Originally Published: 23 June, 2012.
One of my favourite Bob Dylan songs and the one I think really established him as a great poet is ‘Visions of Johanna’ from his seminal album ‘Blonde on Blonde’. In ‘Visions of Johanna’ Dylan evokes stream of consciousness in song. It is the perfect 3am song. ‘Visions of Johanna’ can be seen as Dylan’s attempt to convey the duality of existence at the cusp between mundane consciousness and electric visions. ‘Visions of Johanna’ is Dylan’s meditation on the power of the muse. It can be seen as a modern day answer to Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Johanna is the perfect muse. Check out Marianne Faithfull’s wonderful version here.
Johanna’s beauty is contrasted against the banality and even insanity of everyday life; this can be seen in the song’s opening lines; ‘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’. The helter-skelter, psychedelic world of New York City in the 60s is captured perfectly in the song. The song is filled with ‘skittering images’ of peddlers, countesses, all-night girls and the Mona Lisa which ‘hurl off like fragmentary chips from a mind floating downstream, neither time nor structure holding forces in check’. However the glue that holds them all together is the song’s central image of
Dylan contrasts the ethereal muse Johanna with the earthy Louise who is stuck firmly in the real world, the world the narrator longs to escape from. This is reflected in the lyrics, ‘Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near, She’s delicate and seems like the mirror, But she just makes it all too concise and too clear, That Johanna’s not here.’
Louise holds a mirror which seems to reflect the grim realities of the world as well as the narrator’s reflection. He longs to escape the confines of reality through his visions of Johanna. Louise is steeped in the gritty, disillusioned world, this can be seen in the image; ‘Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it’. According to Tim Riley, ‘rain’ is a colloquial term for heroin. However ‘Louise holds a handful of rain’ could be seen as a superb surrealistic image.
Johanna is a mysterious, elusive character and the sense of her awe-inspiring beauty is created by the visions of her that dominates the song. Johanna is a muse in the tradition of the Mona Lisa who is referenced wickedly in the song with ‘Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, You can tell by the way she smiles’. Walter Pater when describing the Mona Lisa’s face wrote, ‘the thoughts and experience of the world have been etched and moulded there’; this could also describe Dylan’s Johanna. Johanna seems to hover above all the various people and ideas in the song, she is the ideal against which they are judged, this is reflected in the structure of the song with each verse ending with ‘visions of Johanna’.
‘Visions of Johanna’ can be seen as a meditation on the muse and as such has been linked to Keats’ poetry. Bill King suggests the song is ‘constantly [seeking] to transcend the physical world, to reach the ideal where the visions of Johanna become real. That can never be, and yet life without the quest is worthless…the same paradox Keats explored in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn’’.’ The song contains a direct reference to Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ with the phrase, ‘the nightingale’s code’ which encapsulates the elusive and mysterious nature of the muse.
Who could be the inspiration for the Goddess Johanna? Joan Baez comes over most strongly in my mind. This is backed-up by Dylan’s tendency to play on people’s names for poetic effect, Johanna being very similar to Joan. This idea is reinforced with lyrics such as ‘her cape of the stage once had flowed’ which conjure the image of a performer. Let’s end by focusing on Dylan’s superb surrealistic lyrics and the images they evoke in your own mind.
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place