I couldn’t believe it today when the radio at Starbucks was playing Visions of Johanna. It’s not a song that should be played in the background. More so than any other song I can think of, it requires attentive listening. With its surrealistic lyrics, it means so much, and nothing at the same time.
Visions of Johanna is not just one of Bob Dylan’s crowning achievements, it’s also one the best songs to be written and sung by anyone. To those who know me, I constantly speak of Desolation Row as my all-time favorite Dylan song. Desolation Row is song is drenched in literary allusions where famous characters are doing absurd things and stuck on Desolation Row, it’s not until the last verse that the narrator reveals himself to be on Desolation Row as well. But in Visions of Johanna, Dylan himself is stuck in this surreal world, haunted by the visions of Johanna and “all that remains.”
Unlike a lot of Dylan songs during this period, Johanna is not a kiss-off to a lover. In fact, he’s obsessed with Johanna and it’s driving him mad and wandering around a world where he seems strung out and drugged up. He seems lost, but still wants to go out on a bender, even if its driving him mad, and hearing “the heat pipes just cough”, while also entangled with a woman named Louise, who he doesn’t seem interested in.
Eventually he ends up in a museum, but the museum is not a place of peace. In fact, the art starts talking back to Dylan and taunting him – pushing and pulling him in different directions. He sings that “infinity goes up on trial” leading us to believe he believes in nothing at this particular moment – except Johanna. He feels solitude with Mona Lisa’s dour smile and figures she “musta had the highway blues”. And if you have any doubt, “you can tell by the way she smiles”.
At this point he either hallucinates (or sees another painting) jelly-faced women who all sneeze at the same time. There are many lines in Visions of Johanna that are memorable, but perhaps none more than “hear the woman with the mustache say ‘jeez i can’t feel my knees'”. It’s so weird, bizarre and yet – that must have been how Dylan felt at the time. With the constant touring, and the backlash of going electric, he must have at one point felt like he legs got chopped off beneath him, leaving him wondering what exactly he was going to do next.
At the end of the song, he’s been so drained that “these visions of Johanna are all that remain”. There’s nothing left of him, or anything at that point. His obsessiveness has nearly killed him, it seems. And sometimes after listening to Visions of Johanna, I’m emotionally drained as well – it’s kept me up past the dawn.
Check out the acoustic version from 1966: