On Valentine’s Day 1966 in Nashville, TN, Bob Dylan was finally able to record a version of the song “Visions of Johanna” to his liking:
He had debuted the song in concert the previous October in Baltimore and had struggled with various arrangements and instrumentation during a recording session in November 1965 in New York City. On the first day recording in Nashville, Dylan was able to find the sound that he was seeking. “Visions of Johanna” must have been special to him, and he sought the ideal presentation of the song that was in his mind. The subtle drumming of Kenny Buttrey and Joe South’s throbbing bass provide momentum to the song with Robbie Robertson inserting lead guitar fills all backed by a you-will-be-haunted-by-three-spirits organ by Al Kooper. The musical accompaniment works on multiple levels as there is a full band sound with a propulsion while still evoking a sense of only-the-smallest-of-movements quiet; a paradoxical goal, yet achieved. It’s as if the group of musicians set a course for a craft using every navigational instrument available while still traveling in complete obscurity as to the destination.
The lyrical content of “Visions of Johanna” matches the complexity and multiplicity of the instrumentation. The first verse of the song is a gorgeous bit of writing which places the listener into a specific time and situation. The first line — “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” — asks a mind-bending rhetorical question, expecting no answer from a seemingly offhand understanding of Dylan’s personification of “the night” as a trickster character. The first verse continues:
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft.
There is a specificity in these lines, providing the listener with both visuals and sounds to create an atmosphere. The setting is one laden with passion and intimacy as Dylan continues by singing “Just Louise and her lover so entwined.” Dylan puts us in the room with them. As the song progresses, the point of view shifts to other scenes as in the second verse: “And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the ‘D’ train.” Dylan wants us to know that the whispering of those all-night girls are happening at the same time as the lovers are entwining in their own room. The next line is “We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight / Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane.” The flashlight clicks are another one of the sounds heard by the lovers in the room.
Dylan shifts focus to another scene in the next verse:
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.
These lines are less specifically tied to the entwined lovers in their room, but it is a portrait of a specific person, a damning one at that. Nothing is as quietly devastating as Dylan characterizing someone as a “little boy lost” who “takes himself so seriously.” This guy’s boastful nature, especially as one who can’t help but brag about a farewell kiss, brings to mind a specific character type. Though Dylan may have been thinking of a specific individual, these are universal traits. We all know someone like this gall-filled lost boy and Dylan is surgical in his disembowelment of the figure.
After this verse, Dylan moves us away from intimate portrayals, no longer taking his time to point out certain sounds and objects in a room. The images he shares come faster and faster, one on top of another. The quiet, intimate scenes have been replaced by flashes, the pace quickening as if master editor Thelma Schoonmaker has taken control of the movie that is “Visions of Johanna.” Though the tempo of the song has not changed, the rhythm of the imagery has shifted, matching the frenetic aspects of Goodfellas, Casino, or The Wolf of Wall Street. Dylan sings, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.” As the listener attempts to understand this law of permanence that Dylan is positing, in which he equates the infinite and redemption with the fundamental purpose of an institution like a museum, he’s onto something else. The next lines are:
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.
The lines connect to the previous idea of permanence as Mona Lisa’s famous smile will always be there, frozen in place by da Vinci, on display in a museum where Dylan has said the infinite sits waiting to be judged. But what are the “highway blues”? Perhaps the answer lies with the 1955 song “All Around the World” by Little Willie John:
Little Willie John certainly has the highway blues because he sings:
All around the world I got blisters on my feet
Tryin’ to find my baby n’ bring her home with me.
He is trying to prove his devotion to this woman in the chorus of the song:
‘Cause you know I love you, baby
Well, you know I love you, baby
Well, if I don’t love you, baby
Grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry
And Mona Lisa was a man.
For Little Willie John, the loyalty he has for his baby is clear and if one even doubts that commitment, then the inverse of everything we know is true would actually be true. Dylan seems to be taking the central image of the list of absolutes and connecting it to self-punishment that Little Willie John feels is necessary for love. The highway blues are a kind of hairshirt as expressed by Little Willie John. Mona Lisa smiles and knows only too well about the cost of the commitment of love.
As we get further and further from the intimate setting of the first verse of “Visions of Johanna,” there is an overflow of flashing scenes, a cascade of imagery:
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.
All of the narrator’s moral sense has broken apart trying to consider thought after thought. His viewpoint has expanded outward from the single scene of the opening verse to trying to make sense of the entire world and it’s too much for him.
Who is this narrator? Moving back to the first verse, Dylan sings, “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” There’s a sense of a group of people in a larger situation, though a few lines later Dylan shares:
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.
Is the narrator who contends with the “visions of Johanna” the same individual who is entwined with Louise? Perhaps the narrator is describing his love affair with Louise and how he is still hung up on Johanna; the memories of his past love are haunting his present relationship. Or, it could be that Dylan is presenting a different kind of love triangle. The narrator is not entwined with Louise, but rather he is thinking about Louise and her new lover. The unwelcome thoughts of their coupling forces him to think about Johanna.
