Bob Dylan’s wailing harmonica always sounds to me like a kind of yearning. A call in the darkness, a musical grasp for something that is out of reach. It is this sound that starts ‘Visions of Johanna’. This is a song that creates an unmistakable atmosphere; for me it is the milieu of 4am in someone’s flat after a night of drinking when the head-rush of sensation has dissipated and now all that is left is a rather grey drab feeling of existential malaise. ‘Why do I keep doing this?’ ‘What are we doing with our lives?’ ‘Why is Sandra insistent on playing cheesy 90s pop music over and over again?’. These are some of the big questions that are muttered at such a moment. This atmosphere is created by the slow tempo, the Hammond Organ’s airy elegance and Dylan’s unmistakable gravelly voice of principled nonchalance. As Dylan himself noted, the only thing that isn’t laid back is Robertson’s jagged bluesy guitar which serves as the manic energy that is looking for somewhere to go but finds itself locked in a contained area. The guitar can be seen to mimic the singer’s intellectual energy that tries to probe this situation in which he and a few others find themselves. He starts:
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
Along with the musical atmosphere, we now get two components of a lyrical atmosphere; firstly there is ‘the night’, a dark unknowingness that ‘plays tricks’ when you’re just trying to lay back and have a nice time; and secondly there is a feeling of being ‘stranded’, of being away from home in a place that you don’t quite belong. It’s always good to pay attention to rhymes, because it tells you a lot about meaning. In this case we now know that being ‘quiet’ is related to denial. Therefore, the dark corners of the night are acting as a reminder of an uncomfortable reality but it has devious ways of going about this – because just being straight is no good to people who are unwilling to accept that they are stranded in their world. This is poetry at its best – it is simultaneously a description of a physical space and a description of a human psyche.
And finally we get a character, along with a surreal image; ‘Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it’. Perhaps the singer is hallucinating, an all-night drug binge has left them all stranded from their normal consciousness. However, another line comes to mind, a line from an e e cummings poem ‘only the rain has such small hands’. Whether the rain is perceived by a consciousness that is altered or saturated with poetic imagery, Louise is threatening to break the spell… but then a light flickers in the night, fiat lux!, perhaps there is an answer to the malaise in the ‘opposite loft’, another bohemian den, another party, another Louise. In this room, however, reality starts to impinge upon the dream, the mechanics of day-to-day material living are starting to ‘cough’ and splutter, causing noise when they’re trying to be ‘so quiet’, but sometimes noise is what wakes you up from your stupor. In the background ‘country music is playing soft’, the music of middle America gently humming away, but it’s not bad enough to turn off, so they just sit there listening and accept their predicament; in denial, everything is breaking down, even the spell of altered consciousness that they entered into in order to escape is close to falling apart.
Then we get to the refrain that repeats the songs title. The title is a very religious one, ‘visions’ are usually associated with mystical experiences. Joanna is one of ‘certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’ in the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, you could say that the title is about a mystical vision of a biblical figure who is an avatar of healing and recovery. She is pitted against Louise who is ‘entwined’ with her lover and has just threatened to break the hallucinatory spell. She appears to be the carnal opposite to the spiritual Johanna (but perhaps they are both necessary, or rather you have to go through the fallen material realm to get to the spiritual one). So, the scene is set: a dark space where people are hallucinating handfuls of rain but are in some sense lost and unsatisfied. The singer yearns for a symbol of spiritual healing.
Another mournful harmonica wail and we’re now escaping the claustrophobia of the night-space and we get a glimpse outside. We have come into contact with generalized groups of people - ‘ladies’ and ‘all-night girls’ – who differ from the individuals of the singer and Louise in that they are just representative of social groups. I assume that the ‘all-night girls’ ain’t staying up and playing Nintendo so they’re probably prostitutes and again we have the carnal, the earthly. It is night, the word ‘blind’ (‘they’re playing blindman’s bluff) is in there, they refuse to see, there are ‘escapades’, they are denying their real situation and trying to escape in a futile way. It is a socialized version of the problems highlighted in the first verse. The individual and society both blind, both trying to escape their problems.
The mention of the ‘night-watchman’ is where we really see that this is a 60’s song. The idea of ‘society as a prison’ is echoed in many countercultural products of this era. The ladies and all-night girls are inmates that are patrolled by this night-watchman, who has a light in the darkness but only to see whether anyone is trying to escape (a different kind of escape). It’s a cruel parody of the kind of light the singer is looking for. The idea of whether the inmates or the warden is insane is another common idea of this time, you only need to think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to realise what Dylan is talking about here.
The scene then swings back to the night-space indoors and back to Louise as the singer contemplates her presence. The problem with her, according to the singer, is that she’s too close (‘she’s just near;) – so close in fact that she ‘seems like the mirror’ and reflects himself back to him. The trap for the singer is not ‘society’s pliers’ (as Dylan put it in another song) but the individual self, the tyrannical ego that can’t help but see itself in everybody else, that wonders how they can use others to satisfy its own ends, that wills more and more for itself. Louise is ‘all right’, it’s just that in this moment she is a mirror of spiritual death, her presence makes clear the absence of a purer form of being that is selfless and loving, that which is represented by Johanna. There is no doubt that even at this stage in his career, Dylan is striving for the spiritual fulfilment he would later seek in Christianity.
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
I quote this one because it is such an amazing line, it has such evocative power, you can almost see a hollowed-out skull that contains the haunting remnants of a life force. But we must remember that the singer is looking in the mirror, it is his own face that is haunted by energy and activity and this ‘ghost of electricity’ is the visions that have now completely vacated his being. The singer is spiritually dead and all that remains is the idea that there is more to life than this life of hedonism and ego-fulfilment.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
I was this person at one stage of my life, that’s all I have to say about these lines…
In all seriousness, someone who takes themselves too seriously is set up for a fall, they cling too much to their own identity and eventually it will drive them crazy. Because once they slip up (as they will as a human being) not only do they experience pain in that moment but it infects their whole conception of themselves. A mistake becomes a permanent stain on their character. Being lost and stranded maybe makes someone take themselves all the more seriously – unable to cling to a home, a community, a set of shared values, they cling to their ego for dear life. Their ‘misery’ is of monumental importance, their lost romances are saturated with a film-like significance, but this seriousness is punctured by the singer when he describes him as having a ‘lotta gall’ for being so ‘useless and all’. He is useless, but in what way? Presumably he is useless to others. The only use of his self-seriousness is to himself, the self-gratifying ego strikes again. He may as well be talking to a wall because there is no communication going on.
The singer is now getting frustrated. Louise is merely reflecting himself back to him, the little boy lost is too self-absorbed to help him, and he has sleepless night haunted by the visions keeping him up ‘past the dawn’. What does it all mean? It’s time for another escape:
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
We are back outside and we have expanded our horizons in time as well as space, whereas the previous verse started now this one starts by evoking infinity. It makes sense that the singer stuck in an oppressive here and now should seek solace in vast expanses of time, the ancient past that is held in the museums. The last time we escaped from the night-space we went out and observed the social world but now we are entering an imaginative space. Terry Eagleton once argued that after we human beings realized that God was indeed dead, we scurried around to look for a replacement. Some cultured types put forward Culture as a replacement; they seen things like novels, artworks, symphonies as artifacts that we could derive meaning and values from, in the same away older cultures derived meaning from religious artifacts. The preacher became the poet, the bible became the canon of literary works, and so on.
‘Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial’ makes sense to me on this level of Culture replacing God. One thing we know about God (if he does exist) is that he is infinite; he has no beginning and no end, no cause, no effect. However, this notion of ‘infinity’ is on trial in these storehouses of culture. There is judgement involved but who is doing this judgement? It could be the elite cultural critics who tell us which paintings and novels are good and what they should mean to us. Or it could be all of us questioning the notion of everlasting life and transcendent values along with Picasso, Dali and Rothko. These artists could be questioning God, or they could themselves be the Gods that are questioned. The ‘infinity’ that is going up on trial could be the idea that certain artworks are timeless and they touch all souls regardless of what point in history they are looking at it. It’s incredible how much Dylan evokes in just one line. The next line brings echoing voices within the museum who feel that salvation can get wearisome. Art was meant to save us, but then the holocaust happened, and it was caused by someone who loved Wagner, and loved poetry. How can you worship art in the 20th Century? How can you worship anything?
Even Mona Lisa is bored of the modern industrial world before it even happened. The singer is playing around with a revered artwork, and I fancy he is projecting his own ‘highway blues’ onto the painting. This sentiment (of degraded general spirituality) harks back to the famous line ‘not much is really sacred’ in ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and could suggest that the ‘one with the mustache’ mentioned later is actually Marcel Duchamp’s revision of the ‘Mona Lisa’, reinforcing the idea that all previously venerated symbols are being defaced. The juxtaposition of Duchamp and the singer’s amorality hint at a connection between sixties iconoclasm and the seeming moral lack that make Dylan’s spiritual visions ‘seem so cruel’. If all Gods are being deconstructed, what do we do in the face of this?
