Visions of Johanna: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood.


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 cocks 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.

Those extra lines 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 at which time.  These things exist beyond any concept of time.   It is a notion he 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 remember perhaps five years ago, walking from the Angel, Islington, to St Pancras Station in north London 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 yet all of these images are hung on three chords and such a simple tune.

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.


Index to all the songs on this site

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5 Responses to Visions of Johanna: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Phil Jacobs says:

    Hi Tony,

    Love the blog.

    I’ve always seen Visions of Johanna as a very simple song. I can’t understand why people think it’s so mysterious !

    Dylan plays the part of a singer on the road missing his wife.

    Verses 1 & 2 are set in a brothel. Dylan is with a prostitute (Louise). Dylan is missing his wife (Johanna) and trying to seek solace with Louise. These verses are straight forward descriptions of what Dylan sees and feels in the room, heat pipes, radio, all night girls outside etc. Ultimately Louise is nice but she’s not his wife.

    Verse 3. Dylan thinks about himself (Little Boy Lost) as the ‘serious’ artist on tour. Little Boy Lost reminds the narrator that Johanna kissed him goodbye when he set off on tour.

    Verse 4. Bob wonders if it’s all worth it. (infinity goes up on trial). The narrator is fully aware of how important the art he’s creating is. It’s for all time. (museums). This is why the artist is away from his love. He ponders museum pieces.

    Verse 5. Louise’s pimp turns up. Bob pays and leaves. (Everything’s returned which was owed). All the characters in this song are really specific. ‘The peddlar’ is the pimp. ‘The fiddler’ is the client (Bob). As he leaves he thinks again of Johanna and feels a pang of guilt. (My conscience explodes).

    Sometimes Bob is obscure and sometimes he’s clear but I’ve always felt this song is one of the clear ones.

  2. Kevin MacLean says:

    I have the sense that this song was strongly influenced by the psychedelic experience. The sense of isolation from “normal” reality, the existential angst and eerily vivid imagery all lead me to this view. Johanna is the ideal (of a more authentic existence) that might be perceived from this or some other “egoless” perspective, yet can not be maintained or possessed permanently. Louise is normalcy: familiar and near but banal. Little Boy Lost is Dylan’s psychedelicized view of the self-important but ultimately trivial and inconsequential “poet” “spokesman” etc. who mutters small talk at the wall while the real artist is stuck out in the hall, hoping Little Boy will either allow him into the room or step out into the outdoors with him.
    Deconstructive or any other) commentary welcome.

  3. Terry says:

    Way back in the 70s I was at college with a guy who was a great fan of Dylan and the poetical side of his songs. My friend always said that ‘Johanna’ was a reference to ‘Gehenna’. Dylan, originally a Jew, would have had a good knowledge of the poetical implications of referring, obliquely, to Gehenna.

