Monday, August 28, 2017

Visions of Johanna: One of Dylan's Greatest

Saturday's edition of KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited hosted by John Bushey triggered a desire to write about two songs I've not yet attempted to cover, I'm Not There from the Basement Tapes, and Visions of Johanna, released on Blonde On Blonde.

After the show I felt compelled to comment to a friend in an email,  "Just finished listening to John's show tonight. Inspired me to write this week about two of the songs he played ... Visions of Johanna, and I'm Not There. Both songs remind me of how exceptional he is. He really is in a class by himself. People use that expression all the time, but in most cases it's pure hyperbole. Dylan is unquestionably one of a kind."

There are certain Dylan songs that are so incredible that I become near stupefied every time I hear them. Visions of Johanna is one of these.

One of the reasons I've not written about the song previously is that the parts that speak most deeply are so personal I don't feel compelled to lay it all out there the way many social media netizens do these days.

A second reason I've held back is that I'm not sure how much I have to add to what others have already written. Instead, I defer to what Tony Attwood has given us at his Untold Dylan blogspot in a piece titled Visions of Johanna: the meaning of the music and the lyrics. Near the end of this piece he coughs up this pearl:

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.

This "teetering on the brink of lucidity" is precisely what makes so many of the songs from this period so mesmerizing, compelling, entrancing, spellbinding, alluring, seductive, enchanting, suggestive, effective, impressive, sumptuous and thrilling. Ballad of a Thin Man and All Along The Watchtower are similarly examples of this imperviousness to strict decipherment.

I encourage you to read slowly read the lyrics, then check out Tony Attwood's insights.

Visions of Johanna

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
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

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 really insane
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
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

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
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

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
Copyright © 1966 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1994 by Dwarf Music

1965 Dylan Acetate Recording with "Freeze Out" on track 3.
Matthew Horton places it #2 on his Top Ten list of Dylan lyrics. I doubt I could ever number them like Mr. Horton does, but for sure it's on my "short list" of great Dylan songs. Rolling Stone likewise has Visions in its top ten Dylan songs list.

Visions Trivia 
--The working title of this song was Freeze Out.

--It's the only Dylan song that begins with the letter V.

--Dylan has performed the song 215 times in concert, the most recent being 2015 at the Stimmen Festival in Germany.

Here are a couple versions of the song for your listening pleasure. This first is from a live concert in Melbourne, Australis during his 1966 world tour withe The Band, plus an achingly beautiful Jerry Garcia interpretation. What is it about this song that cuts so deep?

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

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