Visions of Johanna
Visions of Johanna
by Russell Blatcher
Ever since I first heard Visions of Johanna I have been both exhilarated and puzzled by it. Each time I listened I was convinced of its clarity. Each time I read the lyrics, I was confounded by their apparent opacity. I have at times resolved this conflict by convincing myself that we are not meant to study song lyrics. But in the end I had to understand better how the alchemy worked. It is not just the result of the instrumental arrangement or of the way Dylan sings. The lyrics seem opaque because of the apparently random introduction of names, locations and events. The unusual techniques employed need a special approach. I do not wish to be prescriptive in the analysis that follows, but simply to increase my understanding of the song.
Visions of Johanna explores the various forms of salvation possible by transcending the apparent limits of physical existence. These take several fairly well know forms:
1) Pleasures of the flesh
2) The beauties of the natural world and art or music
2) Human love
3) Religious faith
A prominent feature of the song is the use of focus. As so often in Dylan's lyrics the use of personal pronouns is crucial. Here they form part of his control of the focus. For example, 'Little boy lost' in the third verse is clearly the same person sitting in the loft in the first verse who is only linked to the narrator by the delicately placed single use of 'my' in the last line. The change in focus reflects the singer or narrator's disgust at his own state of mind.
The song opens with a specific character in a room who is in mourning for his lost love, Louise. Initially we assume he is the narrator. The sense of place ('this room') is greatest in this verse but dissolves later. The movement through the themes of the song matches the movement in place and point of view. There is also a movement away from conventional song-lyric form. The starting point is lost romantic love. Dylan paints this lightly because it is such an archetype of popular song themes and needs no emphasis. He moves on to other possible forms of salvation: sexual love or physical beauty, and then artistic beauty. Finally all that is left is a transcendent reality beyond our normal perceptions. The final verse strips away all the forms of everyday life to see what remains.
Johanna is neither a girl nor any kind of character in the narrative (Footnotes 1 & 2). Verse by verse the visions embody the possible forms of salvation. At the end only faith in some other form of reality is left. Dylan concludes that without this life is unbearable.
The control of the focus of the song through variation in syntax and vocabulary is masterful. By disrupting the narrative strands, Dylan narrows the listener’s focus to particular words or phrases. Many of these are so rich in allusion as to create tangible universes (a good example is ‘the heat pipes just cough’). These are the means by which the magical transformation of the song takes place. It is also why its lyrics appear to defeat conventional analysis. They seem too wild to hang together, even though the experience of listening to the song strongly suggests that they must.
The narrative is not delivered from a single point of view. The scattering and range of personal pronouns alone can tell us this. Careful analysis of their use reveals where the point of view shifts. Mixed into this are the names, Louise and Johanna, and the characters who are simply described: 'her lover', 'the ladies', 'the all-night girls', 'the night watchman', 'little boy lost', 'the jelly faced women', 'the one with the mustache', 'The peddler', 'the countess', 'Madonna', 'The fiddler'.
Here is an overview of the personal pronouns:
There are only two 'living' characters in the song: the pair of recently separated lovers. She has left him. He is a lonely insomniac, possibly suicidal. He is plagued by unbidden imagined tableaux of his recently ended amour, along with assorted views of life, which for him is now drained of all meaning:
Ain't it just like the night to
play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
'The night' is not just the nighttime; it also represents the night of death, which follows the day of life. 'Deny it' and 'defy it' are linked, both by the half rhyme and by their position at the end of the lines. Both refer back to 'the night' and hence to death. We deny the existence of death, essentially by ignoring it as long as we can (Footnote 4, second part), even though we are all stranded in the reality which death circumscribes. One way to defy death is through love, which is the 'handful of rain' which Louise has falsely offered. This is sometimes seen as a drug metaphor, but there is no justification for this in the text.
The descriptions in the third, fourth and fifth lines emphasize limited or intermittent forms of communication: the lights flicker, the pipes cough, the radio drifts in and out. Reality itself seems in danger of blinking out like a candle. The trick played by the night is to make fantasies seem more real than reality, just like the fantasy he had of a life with Louise. The couple making love exists only in the narrator's imagination, and it is unclear whether he sees himself or someone else with Louise. He is alone with his thoughts, which for the moment he cannot wrench away from reveries of joyless sex, split apart from the love which can give it meaning.
This focus on empty relationships and sex continues through the second verse:
In the empty lot where the ladies
play blindman's bluff with the key chain
The ladies and all-night girls are engaged in the endless nighttime mating rituals of urban society. ‘Blindman's bluff’ represents the mutual ignorance of many couples as they pursue 'the key chain', a home together. Couples neck on the ‘D train’, or are caught in the watchman's torchlight making out in some desperately inhospitable corner. Louise, whom he once thought of as his salvation and escape from all that has now rejected him: 'Johanna's not here', i.e. not in Louise. Her face which was once alive with his love, and all he imagined it could mean, now holds only the ghost of that lost electricity, the mask stripped away to reveal the cold sexual bones beneath. This refers forward to the images of physically stripped bodies and dispelled illusions in the final verse. Where he once saw himself reflected in her eyes, a symbol of their connection, he now sees the lost hope of happiness that Johanna represents.
In this verse Dylan determinedly uses a four line rhyme (near/mirror/clear/here) as he did in verse one (loft/cough/soft/off) even though he has to severely bend the pronunciation of 'mirror' to make it fit (Footnote 3). This reinforces the stalled quality of the first 2 verses, after which this scheme is dropped for one verse. The short harmonica breaks also seem to almost stop the song completely. In fact the laboured quality of the half rhyme, and the occasional lines rushed to fit the metre (now a Dylan trademark) make this sense of limbo even more pronounced.
The escape from this mood is found through anger, which erupts in the third verse:
boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
As the singer steps away and looks at himself, sentimental and obsessed, he is seized by disgust. This is the first verse where Louise is not mentioned by name, because he knows he has already done that too often ('bringing her name up'). First person pronouns appear more than in any other verse because it is his obsession with his own situation that has trapped him. In the fifth and sixth lines anger is shown through the sounds of the consonants (got a lotta gall) and the repeated 'all' rhymes. The phrase 'while I'm in the hall' depicts his alienation from his own life, looking in on it from outside. This is why he feels 'stranded' and cannot 'get on' with life. All he gains from contemplating his lost salvation is a sleepless night.
Next, he tries to escape this despair by tearing his attention away from himself to the world of Art:
museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Here is the only explicit reference to the subject of the song, salvation. But the phrase 'this is what salvation must be like after a while' implies only disappointment. Art should transcend the mundane and reveal divinity. This is why 'Infinity' is 'on trial' wherever the works of artists are displayed or performed. But the coldness of the museums and concert halls infects the art. All that is revealed is indifference to both humanity and divinity. With neither human warmth nor divine spark, such 'art' is only a parade of grotesque caricatures watched by 'jelly faced women', and surreal cartoons of ridiculous and pointless embellishment. The mention of museums and the examples he chooses imply that this criticism is specifically of High or Classical forms of art (Ballet, Opera and Fine Art). In fact the phrase 'musta had the highway blues', referring to the Mona Lisa is a parody juxtaposition of a folk form (blues lyrics) with the best known example of fine art. 'Jewels' remind us how the audience for the so-called high art forms is restricted to the very rich. 'Binoculars' suggest that their observations are sterile and distanced. The mule these hang on perfectly represents that type of audience. If art becomes a frozen social ritual, it's potential to transcend normal perceptions is lost. This loss, compared to the potential for that transcendence which he sees in his Visions of Johanna is what 'seems so cruel' in the final line.
When the extended rhymes return in the fourth and fifth verses they flow more easily, even extending from four to seven lines in the final verse (showed/corrode/flowed/road/owed/loads/explodes). This produces a sense of acceleration as the dissolving focus of the song races towards the final apocalypse:
now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him
The first couplet summarizes the economic divisions endemic in society. The peddler and the countess represent two extremes of affluence. The peddler denounces the fake compassion of the countesses of this world (Footnote 4).
Next we are reminded again of Louise' contempt for her lovers. The line 'As she, herself prepares for him' suggests she is coldly preparing for intercourse. The lover's remembrances of their lovemaking have been degraded by her subsequent betrayal. 'Madonna' the perfect wife for him and mother for his children cannot be found.
As the song concludes, the physical world is stripped away. 'This empty cage' is our body, which imprisons us. So we must watch the gruesome spectacle of our own putrefaction. 'Cape of the stage' is also a metaphor for the physical body, the part or character we assume for life, and must abandon. I see the fiddler as a musician in a funeral march in the streets of New Orleans. The phrase 'Ev'rything's been returned which was owed' mirrors a line in the funeral oration: 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust', meaning that in death we give up our physical bodies and return them to the earth. 'The fish truck that loads' then is the hearse, with fish again echoing the rotting motif. The word 'conscience' is expanded to encompass consciousness. Those without the ‘visions’ must assume our consciousness 'explodes' into nothingness at the moment of death. The seven lines linked by the persistent rhyme scheme mentioned above are involved in the description of bodily and spiritual collapse. The vocal delivery is accelerated throughout, until by the last he seems almost breathless (appropriately enough).
In the closing couplet the funeral procession marches on in the rain, music still playing. It is no accident that music should be involved in Bob Dylan's concept of salvation. For all the stillness and sparseness of the instrumental arrangement of the Blonde On Blonde recording, the closing bars always leave a sense of exultation. The ability of artists like Dylan to construct such masterpieces and our ability to hear them are a key feature of humanity’s salvation and ultimate triumph over death. The last line then represents not despair, but triumph that we are capable of glimpsing those transcendent realities.