In either scenario, there is a love triangle portrayed within “Visions of Johanna.” The song was most likely composed by Dylan in fall 1965. Curiously, love triangles emerge in other songs written by Dylan in this same period. Two months after attempting to record “Visions of Johanna” in November 1965, Dylan would enter into the studio and endeavor to record both “She’s Your Lover Now” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later). Both songs, as written about on Recliner Notes here and here, also involve love triangles. There has been plenty of speculation about Dylan’s personal life and its impact on the songs written during this specific time period. Is Louise actually Sara Dylan and Johanna supposed to be Joan Baez? Clinton Heylin has theorized that the composition of “Visions of Johanna” depicts the flashes and sounds at the Chelsea Hotel in New York where Dylan and Sara were living at the time. Ten years later in the song “Sara” when Dylan sings, “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you,” he should have instead named “Visions of Johanna” since it’s been documented that Dylan actually wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in Nashville, not the Chelsea Hotel. Maybe the rhythm of the latter’s title worked better for the meter of “Sara.”
A case for a biographical interpretation of “Visions of Johanna” is certainly viable, but Dylan seems most interested in illustrating the visions in his head in a certain moment, from the minute to the universal. In attempting to do so, Dylan conveys the impossibility of that burden. He sings:
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.
The first line — “how can I explain?” — is a common plea of the poet, lyricist, and writer. Are these words enough? The opening lines of W.B. Yeats’ masterpiece “The Song of Wandering Aengus” are often thought of as portraying a lover’s obsession: “I went out to the hazel wood / Because a fire was in my head.” It could also be interpreted as reflecting the madness of a writer’s inability to find the correct words. Similarly in “Visions of Johanna,” the line, “they kept me up past the dawn,” could indicate Dylan’s frustration with the composition of the song itself.
This struggle can be seen in the last verse when Dylan sings: “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain.” It’s a beautiful piece of writing, among Dylan’s most evocative and lyrical lines, and they seem to comment on the act of composition as well. “The harmonicas play” works as a reference to Dylan’s own vocation as a performer. This is immediately followed with “skeleton key,” a type of master key which can be used to open multiple locks. In the song, Dylan says “skeleton keys,” offering an exponential ability to unlock whatever it is that is secured. Lastly, the “rain” reference has always seemed to reflect the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms which reads: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” There’s a deep sadness in Hemingway’s words and Dylan’s line too has a similar sense of loss. There’s also a universality to rain; it falls on everyone eventually. So Dylan’s line — “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain” — touches on his role as a performer, singing these lines of verse that he has composed that have the ability to unlock an infinite number of secrets while still draped in a common and pervading feeling of regret and grief. Dylan then closes out this notion with the last line of the song: “And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” It is Dylan’s acceptance that, despite the impossibility of achieving a complete understanding of the universe and the infinite, these words, these lines, these visions, will have to be enough. It is all he is able to offer.
After recording “Visions of Johanna” in the studio and releasing it on Blonde on Blonde, Dylan performed the song during the acoustic sets during the madness of his 1966 world tour with The Hawks. A remarkable performance of the song was included on the Biograph box set from May 26, 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall in London:
While the studio recording of the song balanced darkness and light and merged quiet with a roar, the live performance is its own singular document of genius. It recalls a passage written by Dylan’s old friend and poet running mate Allen Ginsberg in his liner notes for Dylan’s 1976 album Desire:
“Song became conscious poetry. the best you can say in total rhythm. allowing for mother’s radiotalk. allowing for the singer to open his whole body for Inspiration to breathe out a long mad vowel to nail down the word into everyone’s heart – That’s where you get the funny syncopation – waiting to pronounce the line just right as the music marches by. free. hopeless. jumping in and out the fatal chords.”
Dylan’s work in the mid-Sixties, embodied in the live performance of “Visions of Johanna,” is an example of him opening “his whole body for inspiration.” Additionally, in the last verse of the song, Dylan changes the rhythm of his acoustic guitar playing slightly, emphasizing the adjustment to the meter of those lines. It reflects Ginsberg’s notion of “funny syncopation.”
Ginsberg would later expand on the idea of Dylan’s body and breath united in a single moment in this lecture:
“I was asking [Dylan] what his aesthetic was and he said that he thought that the ultimate effect of art was to… no that every artist wants to stop time – that he wants to stop time – and every artist wants to stop time. And I wasn’t quite sure what he meant actually, except that my experience of Dylan stopping time was hitting a note that was so long and so deep and so soulful melancholy-emotionally, in which you could see he was putting all of his being into one single breath that was coming out of him, so he was identical – he and his whole body were identical with his breath, so there was nothing outside of that note, and nothing outside of that long breath note song word, that everything, everything in his brain and body was collected into that one..one column of air coming out of him and the vibration of the sound. So all of his being and all of his intensity, all of his.. everything, you know, from his toes to his guts to his asshole to his mouth, was all one column of air coming out, with the feeling, whatever was involved, and all of his thoughts – so that he wasn’t singing that and thinking about something else.”
This beautiful conceit by Ginsberg, Dylan as a single “column of air,” is represented in the Royal Albert Hall performance of “Visions of Johanna.” Dylan is indeed stopping time when performing the song, but at the same instant, he is traveling through time and inverting time with the audience. Dylan as a man, as a body, has become the “column of air” by living out the words of the song that he is singing. This can be seen most in the line, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” In the studio recording, it’s a haunting and even horrific image, but defies interpretation and understanding. But listening to Dylan’s performance on May 26, 1966, the words begin to make sense within the framework of Ginsberg’s description of Dylan’s power. That line vibrates through him, the multiple sounds and syllables take shape and unify, so that Dylan himself is actualizing the howling of the ghost of electricity through his own bones and breath and being. In that moment, he has become “one column of air,” a living manifestation of the words he himself has composed.
Image: Arshile Gorky, Between 1934 and 1935, Head, Oil on canvas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.