Dylan’s songs of abstraction: all those visions

by Tony Attwood

One of my earliest ventures into Bob Dylan as a songwriter whose songs didn’t always make sense came with the article “Lo and behold”: but what does it all mean? 

Since then I’ve written two more parts to this thesis…

And all the while I have been trying to think of a phrase that might represent a type of Dylan song that doesn’t have a concrete meaning, but which has a feeling.

Of course, many such songs are then turned into songs of meaning by writers who appear to feel that all (or at least most) Dylan lyrics must have a meaning – especially those writers who want to find a specific message in Dylan that seems to suit their own version of the meaning of life.

But although that is a popular vision, I would contend it is not one that always fits what Dylan writes.  Consider:

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

Yep by and large that is pretty clear.  Sit in an dark, empty room and you hear things and maybe see things that are not there.  Did that curtain twitch?  What was that creak on the stairs?    Try to get to sleep and you’ll be amazed how many people pass by outside (or in the case of a house like mine, where very few people pass by, how loud those owls can be at times).

But then…

Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it.

Now of course all this can be explained.   Here’s one explanation taken at random...

“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.”

In taking this example, I am not trying to make fun of it, or suggest it is wrong, or that I know any better, but rather to say this is speculation, as indeed the author suggests with “perhaps” in the second line.

But just consider this: it is an interpretation, with no supporting evidence, because Bob has never given any supporting evidence.   We can say that some of the lines connect because there is quite a bit of information about the room and a bit about its occupants, but who they are and what if anything they represent is not at all clear.

Especially as verse two takes us somewhere completely different…

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

And then suddenly we are back to Louise and Johanna.

So my point is that all these lines, and all these people (Little boy lost turns up soon, and those jelly-faced women etc) can all be explained as representing a particular place and individuals.  And there could even be a story in there somewhere.   But also it is possible – and indeed easier – to consider all this as an abstract piece in which there are people, rooms, a train, anxiety, philosophical contemplation, fat old women, all flitting in and out of a reality that is not quite that reality most of us find beyond the curtains.

Now, in the world of science there is a rule known as “Occam’s razor” (although the spelling of Occam varies because the chap who invented the idea lived in the 14th century when spelling was variable) which basically says that unless there is clear evidence to the contrary the simplest explanation should be preferred to the more complex.

And I would contend that the simplest explanation of Visions is that it is about atmosphere in the same way that many abstract paintings are about atmosphere.

If ever there were a perfect example of this it is the conclusion of Visions…  Characters who we have not met before suddenly appear.  Objects that have not been mentioned now play a part.   Events happen that have no connection with the earlier verses.    And to end it all, the visions, which have never been explained, are the only thing that is left at the end.

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
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
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

It is, in short, one of the greatest pieces of abstraction in song ever written.  And given that Bob wrote it early in his career, it is not surprising that he wrote many others in this genre.

The songs of abstraction is, in my view, a category of Dylan writing in its own right, and they are to be cherished, because they open up the doors not only to our own thoughts, but to the thoughts of arrangers, who find it possible to take the songs to all sorts of other places.

I am hoping to find the time to consider a few more examples in the near future.

But let me leave you, if I may, with one particular thought.

The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

If ever there were lines of abstraction in a piece of popular music here they are.  Yes of course you can invent a meaning for them, but why?  Dylan just gives us the abstraction.  Why is it necessary to go beyond that?

Untold Dylan

If you feel you’ve something new and different to say about Bob Dylan or his music, and would like to offer it to Untold Dylan for publication, we’d be delighted to hear from you.  Please write to Tony@schools.co.uk

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  1. The use of the word “abstraction ” as related to paintings be a dubious one ideed as paintings are observed by the eye; not listened to by the ear.

    “Visions” has very concrete images, not abstract ones, and water/rain has from time out of mind been associated with women in juxtaposition with fire/lightning for men.

    The song is not intended to be simple, to be self-explanatory, but The Words left open to interpretation as are many biblical lyrics and narratives.

    Because one is not up on the symbols and tropes of traditional literary motifs does not mean s/he has found the ‘simplest’ explanation as to the “meaning” intended or not by the writer.

    Fixed in the living language itself is meaning with particular feelings associated therewith that cannot be denied.

    It is not even necessary to go outside of the lyrics to find ” meaning”, the word itself full of holes.

    Tony has to careful not to cut himself on his razor.

    Dylan perhaps just too complicated for him (lol)

  2. ie, the Vision , the work of art itself, a thing of beauty forever, is all that remains after it’s sung …,,except for figuring out what the imaginatively created lyrics might damn well “mean”!

    Dylan, with a Cubist-bent, but certainly not an abstractionist, definitely doesn’t operate a language School For “Die-Harder” Structuralists.

  3. Darn , gotta go, I hear those three raccoons scratching at my door again, and, I’ll put up a dollar for a doughnut that they all still have their masks on.

  4. Dylan shows the influence of Post Modernists who posit endless meaning, but by doing so end up eating their own tails ….

    ie, There is no way out of the labyrinth of words and other signifiers in which one lives –

    Even if one believes they have escaped, the sun will melt their wings.

    I’d contend that Dylan refrains from flying too high, but leaves lots of wiggle room …. takes a middle path.

    For an interpreter to claim to have the absolute answer as to what Dylan’s often ambiguous lyrics mean, or to assert they’re don’t mean anything at all, is an act of hubris for which a severe penalty shall be be paid.

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