By Tony Attwood.
This article updated June 2017
This is Dylan’s reply to Eliot. Where TS Eliot wrote about watching the women come and go talking of Michaelangelo, and measuring out a life in coffee spoons, so Dylan gives us Mona Lisa with the highway blues.
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” is surely the most atmospheric opening line of any popular song ever written, and it takes us directly into this cold dark world of isolation and dislocation. “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it” – just as Eliot’s characters are, but the causes and cures are different.
As for the characters – who are they? And indeed come to that where are they now, 40 or more years since the song was written?
Louise, Johanna, and Little Boy Lost, three characters in search of a home, a real world, a way of talking to each other, a way of being.
And in that one simple line, “How can I explain?” Dylan speaks for his entire audience of the late 1960s who found themselves disenfranchised from communication with their parents, their university lecturers, their elders and betters, and even, perhaps worst of all, their contemporaries, to whom they could not explain their feelings. Johanna is not here, but the Visions of Johanna are all that remain. Somehow we knew how it should be, but we couldn’t express it properly, save for shouting at our parents, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
And perhaps it is that feeling that caused Dylan to take so many attempts to get the song just right for his approved LP version – which is why it is such a shame that in this version it is clear the bass guitarist in particular had no idea about the curious construction of the song, with its additional lines in the last verse adding to the sense of futility and frustration, for instead of building he simply screws it up and plays the wrong notes. I’ve had times in my life when that error makes the recording near impossible to listen to. Which is a shame because it is one of, it not the completely most favourite song of mine ever. Save perhaps for “Tell Ol Bill” which also gives us a world of atmosphere and ideas. “The river whispers in my ear” as opposed to “Ain’t it just like the night…”
But back to those extra lines; they were seemingly added later in the recording process and subtle changes were made as time went by. And we gain this song in which Dylan is writing about people who can’t express themselves, who don’t understand their own emotions and feelings, who are lost, existing in a mist, in a set of visions… Surely one of the hardest concepts to write about.
It is one of the earliest “paintings” of Dylan, a set of lines that give us an atmospheric insight into these people’s worlds, as visual artists had been doing for centuries before. We don’t have to know what the visions are, or who is saying what or thinking what to whom. We just have to accept the totality of the picture.
But if we want to translate the music into something we can write about where better to start than with the end. “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain.” What an image is this? The wail of the harmonica as the sounds that open any door when you are just standing there desperate to get out of this environment into any other environment.
And then perhaps we can move back to the very start. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?” And as I have said for years in talking to my students and indeed anyone else who doesn’t get up and wander off because “he’s going to lecture us on Dylan again”, “just how much atmosphere do you want in a song?”
Andy Gill is quoted in the Wiki article on the song as suggesting it is the enigmatic quality of the song that is responsible for its popularity—’forever teetering on the brink of lucidity, yet remaining impervious to strict decipherment”. And that sounds right to me. In 1999, Sir Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, nominated Visions as the greatest song lyric ever written. And I’ll go with that too.
I think there is also the point that here we have one of the earliest songs in which Dylan forgets about any of the normal sequences of events. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter what is happening, nor at which time it is happening. These things exist beyond any concept of time. It is a notion Bob continued to play with through his writing career, including such masterpieces as Tangled up in Blue, which deals with the issue in such a different way.
For me, what we have in Visions is walking back from the night club in the early hours of the morning, past the debris of the night before, knowing one has to be careful because there are some very nasty people out there, but still fascinated by seeing the city without the hustle and bustle of everyday life. You walk, you look, you wonder who on earth these odd characters are, and what they are doing here, and then remember some of them might be looking at you, wondering exactly the same.
And I remembered when I fist wrote this review, one of the first reviews on this web site which has now grown so large a situation perhaps five years before, walking from the Angel, Islington, in London, my home city, to St Pancras Station at maybe 2.30am, the last train home long since gone, completely entranced by a scene that I don’t normally get anywhere near, with Visions of Johanna floating through my mind. It was a spooky occasion to say the least.
And I think of that now, and my dear friend Kati, who I spent that evening with, who sadly passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, and my sadness remembering that, becomes entangled with my thoughts of the mists surrounding that song. Somehow, now, Dylan is singing to me about the loss of a highly inspirational lady, even though the words are still about Louise and Johanna. It is that sort of a song.
And yet all of these images are hung on three chords and such a simple tune. How does he manage that? After all these years I still don’t know.
But ultimately, it is always the fact that Dylan expresses in words the feelings that the people in the story can’t express in words that makes it so wonderful. As to the two women in the song – now presumably in their sixties – what are they up to? Did they have children? Did they stay in touch? Did they become film stars or just fade away.
And little boy lost, what of him? Where are the Visions of Louise? It is these questions that, I think keeps bringing us back to Visions over and over and over again. And probably will do for a long time yet.
And now try this – the remarkable reworking of the song by Dylan on stage.
Please also see the Old Crow Medicine Show version reviewed – I think you might enjoy that.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.