#9: Bob Dylan, "Blonde on Blonde" (1966)

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Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks on you when you’re trying to be quiet? Legend has it that Bob Dylan wrote the first draft of “Visions of Johanna” during the great Northeast blackout of 1965, in which most of New York City was without power for almost 13 hours (note the “ghost of ‘lectricty” that howls in Louise’s face). It makes sense to me that a song this hypnotic was written in the dark, in a state of least distraction. I’ve played Blonde on Blonde straight through hundreds of times, and I still think of “Visions of Johanna” as the opening track (it’s actually third). It's the moment on side 1 when I start paying attention; it’s the first song on the album that conquers my mind.

“Visions of Johanna” is a battlecry. But Dylan’s not fighting with an ex or a stand-in lover who keeps falling short (poor Louise). He’s fighting himself, or rather, his brain. It’s not Johanna that’s conquered, it’s visions of her, invasive thoughts vining the hippocampus. The song is less about unrequited love, and more a failed effort to steer your inner dialogue. It’s the racing narration of a sleepless night.

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My mind has been an adversary since I was a child. My default state is one of self-loathing; I skew sad. Don’t feel too bad for me—with years of medication and therapy and mid-day naps, I’ve functioned, even thrived. But it’s a lot of work. I am constantly thinking about thinking and feeling bad about how I think and thinking about how I feel bad about how I think. I’ve been trained to recognize the first curls of a downward spiral and employ a number of techniques to soften the landing. But I get tired. Depressed people receive conflicting messages from doctors and Instagram and Pixar movies: your feelings are valid—but you must change your attitude. Love yourself as you are—but here’s how to better yourself. Sadness is healthy—but hey, lighten up. You have more control over your thoughts than you think you do. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when I succumb to the lures of putting myself down.

A song can be one of two things: an activity or a soundtrack. I was in college the first time I really heard “Visions of Johanna,” fresh off my first heartbreak. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, superimposing my longing onto Dylan’s, immersed in the song and nothing else. All I did was hear and feel. Today, it's rare that a song will capture my full attention in this way, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that I’m usually doing something else while listening to a song—loading the dishwasher, working out, scrolling through photos of people osentibly having more fun than me. Recorded music enables multitasking more than any other form of art, freeing sight and movement. New albums usually drop on Friday mornings, so I listen to them throughout the workday, scoring my email replies. Music still bring me immense joy, but liking a song is different than connecting with it. I’m constantly tuning in and out, opening new tabs and refreshing old ones.

I also think I ask something different of music today than I did 10 years ago. In the throes of depression, I turned to music to find myself, seeking catharsis. Now I turn to music to escape myself, seeking distraction. I’m using the same medium to alleviate the same symptoms, hoping for a completely different outcome. I don’t know if it’s a sign of recovery, or simply getting older and less self absorbed, but I’m drawn to music that derails my train of thought rather than indulges it. And now that I carry hundreds of thousands of songs with me at all times, most of them end up as background noise. It feels miraculous when I come upon one that stops me in my tracks.

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Mindfulness meditation has helped with my depression more than another other treatment. With much practice, you can indeed conquer your mind, if only for one breath. One technique for detaching from your thoughts is to visualize them as moving objects—clouds floating by in the sky, or ships sailing across the sea. The idea is that you become an observer of your own thoughts, refraining from judgment or engaging further. There is no fight, no countertalk; you acknowledge the bait without taking it, letting the next thought roll on by too. Sometimes I pretend I’m wearing 3D glasses, telling myself that if I reach out to latch onto one of those magic swirling ships of despair, my hands will grasp nothing. 

“Visions of Johanna”—like most Dylan songs—is a reel of images: a handful of rain, the Mona Lisa, a mule’s head adorned with jewels and binoculars. He spits them faster than you can visualize; you see something new with each listen. You could spend time contemplating what the nightwatchman and his flashlight represent, but the most important vision in the song is the most straightforward, the one that Dylan is trying to keep away: Johanna. I’m not pining for a lover anymore, but other visions remain, keeping me up at night: that job I didn’t get, that awkward text I sent, those jeans that won’t zip anymore. The right song doesn’t remove these thumbnails of my inadequacy, but it keeps me scrolling before I can click on them. The miracle of the mind is that it is always moving. Every once in a while, I even catch it dancing.

—Susannah Clark