  4. Dave says:

    There is much in common between the song and T.S.Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’.
    In the latter the narrator is walking home at midnight when he sees various things in a distorted, but apparently insightful, way either due to the light from a street-lamp, or the moon. He sees a woman, perhaps a prostitute, who is poor and ageing, ‘the border of her dress … torn and stained with sand’. The unsightliness of her eye reminds him of a dead branch, ‘as if the world gave up the secret of its skeleton’, and a rusty, useless spring . The behaviour of a cat reminds him of the equally mindless, automatic behaviour of a child. The moon, already described as feeble, morphs into a another , or perhaps the same, lonely woman – ‘A washed-out smallpox cracks her face’ – with unpleasant memories of a seedy existence. There appears to be hope, though, despite the world’s appearing so devoid of hope. The smells which beset the woman ‘cross and cross across her brain’ so that we are reminded of Christ’s crucifiction between two thieves. The narrator has to ‘mount’ his stairs, again reminding us of Calvary, and also perhaps the Sermon on the Mount. There is a suggestion, then, of death leading to eternal life. But immediately all hope disappears for this is no more than ‘The last twist of the knife’.
    Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ night-time is the setting for ‘Visions of Johanna’, and here too the light produces distortions which cause the world to be viewed in an insightful way. The narrator experiences certain visions and these seem to be of a world which is empty, miserable and without decent prospects. The emptiness is also represented by a radio programme so devoid of value that it’s not even worth switching off. The girl Louise, previously presented as a happy lover, is now represented as bones inhabited by an unhappy spirit – reminding us of Eliot’s skeletal imagery used to present a world whose secret is that it is dead. Outside things appear to be no better. In a lot described as ’empty’, ‘ladies’ resort to playing a mere children’s game, and prostitutes try to escape their miserable reality by indulging in escapist fantasy. To the night-watchman the world appears pointless – mad.
    The lack of hope for the future is represented by the museums which are empty (‘voices echo)’ – presumably vast halls containing only long-dead things. The narrator sees no hope in heaven as an escape from this world’s emptiness because heaven (‘salvation’) will be no better than a museum, a vast hall for dead people. Like a museum, existence in heaven will eventually just seem tedious. Hope for the future on earth is equally missing. Even the Mona Lisa seems to the narrator to represent the misery of our existence. And an unsophisticated young girl, the ‘primitive wallflower’, freezes – presumably in horror – when the appearance of the jelly-faced women makes her realise what the future has in store for her (like mirrors reflecting her future, in the way Louise seems to be a mirror for the narrator).
    If Johanna is taken to represent the world as it is – reality – then the visions of Johanna are the world as it now appears to the narrator. It would seem it is the visions, rather perhaps than the reality itself, which are impressing themselves on the narrator because we are told ‘Johanna’s not here’. The suggestion could be that the visions are, at least in part, a false representation of reality – literally a result of a trick of the light. In fact the narrator’s outlook is unduly pessimistic . We’re told ‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / you can tell by the way she smiles’. One thing that’s usually said about the Mona Lisa is that the smile is ambiguous – it’s not obviously happy or sad. Yet the narrator sees only a representation of sadness.
    It’s not just the narrator who opts for seeing the world in a negative way. So too does the listener. We’re told that the ‘primitive wallflower’ freezes, but it’s the reader rather than the narrator who decides that it’s because she too, like Mona Lisa, has the ‘highway blues’ – meaning a miserable journey through life. Part of the songwriter’s skill is to force our decisions.
    Louise crops up in a number of places and is presented in various ways. Overall she can be taken to represent good sense, love, understanding and kindness. For the first of these she is a source of sensible encouragement to the narrator to refuse to resort to (‘defy’) drugs (‘a handful of rain’) as a means of overcoming the horror of being ‘stranded’ – unable to escape our lot. Then she’s a lover, then the narrator himself (‘she seems like the mirror’), perhaps in that that he recognises his lot in hers. Later she shows understanding when she criticises the cynical peddler – the drug supplier, representing a false escape from reality. And she represents generosity in that she ‘prepares’ for him, rather than indulging in a pretence of care like the countess. Only when she forms one of the narrator’s possibly misleading visions is she presented in a negative way (‘bones’, ‘ghost’, ‘howling’) – a way which perhaps, in keeping with the visions generally, does not represent reality at least at its worst.
    Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ there’s a suggestion of hope, so too there may be some hope here. The Mona Lisa’s smile might just as well represent contentment as the ‘highway blues’. The ‘little boy lost’ not only ‘brags’ of his misery, suggesting it might not really be genuine misery, but will (according to Blake from whom the phrase ‘little boy lost’ is taken) be a ‘little boy found’ – by God. Madonna, if taken as a representation of Christ rather than Mary, can also be taken to represent hope. Her cape which once ‘flowed’ is Christ’s blood which once flowed to save the world. Christ’s second coming is still awaited despite his (Madonna’s) not having yet ‘showed’. As in ‘Rhapsody’, hope is not the final suggestion, however. The emptiness of existence, a world which self-destructively ‘corrodes’, continues. And the fact that Christ’s blood ‘once flowed’ suggests that it isn’t doing so any more. And not having ‘showed’ might suggest not going to show.
    Equally open to contradictory interpretation is the fiddler’s ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’. This may refer to Christ’s successful redemption of the world, but equally could be presumption on the part of the fiddler. The suggestion, then, is that our debt has to be paid by us as well as Christ, and our part is still to be paid. Since the fish is an emblem of Christianity, Christ being a fisher of men, the fish in the fish truck too could be taken to be Christians on the road to their just reward, their debt to God having been paid by Christ. Equally, though, since the fish in a truck are likely to be dead, they could be seen as representing the pointlessness of existence.
    It’s curious that when the fiddler writes on the fish truck that ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’ the narrator’s conscience explodes. It would seem that either the narrator is the fiddler, or is someone who at least sees himself reflected in the fiddler. And that in turn suggests that the narrator’s conscience is rebelling against his presumption. In the end he doesn’t accept it because his negative visions are ‘all that remain’. Like ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ the song ends on a pessimistic note.

  5. Bruce says:

    Johanna is death; Louise is reality; “The one with the moustache” is Salvador Dali. The song is about hopelessness. Even lovers of art will not find “salvation.”

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