The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #12, “Visions of Johanna”

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?”

“Visions Of Johanna” is a song that captures the feeling of being pushed to the edge of an emotional brink. It’s 4 AM in your soul, “last call” at the bar of salvation, and you’re in the mood for one more drink. In any of its multiple versions, (from Blonde on Blonde to Live 1966 to Biograph and beyond), Dylan sings the song as if from the middle of a fever dream. The emotions he conjures up and sustains during his early live acoustic performances are stunning. His harmonica solos slay fools.The studio version, on Blonde on Blonde, was captured in a single take on Valentine’s Day, 1966 (with Al Kooper on organ). His taffy-like singing and cinematic attention to detail (“in this room the heat pipes just cough”) make for 7:27 minutes of heaven.

The Beat poets, whose writing Dylan passionately ingested, could embrace a song like “Visions” (On the Road author Jack Kerouac penned two novels called “Visions of Cody” and “Visions of Gerard.”)

Among the song’s most resonant lines:

Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him

We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles

A Wikipedia post makes reference to an extra verse supposedly unveiled in Australia in 1966, with references to kangaroos and pralines, but I’m inclined to say “I don’t believe you.” (Does anybody have an opinion on this?)

In Tim Riley’s book, “Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary,” he argues, “as a grand cosmic farce, Blonde on Blonde strings along half-baked plots and ramshackle discourse not only for the thrill of getting away with it–a key rock principle–but to demonstrate, like Picasso or Braque, how rife with implication nonsense can be made to sound, how seemingly slapdash methods can field unforeseen express vitality.”

An awesome quote and a worthy sentiment. Still, the identity of Johanna has long been debated. A few theories posted on Expecting Rain:

– It relates to ‘Gehenna’, the Hebrew word for the ‘afterworld’
– Ol Hanna is the sun.
– It’s about Johanna Gezina van Gogh (Bonger), sister-in-law of
Vincent van Gogh
– Legend has it that she was Suze Rotolo’s sister. Suze was Dylan’s girlfriend in about ’62. He thought Johanna broke them up and so he skewered her in a couple of songs.

Another popular speculation is that song is about Dylan’s former girlfriend, Joan Baez. Baez may have thought so too. In her 1975 song “Winds of the Old Days,” there are several allusions to her relationship with Dylan, including “a decade flew past her and there on the page, she read that the prince had returned to the stage,” and “Most of the sour grapes are gone from the bough, ghosts of Johanna will visit you there.”

“These visions of Johanna make it all seem so cruel….” U2 would perhaps unintentionally echo that line in their Achtung Baby track “So Cruel.” Robyn Hitchcock, Marianne Faithfull, and Jerry Garcia have all recorded their own renditions of “Johanna.”

Loudon Wainwright III spoke about “Vision’s” effect on him as a young man in a 1993 BBC radio interview:

“He was nasty and cool and rebellious and everything a young man aspires to, sarcastic, snotty, mean – not in the stingy sense, he was unpleasant to all authority figures and anybody who had short hair.

…the album’s got a real speedy feel to it. Has a cocaine feel to it, to be honest. It feels that kind of brittle – it’s not flowers and strawberry fields and yellow submarines and diamonds in the sky it’s, you know, gritty and dirty streets and clanking heat pipes and up for five days. I mean whether you drag drugs into it or not, I mean again I think it doesn’t have to have any meaning it is just truckloads of images and atmosphere.

….’But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell the way she smiles.’ It’s just a great observation. He’s commenting on it in a way that nobody had done and yet was very contemporary – the highway blues, you know. He came out of that tradition of Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac – the road, hitch-hiking, that long line of male guitar slingers, hitch-hiking with guitars over their back and that was related to the hobo tradition. You knew what the highway blues were but your parents didn’t because you’d read ‘On The Road’ and they were reading James Michener’s ‘Hawaii.'”

“Visions” is said to be Bob Dylan’s favorite song on Blonde on Blonde. And rightfully so — it’s a lyrical tour de force, sheer sonic poetry. Through the power of music, he manages to make “jewels and binoculars” mean so much more than jewels and binoculars. Whatever he was feeling, he made sure we felt it too.

How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn