VISIONS OF JOHANNA
Dylan / Cameron Crowe
There is an other worldly quality to this live recording (London 26 May 1966). Dylan had begun writing longer songs, stringing the images and characters together for verse upon verse. The unrecorded Visions Of Johanna was performed in the solo set that began these 1966 shows. Audiences were stunned at the intricacy of the new song, not to mention amazed that the young man in the spotlight could remember all the words.
Did his mind ever wander? Was he with every word? “Oh yeah, I was probably with every word because it meant so much to me. I could remember a song without writing it down because it was so visual. I still sing that song every once in a while. It still tands up now as it did then, maybe even more in some kind of weird way.”
A major work in which five long verses and a coda structure nightmares, hallucinations, trances. The instrumental introduction draws us into a 7 ½ minute work. The mournful mouth-harp plaintively breaks the silence – chugging drums and stealthy organ insinuate themselves. The organ maintains the haunting feeling. The singing is supurb, so purposefully phrased, so weary with rhythmic emphases as portentous as heartbeats. Electric guitar fills in, underlining and deepening. The skittering images hurl off like fragmentary chips from a mind floating downstream, neither time nor structure holding forces in check. The nonconsequential visions are like a swivelling camera recording a fractured consciousness. The atmosphere is almost unbearably fetid and sad until verse four, where the radidly piled-up rhymes of “freeze”, “sneeze”, “jeeze” and “knees” lighten the mood. We are back again among the grotesques – peddlers, countesses, all-night girls, lost little boys, Mona Lisa.
Bill King’s doctoral thesis, The trist In The Marketplace, calls Visions Of Johanna Dylan’s most haunting and complex love song and his “finest poem”. He finds that the reader constantly seeks to transcend the physical world, to reach the ideal where the visions of Johanna become real. That can never be, and yet life without the quest is worthless. – this is the paradox at the heart of Visions Of Johanna, the same paradox that Keats explored in his Ode To A Grecian Urn. In the final two ambiguous lines of the song, King is tantalised by the Keatsian ambiguity of the skeleton-key image, “suggesting both death and the key which opens every door”.
Athough most of the songs on Blonde On Blonde were written as the album was being recorded, Visions Of Johanna had been with Dylan several months by the time it was recorded in Nashville for the album. Indeed two earlier versions had been cut at New York sessions in late November 1965 and January 1966 with The Band, as he tried to discover the song's ideal setting. Along the way, a few changes were made in the lyrics, mostly minor alterations – "like silk" becomes "she's delicate," little boy lost goes from being "so useless and so small" to being just "so useless and all" – but with a couple of more substantial revisions to the final verse involving the deletion of the line "He examines the nightingale's code" and the switching of the positions of the fiddler and the peddler.
Given the lyrical malleability indicated by these changes, it is perhaps best not to try and ascribe too literal an interpretation to Visions Of Johanna, which is more of an impressionistic mood piece anyway. If it does not really matter to the writer whether it is the peddler or the fiddler who speaks to the countess, why should it matter to us? The song remains one of the high points of Dylan's canon, particularly favored among hardcore Dylanophiles, possibly because it so perfectly sustains its position on the cusp of poetic semantics, forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment.
For a long time, the song went under the working title of Seems Like A Freeze-Out (a term meaning "to stand-off"), which evokes something of the air of nocturnal suspension in which the verse tableaux are sketched. They are full of whispering and muttering, low-volume radio, echoes and ghosts, a misty, crepuscular netherworld inhabited by the increasingly familiar denizens of Dylan's imagination, a parade of low-lifes, functionaries, all-night girls and slumming snobs.
Here and there, images and lines accrete into possible wisps of meaning – the line in verse four about "the one with the mustache," for instance, may refer to the Mona Lisa, also mentioned in the same verse – or, more specifically, to Marcel Duchamp's "revision" of the Mona Lisa by the addition of a graffiti mustache to a print of the portrait. (It has also been noted that the picture in question is a three-quarter length portrait, which may account for why its subject may be unable to find her knees.) And Joan Baez apparently felt suspicious that certain images in the song referred to her, particularly after Allen Ginsberg, possibly primed by Dylan, tried to pump her for her opinions on the song. "I had the feeling the two of them were sort of in cahoots to make sure I never thought the song had anything to do with me," she told Anthony Scaduto.
Certainly, on the most basic level the song is simply a delineation of the narrator's differing feelings towards a purely carnal lover – the always available Louise – and the more spiritual, but unattainable, Madonna-figure Johanna, whose most likely model would be Sara, whom Dylan had recently married (and whom he described to Robert Shelton as "Madonna-like"). On a deeper level, however, Visions Of Johanna would seem to be about the artist's search for transcendence, the constant attempt to locate inspiration outside of the physical world, in some more spiritual aesthetic realm, fully cognizant of the desiccation that ultimately awaits all art through the "salvation" of curators and museums. In the final analysis, Dylan appears to be saying, the artist is doomed to pursue these visions of perfection, whatever the cost and whatever the outcome, since they are what gives meaning to his/her life – they are, effectively, all that remain.
The song's journey to its final form echoes this process of aesthetic discovery. In the earliest of the three versions, it begins as a loose, medium-tempo rocker, which alters subtly until, by the final verse, it is clear that everyone except the drummer (the rather limited Bobby Gregg, who continues to whack along regardless) has located something rather more haunting and transcendent in the song. The second version builds upon this insight, but it is not until the final Nashville version that it all comes together, with Al Kooper's eerie organ casting dusky shadows across the verses and, from the second verse through to the conclusion, Robbie Robertson's tiny, bent-note stitches of lead guitar complementing one of Dylan's most accomplished vocal performances.
"If you listen to it very critically, it is very important what Joe South's bass is doing in that," says Al Kooper. "He's playing this throbbing thing which rhythmically is an amazing bass part, and it really makes the track. Charlie McCoy couldn't have done that, he doesn't think like that. On my part, I was responding to the lyrics – like when he says, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face,” it was very challenging to play something after that line!" It says much that the track retains that challenge for the listener over three decades later. It remains one of Dylan's finest achievements.
On Blonde On Blonde, and its key track Visions Of Johanna in particular, Dylan attained a new pinnacle in the marriage of rock music and poetry. The imagery and symbolism of the song is often hard to unravel, but that has not prevented some of the brightest minds in the English departments of our best universities from trying. Professor Christopher Ricks described the album’s lyrics as “variously extraordinary and insinuatingly true”, and the lines such as “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” are among the most potent in rock music. The argument that Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize For Literature really begins here.
Like much great poetry, literal interpretation of Visions Of Johanna is perhaps less important than mood and impression. One example will suffice. Somewhere in between the different versions of the song Dylan recorded during the period from November 1965 to February 1966, the roles of the peddler and the fiddler in the final stanza were transposed. To puzzle over why it is the peddler rather than the fiddler who “speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him” when the matter is of such little consequence to the author himself suggests that the lit-crit approach to Dylan’s lyrics is ultimately futile.
Originally entitled Seems Like A Freeze Out, the song pre-dates most of the Blonde On Blonde material, and Dylan first attempted to record it with The Band in November 1965. Joan Baez believes parts of the song were about her after Allen Ginsberg asked her what she thought of the song. She later told Dylan biograpger Anthony Scaduto that she believed the two of them were “in cahoots to make sure I never thought the song had anything to do with me”. It is equally likely that there are strong elements of Sara, who Dylan had married on 22 November 1965, eight days before he went into the studio to record the song.
The two central female characters of the song present the familiar dichotomy of womanhood found in much literature since the Bible – the available, carnal Louise and the Madonna-like Johanna. But the lyric also describes an artistic quest, a search for aesthetic perfection. A similar theme had also informed Mr Tambourine Man. Visions Of Johanna invariably comes out close to the top of the poll whenever Dylan fans are invited to vote on his greatest-ever song.
In 1982 readers of The Telegraph voted Visions Of Johanna their "favourite Dylan song" by a wide margin Like A Rolling Stone and It's Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) tied for second). Why? There is a depth in this song, an intimate bond created between the singer and the listener, that defies analysis or explanation. The subject is simple – sitting in a room, probably a loft in New York on a rainy night, thinking about someone who is not there. The music is not complicated – four chords. The rhyme scheme is straightforward through four verses – AAA BBBB CC – with a dramatic crescendo in the last verse, AAA BBBBBBB CC (all those Bs give the last pair of Cs a special resonance, you betcha). The arrangement is exqui¬site, admittedly – it is amazing how he uses enough instruments for a full rock band (bass drums organ guitars harmonica) and puts the rhythm section in the foreground of the mix, yet still achieves the feeling of a solo acoustic performance with added instrumental coloring (as in the album versions of Mr Tambourine Man and Desolation Row). The language of the song is as beguiling as the instrumental and vocal performances – typically the listener is over¬come by the mood of the recording, and the actual lyrics drift in and out of awareness, but whichever phrases do jump out are always remarkably intimate, moving, precise even when one cannot say just what Dylan is talking about, still he has caught the feeling of it, the listener knows that here at least is one other person in the world who knows exactly what it feels like to be where I am right now.
One aspect of Dylan's performing technique that is particu¬larly noticeable here is his ability to fit as few or as many syllables as he wants into a line (or a different number every time he sings it), and still have it work out right in terms of melody, meter, and rhythm. It is quite a trick. As I have mentioned before, this elasticity in his songwriting lays the groundwork for great freedom and inven¬tiveness in his performing – he sings it however he feels it, and the music and the meter spread and contract to meet his needs.
Published lyrics: Writings and Drawings; Lyrics 1985; Lyrics 2004.
Known studio recordings: Studio A, NY, 30 November 1965 – 14 takes [NDH -tk.8]; Studio A, Nashville, 14 February 1966 – 4 takes [BOB - tk.4].
First known performance: [Berkeley Community Theater, December 3, 1965] Westchester, NY, February 5, 1966.
Dylan really had to work at Visions Of Johanna – which many, myself included, consider Dylan's finest work/song – in the studio before capturing the sublimity of the Blonde On Blonde recording. In keeping with previous instances when he stepped beyond the paradigms of popular song, he initially seemed in something of a hurry to get the song captured in the studio, as if the inspiration would fade as quickly as the night vision he sought to contain.
