Visions of Johanna

Commentary

Visions of Johanna is one of Dylan most ambitious lyrics, and for that reason alone it’s due much respect. By pop music standards Visions is an epic, a tragic opera that ruminates on how love can overcome the emptiness of our lonely and otherwise pointless existence.

I don’t think it’s one of Dylan all-time greats.  There are some lines, at least to my mind, that really misfire:

He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all,
Muttering small talk at the wall
while I’m in the hall

Too many easy rhymes there for me.

“She’s delicate and seems like the mirror” seems awkward every time I hear it.

“Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it”. Somehow that’s interesting, if incomprehensible.

“The ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain”. Blind’s Man Bluff is a game of tag, so I don’t understand what a key chain has to do with it.

And what about that bit about the “fish truck explodes”? What?

Many of the Dylan commentators love the next to last line – The “harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain.” Dylan author John Hinchey writes:

the skeleton keys are a dense macabre, but they are also the keys to the kingdom, master keys that open the secrets of the rain, itself one of Dylan’s master symbols. Rain in Dylan is always associated with women. But it seems to function as a symbol not of women but of the emotional lie, even as he identifies the life of the spirit as the wind, here figured in the harmonica music.”

Now I remember why I hated some of my college literature courses. I think the line is nonsensical, but maybe that’s just me.

But for all its obvious faults, I don’t there can be any argument that Visions is one of Dylan more interesting works. In Visions, Dylan took the popular song to places it doesn’t usually go, from rhyming “moon” and “June” to reflections on the meaning of existence. Visions – like many Dylan songs – is literature on the phonograph.

According to me, Visions attempts to show how the power of love – in this case the narrator’s love for Johanna –can transcend the ugliness and hopelessness of a cold and indifferent world. The fact that the love affair seems to have ended makes it even more poignant. Many have commented that the overall theme of the song – the realization that love is the answer only after love has escaped the cage – is similar to Eliot’s masterpiece, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Dylan has returned to this same theme again and again throughout his career. Shelter From the Storm, Farewell Angelina, Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Isis. For Dylan, the love between a man and a woman is our great hope for salvation, but it is always somehow slipping just out of our grasp; it is always in some way or another either unattainable or ultimately short-lived.

The very first line – “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” – draws the listener in by addressing a question to him directly. It similar to the way Hank Williams starts I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly

The next line might be my favorite Dylan lyric of all: “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”. The existentialists – the heroes of my college days, Camus and Sartre – wrote entire books that attempt to capture that feeling of despair and hopelessness. Dylan does it pretty well in just two lines.

With the next few lines, Dylan describes the humdrum and banality of a relationship of mutual convenience that he has with Louise, who is perfectly fine in her own way but obviously lacking in comparison with his Madonna, Johanna. A new character – “little boy lost” – appears in the third stanza, apparently Johanna’s new lover. Dylan ends the songs with a series of outlandishly surrealistic images that describe the emptiness of life without love.

There are some juicy biographical elements involving Joan Baez (again) that are just too entertaining to leave out. As discussed earlier, Dylan and Baez had dissolved a relationship not too long before Visions was written. The name Johanna is so close to Joan it seems to beg the listener to make the connection. Dylan refers to Johanna as “Madonna”, which was a term often used to describe Baez in her mid-sixties earth mother, flower-child period. Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto describes an interview with Baez in which she says that Allen Ginsberg once asked her whether she thought the song was about her. She felt that Ginsberg was trying to get her to say it was, possibly at Dylan’s instigation.

Baez hinted at her own thoughts on the matter in her song Winds of the Old Days, a song in which she provides her reaction to the news of Dylan’s “comeback” tour in 1974:

And get you down to the harbor now
Most of the sour grapes are gone from the bough
Ghosts of Johanna will visit you there
And the winds of the old days will blow through your hair

A version of Visions appears on Live 1966. It’s good, but the overlong harmonica break detracts from the overall effect.

A version from the Never Ending Tour.

Marianne Faithfull is an excellent interpreter.

Visions of Johanna wins!

 


Lyrics

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
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

5 thoughts on “Visions of Johanna”

  1. Avatar

    I think the museum scene is coherently surrealistic and absolutely brilliant – history and the infinite, how long life can feel without your love, the contrast between the idealized Mona Lisa (“the delicate wallflower”, which is just insanely brilliant) and the repulsive women admiring the painting. While rhyming “freeze, sneeze, knees” may just seem like more loose rhyming, they are coherently offensive depictions of women (a jelly-faced woman sneezing, mules with their jewels and binoculars, presumably to inspect the art better), though the last fat joke about not being able to see their knees is redeemed by the fact that Mona Lisa also doesn’t have knees, or anything else from the neck down….that she is not perfect either, beyond her “highway blues”.

    The last stanza is the most cryptic and most tempting to dismiss. I think the reference to two Jewish archetypes (peddler, fiddler) is very striking. And there is something suggestive about a violin player – a musician and artist – delivering the message (or perhaps simple life advice) that there are no debts, that we are not beholden, on something as prosaic as a fish truck. Dylan’s “conscience explodes”, suggesting the resulting freedom of the realization. And then he makes his own music with the skeleton keys of his harmonica, transforming the visions of Johana into art – the only thing you can do with lost love other than dwell or  try to forget.

  2. Avatar

    Sean Wilentz writes in passing, in “Bob Dylan in America”, that this stanza is from Louise’s perspective.

    I thought perhaps it is the voice inside the narrator who won’t let him forget Johanna (“speaks of a farewell kiss to me”), but has a lot of gall to hang around the narrator constantly, muttering, even though he has nothing useful to contribute.

    But yes, like so often in Dylan, the (at times too easy) rhymes inform the lines, and efforts to read too deep into every word are misplaced.

  3. Avatar

    I used to find this one of his sloppier lyrics actually, and my interest in the lyrics (as opposed to the amazing musical arrangement) waned after the absolutely genius mood-setting of the opening (“but there’s nothing really nothing to turn off”.

    It was only when I really reflected on the blinding brilliance of the line”the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” that I gave the rest of the lyrics real attention.

    I think “handful of rain” is a metaphor for Louise crying into her hands. She is perhaps a woman who uses her love for the unsatisfied narrator – and the devastation it would cause if he left her – to guilt him into staying, even though he knows the relationship is not right. For whatever reason, maybe because he already knows no one will measure up to Johanna, he can’t defy her tears and move on.

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