No time to dwell as we take another turn away from the museum and the thoughts of infinity to the finite world in which the singer finds himself. A ‘primitive wallflower’, someone basic and lonely is rendered immobile, there are women with deformed faces, and someone can’t find their knees, again there is a sense of incapacity, of hindered movement. The imagery is hallucinogenic - a tableau of drug-induced inertia. We seem to be neither indoors or outdoors, there is now generic types interacting with no reference to any of the previous characters. The song seems to be deconstructing itself at this point. What are we to make of a ‘peddler’ and a ‘countess’ all of a sudden appearing?
There’s an old American play called The Lady and the Peddler in which a Jewish peddler is provided for by a mysterious woman who is revealed to be an evil spirit. There is a sense of deceit on behalf of the upper-class towards the lower-class. The lower-class peddler perhaps senses that the countess doesn’t really care for him as he tells her he is looking for someone who doesn’t just use and abuse. He is on a religious quest to find that Kantian ideal – the person who does not merely use people as a means to an end but treats people as an end in and of themselves. The singer has created some sort of archetypal story to describe his own spiritual quest.
There is a wonderful relentless rhythmic force to the next section that speeds us towards the conclusion with the rhymes ringing in the ears (showed/corrode/flowed etc.). The singer’s thoughts are now overwhelming. It starts with a yearning for Madonna, another female religious figure, then the ‘empty cage’ brings back the night-watchman and the sense of being stranded in a degrading environment, and then an allusion to a former caped entertainer and a current entertainer: the fiddler. The fiddler is a strong signifier of Dylan’s Jewish heritage and the fact that the fiddler is now stepping onto the road feeds this idea of tradition being destabilized. It also brings to mind the idea of the travelling musician, never quite bound to one place, always moving forward, much like Dylan himself (and the opposite idea of art to the static museum pieces).
This musician has satisfied all their debts and is ready to move on the back of a ‘fish truck’, perhaps they will be fiddling while Rome burns? The museums may be burnt to a cinder crisp or perhaps Mona Lisa will get over those highway blues and hop onto the truck too. Whatever is happening, the singer has reached an end-point, an explosion of conscience, that which ‘makes cowards of us all’ as Hamlet said, has he made a spiritual breakthrough? Has the conscience which loads us with doubt and cowardice, is this the burdensome ego bursting its barriers and destroying itself in order to light another match and start anew? Or has the singer just lost track of the images, of the overwhelming force of history, of the degraded present, of the barren future?
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
As we ask ourselves this, we are reminded of that wailing harmonica which is now transposed from the aural atmosphere to the lyrical bombardment. A skeleton key is the thing that will unlock everything and make it all clear, but for Dylan it is ’keys’ – there are many ways to skin the cosmic cat not just one. The rain brings us back to that handful in the first verse, that hallucinatory image that hinted at the Romantic and the foolish held by the symbol of the physical profane realm. The harmonicas could represent music and culture, and they play at giving you the key to the universe whilst possibly also being a momentary hallucination – whether that hallucination be love or psychedelic experience.
I have read a few things that have said that ‘Visions of Johanna’ ends with a revelation but I’m not sure that the singer has found himself outside of that stranded room. His journey through the social problems, the realm of imagination, the institutions of art and tradition have left him inconclusive. He just realises that the music, the noise – the disturbance that at once signals a problem and a potential solution - merely gestures towards something bigger. The wailing harmonica points us towards a sense of loss but doesn’t tell us what we’ve lost or what we may want to find. All that remains are the visions, but Johanna is not merely a religious figure. Johanna is a vessel for our primal yearning, something like Stella in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella; an absent presence that can represent any sort of need for deep meaning. It is the space in-between, the gap between us and the thing itself, the nagging sense of doubt we get in the wee small hours when we ask ourselves ‘is this really it?’ We fill this space with many different things: God, Enlightenment, Culture, Love, Art, Family, The Moment, but none of these things quite fill out that space and the echo signals to us that there is still a hollow gap, and we think that perhaps something else might fit in the space. But it never does. The only thing that remains are the visions that perpetuate our desire to move forward, despite everything, into the blankness of the future, on the crooked steps pervaded by shards of light that seem to form an arch all the way up to a barely perceptible summit, and we climb and climb and we flail our arms in the dark with the vision suspended between us and whatever it is all in the vain hope that one day we will cross the gap and step into the other part and there before us in all light and warmth we will find standing before us THE thing, the thing that’ll……
(A harmonica wails)