It had been less than four months since completing his sixth album, but already Dylan was feeling the strain. The songs had not come, which was fast becoming a source of frustration. Indeed, it is awfully tempting to see Johanna as his muse, who at the start of the song is “not here”, but by the final line is “all that remain[s]” (other possible incarnations of said lady include Dirge and What Was It You Wanted?). It is certainly one of the oddest songs ever written by a man who has just tied the knot and is enjoying a brief honeymoon in the city.
It would appear he had already abandoned his Woodstock mansion, unhappy with the vibe of the place and superstitious about the possibility of writing more breakthrough songs there. As he told Shelton the following March, “I don't believe in writing some total other thing in the same place twice. It's just a hang-up, a voodoo kind of thing. I just can't do it. When I need someplace to make something new, I can't go back there.”
As a result, on his return from Texas at the end of September 1965, Dylan again immersed himself in New York's nightlife, holing up at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street. Its fin de siecle feel would provide a redolent backdrop to the songs he wrote, or began to write, that winter. The Chelsea was (and still is) hardly the Ritz. But Dylan liked the vibe and the centrality of this mauve-bricked edifice. As late as 1985 he still had fond memories of this place (and time), telling Scott Cohen, “Me and my wife lived in the Chelsea Hotel on the third floor in 1965 or '66, when our first baby was born. We moved out of that hotel maybe a year before [Warhol's] Chelsea Girls. When Chelsea Girls came out, it was all over for the Chelsea Hotel. You might as well have burned it down.”
That first baby, Jesse, a son and heir, would be born in January 1966. Sara, six months pregnant when they were married, was no longer the secret backwoods girl. She was at Dylan's side on (or around) 8 November 1965, when they were photographed by Don Paulsen at a Young Rascals show with Jerry Schatzberg and Brian Jones. So, should these visions really be set in this declasse hotel – and, rest assured, the heat pipes still cough at the Chelsea – we can be fairly sure it was not her absence that set him musing.
Unlike a number of other songs Dylan wrote during this annus mirabilis, few folk have stepped forwards to claim they are Johanna, evidently another of Dylan's goddesses of doom, but not necessarily a corporeal entity. Strangely, though, Joan Baez has been one such claimant, telling Scaduto, “He'd just written Visions Of Johanna, which sounded very suspicious to me. He had never performed it before, and Neuwirth told him I was there that night and he performed it.”
While it is true that he debuted the song at the Berkeley Community Theatre on 4 December 1965, a show Baez attended, this was his first opportunity to play the song since writing it. And if he was playing it for anyone that night, it was Allen Ginsberg and fellow Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who were sitting in the front row surrounded by Hell's Angels. He considered Ginsberg a profound influence on his song-writing at this juncture. And though he had stopped “auditioning” breakthrough songs to those he admired in late-night, sitting-room sessions, he still wanted their benediction, and Ginsberg was not cagey about dispensing it. (He may even have known that Allen planned to tape the show.)
But before he could play the song in Berkeley, Dylan set out to record it himself, with the typewriter ribbon not yet dry. Which is where the fun begins. The session he booked for 30 November 1965 in New York must have been slotted in very much at the last minute because Dylan and The Hawks were due to fly to the West Coast the following day. An evening session (according to the log, it broke up around 10:30pm) hardly qualifies as an obvious way to rest and relax before embarking on an important West Coast tour, especially with a new drummer to break in (Bobby Gregg had been hastily drafted after Levon Helm cried “Enough!” at the end of the East Coast dates). But Dylan was determined to get the song down before time quelled the fire in his fingertips. As he complained to journalist Jim Jerome almost exactly ten years later, “I write fast. The inspiration doesn't last. Writing a song, it can drive you crazy. My head is so crammed full of things I tend to lose a lot of what I think are my best songs.” He didn't want to lose this one.
Convening at Columbia's New York studio at two-thirty in the afternoon, Dylan intended to concentrate on this one song. The first order of the day was to teach the band the song itself, since they would hardly have had time on the road to learn it (though guitarist Robbie Robertson, now firmly attached to Dylan by bonds of mutual self-interest, probably heard it in some hotel room).
Dylan's faith in his new band to translate his thought patterns quickly and efficiently in the studio had already been dampened by his experience at the October session/s. And this was an era when it was the norm to have bands teach arrangements to session musicians who efficiently executed said licks on their behalf at the session itself (The Byrds' Mr Tambourine Man and Them's Baby Please Don't Go being two good examples of session musicians doing the actual playing “on record,” though the arrangement remained the same).
So this time Dylan hedged his bets, drafting in just about every key player from previous 1965 sessions to step in should they be required. As such, Joe South and Bruce Langhorne were standing by on guitar, while Al Kooper was there to play “supplementary organ”, and Paul Griffin constituted an additional pianist. With Bobby Gregg now the temporary Hawks drummer, Dylan effectively brought two separate bands to the studio to make sure there was an imprint of the song on tape while the vision remained. Which certainly helps explain the slightly schizophrenic nature of the versions recorded here.
Quite when the rehearsing process ended and tape started rolling is not clear, but there was clearly a point when the two crossed over. According to Sean Wilentz, who gave a talk on the Blonde On Blonde sessions at the Morgan Library in 2006 that was interspersed with excerpts from the session tapes: “On the session tape, he and The Hawks change the key and slow the tempo at the start of the second take, if only to hear more closely; “that's not right,” Dylan interrupts. He speeds things up again – “like that” – and bids Gregg to go to his cowbell, but some more scorching tests are no good either: “That's not the sound, that's not it,” he breaks in. Two more broken attempts feature Richard Manuel playing on the harpsichord: “Nah,” Dylan decides, though he keeps the harpsichord in the background. Out of nowhere comes a slower, hair raising, bar band rock version.”
This “bar-band rock version,” the earliest take in circulation, was cut to an acetate auctioned by Goldmine in 1980 and is both rehearsal and recording. A marathon performance, in every sense of the word, it demonstrates a Dylan mustering all of his creative focus just to keep the song on the rails, determined not to lose his train of thought in the recording process. Clocking in at eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds, it is also the longest of the four studio performances in circulation.
Yet it may not be the longest of the lot; the 20 November 1965 studio log times the song at nine minutes and 23 seconds. Locating this version presents a real problem because the song actually got shorter – not longer – as Dylan started to refine the arrangement. The previously uncirculated version released on No Direction Home – which, according to the accompanying notes, is take eight (of the 14 recorded) – sets another kind of record by clocking in at just six minutes and 38 seconds, though lyrically it is almost identical to its more expansive predecessor. They shave two minutes off the song just by playing with greater assurance and singing with renewed confidence.
The musicians strip the song bare first time around, with nary a fill to be heard. Even with Dylan singing with a precision last heard on Mr Tambourine Man at the Festival Hall, the song does slightly drag, and I find the NDH version preferable, even though Dylan's vocal sounds a little rushed, as he fails to linger on the words in the way he manages consummately on the 1966 world tour. But there is far more of a contribution from the musicians, either because they have figured out how to play their parts or because they have been belatedly introduced into the mix. (Paul Griffin apparently arrived at the session around 5pm, some two-and-a-half hours after work began.)
According to the studio log, the one on NDH was the fourth complete take. One may even wonder why this did not signal an end to proceedings (until one remembers how Dylan kept hammering away at Like A Rolling Stone long after the moment had passed). The song had come a considerable way in a short time. Yet work continued, with four more false starts following immediately afterward. Finally Dylan and the other musicians realized the song again – twice – and then called it a night.
If, as appears to be the case from the session sheets, one of those two later takes is the one that has been in circulation since the early-1970s – when it appeared (under its original title, Freeze Out) on a couple of very famous bootleg LPs, Seems Like A Freeze Out and Forty Red, White & Blue Shoestrings – then Dylan executed quite an about turn. He suddenly stopped trying to make Visions Of Johanna into a rock song, reverting to almost a jazz-rock arrangement. This “third” version is dramatically different from both what came before and the Nashville version later released on Blonde On Blonde. Clocking in at seven minutes and 28 seconds, it retains the so-called “nightingale's code” set of lyrics, Dylan jamming in an extra line on that final verse (a la A Hard Rain’s A=Gonna Fall):
The peddler now steps to the road
Knowing everything's gone which was owed
He examines the nightingale's code
Still written on the fish-truck that loads
My conscience explodes.
The lyrics have subtly changed from earlier in the session, this so-called “LA Band” version* making two significant shifts. The addition of “knowing” before “everything's gone which was owed” provides the peddler with a reason for stepping “to the road”. Also, the line that on the record became, “She's delicate, and seems like the mirror,” has gone from, “Like silk, she seems like the mirror” – which is how it was sung on previous takes – to, “She's steady, and seems like the mirror.” Assuming that this version is from 30 November 1965 (and not January 1966), one must assume it is one of these last two takes. Which still leaves another mystery: Whatever happened to the nine minute and 23 second version listed on the tape log?
The so-called “LA Band” session was a compilation tape made up by Columbia in the early-1970s from the New York sessions in October and November 1965 and January 1966 with The Hawks. How it got this moniker is unclear, but it probably has something to do with a comment Dylan made at the San Francisco press conference in early December 1965, about having just recorded Freeze Out.
Thankfully, Dylan treated the song as something of a gift, cherishing it accordingly. As with Mr Tambourine Man, he refused to settle for second best (and impressive as they all are in their own special ways, the New York versions are just signposts on the way to its final destination). So he took the song with him to Nashville, where it was the second song to be cut at the bona fide Blonde On Blonde sessions. After three false starts, it just slid into the same groove as the musicians themselves, who effortlessly executed an inner intent Dylan's touring band had struggled to discern. Hence, perhaps, why the song appeared only as an acoustic performance throughout 1966. Indeed, even on its Berkeley debut, four days after The Hawks recorded six complete studio takes, Dylan chose to do it all by himself, certain that he could tease out any subtleties frozen out in the studio setting.
But the real triumph on Visions Ogf Johanna is the way Dylan manages to write about the most inchoate feelings in such a vivid, immediate way. For now, it must have seemed like he did not even have to try writing something this great. As he said to the ever-attentive Hentoff only a matter of days before he wrote the song, “I'm not trying to say anything, any more. Once upon a time I tried to say, “Well, I'm here. Listen to me. Will you let me stay at your house tonight?” I don't have to say that any more. [The new songsj'd be there if anybody listened to them or not. They're not manufactured songs.”
