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Bob Dylan & New York: “Visions of Johanna”

If “Spanish Harlem Incident” finds Bob Dylan in Spanish Harlem  seduced by the sexuality, and mysteries of the “gypsy gal,” “Visions of Johanna” shows Dylan wandering around Manhattan in the middle of the night in a surrealistic bender.  Dylan had been writing surrealistic songs for over a year at this point, but “Visions of Johanna” finds him at the breaking point.

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks, when you’re trying to be so quiet?” Dylan muses at the beginning of the song.  Clearly, he’s ready to go to sleep, or pass out.  He’s also stranded with Louise, a woman whom he likes enough to have sex with, but his mind is distracted by another woman – Johanna.  Clearly, Dylan’s head is screwing with him – the heat pipes are coughing, and the “visions of Johanna” are seeping into his consciousness.

Dylan decides to wander outside into the night where he sees what appears to be prostitutes “whisper escapades out on the ‘D’ train”.  When they hear the Night Watchmen click his flashlight and asks himself “if it’s them or him,” Dylan thinks “that’s insane”.  Naturally, everything that is taking place seems a little out of place, and possibly insane.  The incident leaves him thinking that “Louise, she’s alright”, but no where to close to his true love.  Before Dylan stated that “the visions of Johanna” conquered his mind, but now they’ve taken his place.  Does Louise realize that Johanna has taken away her lover?   Either way, after the incident, Dylan seems to be on his own.

Now he’s truly adrift and he’s the “little boy lost, who takes himself so seriously”.  I’ve always taken this verse about Dylan talking to himself – “muttering small talk at the wall – while I’m in the hall”.   Though it’s unclear whose name he mentions (probably Louise), he fondly remembers her (“he speaks of a farewell kiss to me”).  And yet he still can’t escape the “Visions of Johanna” they’ve been keeping him up all night as he wanders around the city.

Eventually he ends up in a museum where “infinity goes up on trial”.  If you’re going with the theory that “Johanna” is a reference to “Gehenna” – a valley outside the Old City that came to represent destruction in Jewish folklore, infinity going up on trial would probably take place here.  Later, Gehenna would be associated with Hell (but not entirely).  At this point, Dylan seems to be in his own hell, and ponders his own mortality, possibly wondering if this is the end for him.  He’s caught between two women, but can’t seem to attach himself to either.  He’s strung out, lost, and hallucinating.  He can hear the paintings talk (“Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze I can’t find my knees'”.)    More strange things happen, but at the end of the song Dylan declares “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain”.

The ending is very open-ended.  Has Dylan finally let himself go?  Has he finally decided that in spite of everything that has taken place over the night, that Johanna is the only thing that he cares about?  Will he ever get back from his wanderings?  Either way,  “the visions of Johanna” have been haunting listers for decades as well.

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Bob Dylan & New York: “Positively 4th Street”

1965 has often been described as the year when Dylan was an “angry young man”.   There are many songs during that period where Dylan cut down ex-lovers (“Like a Rolling Stone”), journalists (“Ballad of a Thin Man”), and society in general (“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).     While “Like a Rolling Stone”‘s attack was visceral and sadistic its intent was covered in word-play and drugged out literary images.  This of course ensured that its meaning and lyrics could be deciphered for years to come.  But it’s “Positively 4th Street” that is downright nasty – Dylan eschews his surrealistic imagery that he was custom to at the time.  It’s so direct and simple, that there is no question exactly how he’s feeling.

For years Dylan had been living in Greenwich Village – (4th Street may be a reference to where he once lived) and cut his teeth performing at the coffee-houses in the area.  “America is changing,” Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles Volume 1. “I had a feeling of destiny and I wasd riding the changes.  New York was as good a place to be as any.”  Dylan was always good at picking up on change.  He came into New York just as the folk-scene was beginning to explode, and in the mid 1960’s he released followed the cues of the Beatles.  Of course his version of amplified music, would send ripples across the counter-culture.

It was inevitable that there would be a backlash once he decided to go electric.  The famous performance at Newport got the most press, but back in Greenwich Village, some of his supporters viewed him a sell-out.  The topical songs were gone.  Just as everyone else was trying to catch up to Dylan, he quickly moved the opposite direction.

“Don’t you know, it’s not my problem”, He declares near the end of the song.  Dylan wasn’t just being apathetic here – he had moved on, and felt that the scene was also moving on as well.  The Folk Scene in Greenwich Village might have started out as progressive, but sometime between 1960 and 1965 it seemed to become very constricted its own ideals. Dylan used to live on 4th Street in Manhattan (there’s also suggestions that 4th Street refers to his time at the University of Minnesota, but I find this doubtful) so he makes it clear from the beginning his targets in the song are those who used to come to his shows, old friends journalists, and anyone else who was now crying foul on his new direction.

“You got a lot of nerve,” Dylan says in the song.  As if to reinforce the idea, he says it twice (although it’s followed up with a different reason.) Dylan calls out his “friend” for talking behind his back.  He knows his target is guilty, because he used to do the same thing, and hang out with the same people.  This line reminds me of the chorus of “My Back Pages” – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – Dylan is realizing how pathetic the “scene” is to him.

In contrast to the song’s light tone, and an organ that you can almost whistle to, Dylan imagines that his friend would rather see him paralyzed.  “Why don’t you just come out once and scream it?” Dylan demands.  The weight of the song is put upon this line.  In his mind, much of the folk-scene complained and bitched about what was taking place, but very few actually made the change themselves. They couldn’t come up and “scream it”.   Dylan did in more ways that one, and that’s why much of the scene was pissed.  It wasn’t about Dylan being a sell-out.  They knew the change had come, and missed their opportunity.

 

(For some reason, Youtube only has covers of “Positively 4th Street”.  Sorry that there’s no video/audio.)

 

 

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