Footnote 1: Why Johanna?
If you try a Google Advanced Search for "Johanna", but with "Visions Of" excluded, you may, like me be surprised at the result. First there is the large number of hits. Many of these are the Home Pages of girls named Johanna, written in the languages of Northern Europe. Clearly Johanna is in fact a very common name, although I have never once come across it in the UK. Those who pounced upon the name of Van Gogh's sister-in-law as a great discovery were perhaps unaware of this.
There is a web-site devoted to the etymological derivation of names called Behindthename.com. It's entry for Johanna is
f German, Scandinavian, Dutch
Follow the link to John and the entry is
JOHN m English, Biblical English form of Johannes, which was the Latin form of the Greek name Ioannes, itself derived from the Hebrew name Yochanan meaning "YAHWEH is gracious"...
What else is salvation but the grace of God (Yahweh)? As a Jew, educated in the scriptures, Dylan would have been aware (unlike me) of the etymology of the name.
Some commentators have stated that Johanna is a transliteration of Gehenna, which is often believed to mean hell. In fact Gehenna, has no such meaning, as explained in the web-site of the "Concordant Publishing Concern (a nondenominational, nonprofit association founded in 1909 for the purpose of disseminating the facts and truths of the ancient manuscripts of the Scriptures)": In the Scriptures, however, “Gehenna” (“hell,” AV)—all incredible myths to the contrary notwithstanding—does not speak of “the place of the eternal torments of the damned.” Instead, it refers to an actual place on earth, namely, the valley (or “ravine”) of Hinnom (Neh.11: 30) in the land of Israel.
To equate Johanna either with hell, or with this loathsome ravine (where fires perpetually burned and the bodies of executed criminals were cast) is to turn the meaning of this song completely on its head, replacing salvation with damnation. With the evidence of the text of the song itself, and of the etymology of Johanna, this theory can be safely discarded.
Footnote 2: Biographical Inventions
After completing the main body of this article I searched the rec.music.dylan archives for commentary on Visions of Johanna.
One approach I found there is worth refuting specifically. There is an assumption that Dylan regards his songs as vehicles for autobiography. While elements of his life experience will clearly arise in the songs from time to time, they are not the purpose for which the songs are created. The only clear exception to this is Ballad in Plain D, which Dylan has since repudiated as a crass error. The most prominent feature of that song is its clarity. The events are described in a straightforward literal manner, with no symbols, no altered names. Why, in other songs, would Dylan want to describe scenes from his life in some cryptic sign language?
To propose, for example, that Vision of Johanna is about Joan Baez seems perverse. The only evidence for this seems to be that the first 2 letters of the names match, together with some speculative remarks Miss Baez made to Anthony Scaduto.
The song that most Dylan enthusiasts regard as his greatest must be a serious statement about a serious matter. It cannot possibly be a coded tribute to an abandoned lover.
Footnote 3: mirror, veneer, Vermeer?
I commented on the strange pronunciation of mirror above. This is another cause celebre in the Dylan community.
I don’t believe that Dylan is a great fan of the publishing of lyrics, for the very reason that he often conflates many words into the space of one. Songs are fundamentally heard not read. In the context of the verse concerned, it is particularly appropriate to match the associations available from Louise as mirror versus Louise as veneer.
I also suspect that ‘freeze’ in the fourth verse could just as easily be ‘frieze’. Dylan’s use of language (as heard rather than written) is so elastic that again the ambiguity is a bonus.
Footnote 4: Horace Judson Interview 9th May 1965
According to Clinton Heylin’s A Life In Stolen Moments the first attempt to record Visions Of Johanna took place on November 30th 1965. Some 6 months earlier Dylan had launched the verbal assault on journalist Horace Judson, featured in Don't Look Back. There are a couple sections with strong associations with themes he was to develop in the song:
is 'really the truth'? [Picking up Dylan's phrase from his attack
This is Dylan's usual picture of societal divisions, a snapshot of Capitalist morals. He presents the same juxtaposition at the start of the last verse of the song:
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"
A little later, as the two joust about their respective jobs, Dylan reveals a crucial element of his philosophy at that time:
Each of us really knows nothing, well we all think we know, but we really know nothing. I'm saying that you're goin’ to die, you're going to go off the earth, man, it could be 20 years, it could be tomorrow, anytime, so am I, I'm just going to be gone, the world's going to go on without us. All right, now you can do your job in the face of that, and how seriously you take yourself, you decide for yourself, I'll decide for myself.
This disdain for normal modes of knowing and perception fits perfectly with the agenda he is following in Visions of Johanna, where transcendent knowledge or faith is placed above all forms of objective reality.
Dylan shows here just how seriously he takes his work, measuring himself constantly against the everyday prospect of death, which is for him, a mighty stimulus to honesty and determination.
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