This particularly luminous vision has generally remained acoustic, or semi-acoustic, in performance, save for its Never Ending Tour debut in 1988 – a rollicking rendition that unexpectedly opened a September 1988 show in San Diego. It sounds like he had finally figured out where that New York “rock” version could have gone if time had been on its side. Post-accident – but before its Never Ending Tour debut – he had generally held off performing the song, singing it exactly twice to a paying audience: once in Denver in February 1974, and again in Lakeland, Florida, in April 1976. The former is predictably painful, while the latter proves a perfect way to introduce his finest tour in a decade. Since 1990, the song has become far more familiar to regular Dylan concert-goers, while whoops of recognition suggest it has yet to slip from its position as many fans' favourite. Generally, though, he has struggled to realize the vision almost as much as he did that night in late-November 1965.
The published lyrics print the penultimate line as, “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain.” Cute, but every critique I have ever read hears the line as, “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain.”
Dylan's definitive treatment of "strandedness" is Visions Of Jo¬hanna, a song he wrote in November 1965. Unlike most of the material on Blonde On Blonde, he brought it to the studio as a finished composi¬tion. It has always been recognized as a major work, and it boasts one of the most intoxicating and suggestive of all Dylan openings:
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
Visions of Johanna covers a lot of ground – sex, drugs, politics, aesthetics, philosophy. It is a song of great intimacy and epic scope. It ex¬plores a world of heightened definition and intensified indefinite¬ness - brilliance and murk. Dylan finds himself here most definitely "back in New York City" – a flickering, electric, ghostly cityscape. As the song builds, the internal rhymes seethe, the lyric flows and ebbs over the melody, adding to the incantatory, phantasmagoric effect. Who is Louise? Who is Johanna? If the artist needed us to know he would have left more clues. They are objects of desire and yearning, and of judg¬ment and illusion. It is their elusiveness and unreality that is the point. "How can I explain? / Oh it's so hard to get on." And he offers us a fleeting self-portrait: "Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously / He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously."
In Visions Of Johanna Dylan is stranded between extremes – be¬tween total freedom and abject slavery. Events have now spun not only beyond control but beyond comprehension. The sheer metamorphic intensity of reality makes it impossible to apprehend. Yet the hunger for the authentic remains unappeasable.
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"
In the final verse there's an implied reckoning:
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
Exploding consciences provide the finishing touch in several Dylan compositions of this period. Maggie's Farm climaxes with the cry:
I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane
From A Buick 6 comes to a similar screeching halt:
Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead
I need a dump truck mama to unload my head
In the last verse of Tombstone Blues, Dylan watches helplessly as someone else goes mad:
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
Jon Lewis - Mojo 2005 Readers Poll #3
“Ain’t it just like the night / To play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” he begins with an evocative opening couplet. But Dylan obfuscates in his time-honoured manner, writing a grown-up love song packed with juxtaposed imagery that stops the listener from actually seizing hold of just who Johanna might be.
Steve Harley – Mojo 100 Greatest Dylan Songs #21
This sparkles with that dreadful mystery that is Dylan’s own. Hearing it for the first time has never left my mind. Suddenly, I was not a 15-year-old listening to music anymore, I was hearing poetry. “Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heatpipes just cough / The country music station plays soft”. And there is a pay-off line with Dylan. He says, “But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off”. You listen and think, “What the x was that?” All the time, this young man of 24 was thinking of a lost love. Maybe apocryphal, maybe genuine – but he is a poet and he has licence to create. Every pay-off at the end of every verse just says there is nothing here – nothing exists. It is all fantasy. Am I awake? Am I asleep? All I have got is visions of Johanna, which keeps me up past dan. The man cannot sleep, he is lovesick. But is he really? Or is this poetry? This is not Wordsworth or Keats – Dylan is beyond them.
A song from deep inside Dylan’s netherworld, Visions Of Johanna is an undisputed masterwork. At the time of its composition, Dylan had been writing longer songs for some time, lacing images and characters for surreal verse heaped upon surreal verse, bequiling listeners with intangible intricacies and dusky beauty. And yes, if that mercurial, blurry photograph of a scowling Dylan that graces the wraparound cover of Blonde On Blonde (the album on which the song first appeared) could sing a song, it would probably sound a lot like Visions Of Johanna.
The narrator of Visions Of Johanna is trapped in a seven-and-a-half-minute epic of claustrophobic longing with a woman named Louise and her boy-toy, but his mind chases the unattainable Johanna through nocturnal Manhattan’s lofts, subways, empty lots, and a secret museum where “infinity goes up on trial”. Throughout his vision quest, he picks up on flashes of overheard conversation and encounters one “little boy lost” (who may or may not be his mirror image); he is threatened by the all-night girls on the D train, discovered by a flashlight-shining nightwatchman, and pursued by the ghost of electricity. His grip on reality slowly loosens so that by the song’s hallucinatory end, his “visions of Johanna are all that remain”. About the only thing that keeps Visions Of Johanna anchored is its simple folk melody, against which Dylan’s descent into a lyrical and psychic vortex can be grasped.
