Johanna is a muse, a reminder of what the singer should be working toward, instead of wasting his time at a dull party.
“Every Grain Of Sand,” the startlingly gentle coda to the loud and angry Shot Of Love album, is the song I want played at my funeral. The two hard-nosed gospel albums that preceded it (Slow Train Coming and Saved) were all about the harshness of certainty. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the evangelical version of “Like A Rolling Stone” — where the earlier song aimed its knowing scorn at an anonymous Miss Lonely, its born-again successor targets the listener and anyone else who doesn’t share the singer’s hard-shelled faith. That the song is expertly played and well produced — qualities not always found in the Dylan canon — hardly makes it more inviting: the singer is eyeballing you through a slot in the church door, and odds are you haven’t got the right password.
What an unexpected pleasure, then, to find this evangelical cycle come to an end with “Every Grain Of Sand”, a song about the beauty of doubt. The comfort of faith is there, but the singer is no longer convinced that salvation is his. Sometimes he even seems to doubt salvation itself:
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/ Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
The song includes two of the longest harmonica solos Dylan has ever played on record. I think Dylan’s harp playing is underrated, but I realize part of the reason for that is he usually goes for the hardest, sharpest sound possible. The playing on “Every Grain Of Sand” is still a little rough, but also gentle and, in the most surprising way, reassuring. It carries the song and the listener into the very center of what the singer is striving for, and doesn’t quite realize he has within his grasp.