Visions Of Johanna, according to Andy Gill in his book Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, “remains one of the high points of Dylan’s canon, particularly favoured among hard-core Dylanophiles, possibly because it so perfectly sustains its position on the cusp of poetic semantics, forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment.”
According to biographer Robery Shelton in No Direction Home, Visions Of Johanna is a “major work in which five long verses and a coda structure nightmares, hallucinations, trances. The instrumental introduction draws us into a 7 ½ minure work. The mournful mouth harp plaintively breaks the silence, chugging drums and stealthy organ insinuate themselves. The organ maintains the haunting feeling. The singing is superb, so purposefully phrased, so weary with rhythmic emphases as portentous as heartbeats. Electric guitar fills in, underlining and deepening. The skittering images hurl off like fragmentary chips from a mind floating downstream, neither time nor structure holding forces in check. The nonconsequential visions are like a swivelling camera recording a fractured consciousness. The atmosphere is almost unbearably fetid and sad until verse four, where the radidly piled-up rhymes of “freeze”, “sneeze”, “jeeze” and “knees” lighten the mood. We are back again among the grotesques – peddlers, countesses, all-night girls, lost little boys, Mona Lisa.”
The Blonde On Blonde version of Visions Of Johanna is nothing short of amazing, as is an often-circulated studio outtake complete with an extra line squeezed in at the end. But the ghostly solo acoustic versions performed on the 1966 tour – available on Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volume 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – with their exhausted, bittersweet vulnerability, stand as a rarely paralleled moment in Dylan’s career as a performing artist.
And for those who suspect that Visions Of Johanna owes its surreal fluidity to the ingestion of psychedelic agents, check out how Dylan introduced the song at the actual 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert (not the Manchester show released on The Bootleg Series Volume 4) – “this is a typical example of probably one song that your English music newspapers here would call a “drug song”. I don’t write drug songs. You know, like I never have. I wouldn’t know how to go about it. But this is not a drug song. I’m not saying it for any kind of defensive reason or anything like that, it’s just not a drug song, it’s vulgar to think so.”
Those looking for autobiography informing Visions Of Johanna will be similarly bamboozled. All available evidence suggests that Visions Of Johanna was written and initially performed some six months after Dylan and Joan Baez split up and almost exactly at the time of Dylan’s marriage to Sara, but what does this add to the song? Some think it more interesting to hear in the name the echo of the name “Gehenna”, the Hebrew word for hell, prison or torture. Others suggest that the key to the song is figuring out the relationship between Johanna and Louise (the available female character depicted in the lyrics), a situation not unlike the triangle alluded to in Fourth Time Around – another Blonde On Blonde curio.
With its first 1966 performances, Visions Of Johanna became something of a musical / poetic / spiritual talisman for fans attending Dylan’s shows – always hoped for and very rarely delivered. Dylan performed it once with acoustic guitar in 1974 during his tour with The Band and again during the spring 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Its special re-emergence during the middle and latter stages of The Never Ending Tour have not disappointed either – Dylan’s performances of the song have contained all the frail power and world-weariness of his previous ones.
Bob Dylan – what’s all the fuss about? Why do people get so excited about a crap singer with a rhyming dictionary? And what is this Dylan vs Keats rubbish? As a Dylan obsessive myself, I feel obliged to offer an explanation (or an excuse, at least). Perhaps the best way to do this is to demonstrate the richness of what many consider his greatest song, Visions Of Johanna, from the album Blonde On Blonde. Now Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet. But that doesn’t mean that his lyrics can’t withstand close reading. By reading his lyrics on the page we are not thereby automatically neglecting the importance of, for example, his singing (which often, believe it or not, rescues dodgy lyrics). Our question here, then, is whether it is worth studying his lyrics.
I propose to read Visions Of Johanna in its entirety, verse by verse. I will offer my reading, not a definitive one. My aim is simple: to show that it is worth the bother. (No past experience of Dylan or literary criticism is required.) Before we start, a brief introduction. On the most literal level, the action in the song takes place in bed. The narrator (call him Dylan) is in bed with a girl called Louise; by the end of the song he’s having sex with her; and all the while, he’s thinking of Johanna. My claims will be these: Louise represents the earthly, the prosaic, the finite; and Johanna represents the pure, the poetic, the infinite. So the Louise vs Johanna opposition which runs through the song has three dimensions: they are opposed as women, as styles of writing, and as metaphysical positions. All three will be explained in due course, and all three are present from the very beginning.
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
The song opens with a rhetorical question. The feel is worldly-wise, wry. What tricks? we wonder. The creaking of floorboards springs to mind, or the coughing of pipes. But there could be others. Dylan’s signal is that we must be on our guard throughout. Is there a hint of Hamlet’s opening gambit? – ‘Who’s there?’ asks Barnardo, fearful of again encountering the spectre of Hamlet’s father, a terrible vision.
Dylan’s second line takes the form of an answer to the first. What tricks? The tricks of denial, perhaps the false consciousness that represses the earthbound nature of our existence. We must be on our guard, in case the night tempts us into denial of our finitude, he suggests. And Louise is to be on our side in this battle, urging us to defy the need to deny it. Louise wants more than friendship, though. She holds a handful of rain, tempting you. This is plainly a fertility image: Louise is womanly, and knowingly so – she offers tangible rewards. Repressing the urge to enjoy these offerings is itself denial, of a different sort.
Note also the clever rhymes of the first three lines. ‘Deny it’ and ‘Defy it’ are elided in a lazy, three-in-the-morning drawl, to rhyme with ‘quiet’, which is correspondingly pulled apart to something like ‘Qui-et’.
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
The next two lines are scene-setting, their spare description evoking a late-night eeriness. The stillness is interrupted by the lights, the pipes, and a country music station playing soft. But there’s nothing really, nothing to turn off. This is a virtuoso metaphor for a songwriter’s (Dylan’s?) worst nightmare. Failure isn’t being hated, it’s being a nothing.
This fear of nothingness is explicitly tied to loving Louise in the next line. The night plays tricks on the songwriter, forcing on him intrusive visions, visions of Johanna, where there’s nothing – nothing to turn off, only Louise and her lover. If there’s nothing to turn off, there’s nothing turned on either – and that includes Dylan, who is so unimpressed by his entwinement with Louise that his focus is (comically) on a loft that’s far away and noises that are barely audible. Louise and her lover are the country music, just as Johanna will be poetry.
One of Dylan’s favourite tricks is to play around with the first-, second- and third-persons in his narrative (think Tangled Up In Blue, if you know it). ‘You’, ‘we’, ‘him’ and ‘me’ are all the same person here, though Dylan can exercise a lot of purchase on the story by varying the perspective at different moments. The use of “her lover”, which is in fact ‘me’, implies here a distancing of the singer’s true self, conquered by visions of Johanna, from his current situation, caught up with Louise, thereby reinforcing the impression of an oddly distracted lover.
The first verse of the song contains all the themes of the rest of the song. The opposition of Dylan’s true and false selves. The opposition of Louise and Johanna – on one level, the dime-a-dozen girl vs the non-existent soul mate; and on another, the earthly vs the pure, the ideal. This last opposition, when inflected by the singer’s evident concern with songwriterly failure, turns into a question of artistic mundanity vs pure creativity. If we see this aspect, we might see the singer’s being entwined with Louise as him being engrossed in writing a mediocre song. These motifs haunt the form and content of the remaining verses, to which we now turn.
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 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
The second verse begins, in its first four lines, with a mysterious story about ladies playing blindman’s buff, all-night girls whispering of escapades, and a troubled nightwatchman trying to figure it all out. I can think of two readings of this story. What does seem to be present is a distinction between females having fun, and males wondering what’s going on. Something’s happening here, but the nightwatchman doesn’t know what it is. We could read Dylan himself as being the night watchman, surveying the night, clicking a metaphorical flashlight of focus onto the empty lot beneath his loft. Indeed, the whole song could be read as a study of the workings of ‘night’ – imagination, sex, temptation, guilt – the theme being introduced in the opening line.
Or we could, I would suggest, read the first four lines as being the mediocre song I mentioned in the last section. On this account, the story becomes an attempt to conceptualise the problem of the singer’s dissatisfaction with Louise, and yet finding the Louise-ness of his own writing a barrier to that process. It’s all right, it’s just near. Art, as Hamlet says, should aim “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature”. But Louise-writing only seems like the mirror. It’s too easy, too concise, too clear...that Johanna’s not here. This deft enjambement (running a phrase over a line-break for effect) serves to highlight not only the central contrast between Louise and Johanna, but one of the expressions of that divide, the form of the song itself. Clarity is equated with falsity, with seeming to be like the mirror of art (Hamlet: “I know not ‘seems’.”); transcendence forbids clarity of form: Johanna must remain a vision.
Louise is prose, Johanna is poetry. The ghost of poetic electricity, the creative spark if you will, haunts the singer as he considers Louise’s face, as he is consumed by visions of Johanna’s perfect beauty. This image is the highlight of the song for me. Just as in Dylan’s later song, Blind Willie McTell, in which a lament on the death of the blues becomes itself a rebirth of the blues, in deploring the lack of poetry in Louise’s face the singer creates poetry, with a line of startling transcendence that whose meaning is clear yet opaque: “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.”
The third verse continues to transform Louise vs Johanna into a question of writing.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
The first line of the verse jumps out at the listener with a clear reference to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. In some ways, this is a problem, because for those who don’t pick up the allusion the line reinforces the impression that they just don’t ‘get’ Dylan. But given our present purpose, to see whether Visions Of Johanna repays close reading, it couldn’t be better. Not only is the allusion rich when examined, but also its sheer presence is self-consciously writerly and thereby underscores the theme of the verse.
There are two Blake poems titled ‘little boy lost’ in the aforementioned collection: the former being The Little Boy Lost and the latter A Little Boy Lost. Both are concerned with the theme of God’s nature: if He transcends everything, then He is little more than a “vapour”; because of this, he is impossible to love without anthropomorphizing; and yet to declare that is to set “reason up for judge of our most holy mystery.” Innocence leads the boy astray in following this vapour; Experience sees him, having learnt from his mistake, questioning the vapour and paying the price. We see the latter in Songs Of Experience:
‘Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.
‘And father, how can I love you,
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.’
The priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair.
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.
And, standing on the altar high,
‘Lo, what a fiend is here!’ said he,
‘One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.’
The weeping child could not be heard;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place,
Where many had been burned before.
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?’
For Blake, transcendence has become not something to be wondered at, but a constraint on wonder. It has become institutionalised. Dylan picks up this theme in the fourth verse of Visions Of Johanna. Here, though, his reference to himself as a ‘little boy lost’ shows him wondering whether the Louise/Johanna question is a Catch-22 situation: to declare, like the little boy in the first two verses of Blake’s poem, that transcendence is impossible to conceive, is to call forth a public hanging from those who have institutionalised transcendence; and yet is transcendence not possible after all? What exactly is the trick the night is playing here?
We witness another attempt by the writer to tell the story he wants to tell:
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
Oh, how can I explain? It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn
This is the story of a doomed relationship, told from Louise’s point of view. If we take “her name” to be Johanna, then my reading gets a foothold. The singer is criticized by Louise for his pretensions, the way he brags of his misery and takes himself so seriously. He says he must leave her, offering a farewell kiss. And then the eloquence descends into the land of the rhyming dictionary, over-written internal rhymes pile up, poetry becomes prose – and Louise has not yet been bidden farewell. As with the previous verse, we are given another example of the writer’s ability to transcend prose only when lamenting his lack of poetic ability. How can I explain? he asks. Explanation is prose; showing is poetry. With his degenerate rhyming, the singer shows that Louise is still there, and in the act of showing he gives us a brief and distracting vision of Johanna.
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
This is the most obscure verse in the song, with its rampant surrealism and dense allusions. Recall our discussion of A Little Boy Lost. Blake criticizes the institutionalisation of transcendence, the institutionalisation of infinity. The boy’s attempt to question infinity, to bring it back down to earth, is a hanging offence. It helps to read this verse in the light of Blake’s poem. Museums, like the Church for Blake, represent institutionalised infinity, an infinity which must now go up on trial in the spirit of the first line’s scepticism: let’s be sure there are no tricks here. We have the voices of orthodoxy echoing around the box of the museum, banalities distorted by the writer’s surreal ear. (Like those art guides who can tell you matter-of-factly that ‘This figure represents everlasting beauty’, before moving on to thenext transcendent masterpiece of the 30 minute tour.) And then the subversion.
A bit of cultural history: Mona Lisa, a beauty without knees, encased and trapped in the palace of the Louvre, was the subject of a debunking act of Dada-ism by the great conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who, in his L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), gave her a moustache and goatee beard. (For Duchamp, infinity really must go up on trial - indeed, the title of his work, when read aloud in French, means ‘she has a hot arse’.) Modern art has been the subject of vicious attack from the Establishment of infinity, and this verse mocks that Establishment with its surreal (nothing too concise or too clear) take on the haute-bourgeosie with their wallflowers and “jelly-faced women”, their “jewels and binoculars”. But if those he mocks are cruel to Mona, to Johanna, by confining her, his attack too is revealed as cruel and petty in comparison with Johanna, unworthy of her.
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
The final verse, whether literally or metaphorically, sees the singer getting into bed with Louise. He is the peddler (of songs and ideas), she is the countess (why, I don’t know). She is appearance, and so her care for him can only be a pretence; his hope turns to disgust, idealism to cynicism, as he tells her cruelly that the only person worth praying for is the one who doesn’t exist. She retorts that he should get real (what the hell is he looking at the opposite loft for?), and demonstrates her own earthly concerns, preparing for his entry.
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
Where is Johanna, the Madonna who would rescue him from earthly degradation? A cascade of seven rhymes is the writer’s last, desperate attempt to wash away prose; we feel him straining with every sinew of writerly (and, indeed, bodily) muscle, trying his damnedest not to give up or in. But the empty cage of song which he has constructed for her has remained unfilled, and now corrodes like the church in R.S. Thomas’s The Empty Church (written later than Dylan’s song):
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?
As with Thomas, Dylan continues with the song because of the hope that its cage will capture her shadow. The ghost of her dramatic presence howls in the bones of that night, of the song itself. The singer himself is now “the fiddler”, revealed as a petty swindler – the tricks of the night have been of his own making. His path is clear. He must pay Louise back for her night-long care, her putting up with his visions. The recompense must be formal: his duty is to complete the song, to consummate the relationship. The fish truck – must I point out the sexual image? – loads; his conscience explodes.
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
The final couplet resolves the matter. Harmonicas play skeleton keys – they go through the motions (nothing really, nothing to turn off; and yet somehow still enough to evoke the ghost of ‘lectricity) – as he accepts the rain, Louise’s fertile embrace. And all that is left of Johanna are visions of Johanna.
A grain of hope though: Infinity is manifest in the search for infinity. Dylan’s song does achieve poetic transcendence, if only in its search for that transcendence. There is a tragic beauty in the forlorn human quest itself. And that is hope enough. We don’t need to deny that we’re stranded to defy it. To quote Blake once more (from Auguries Of Innocence), our aim must be
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Visions Of Johanna, one of the greatest works of art produced in the twentieth century, stands as a monument to that task.