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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: “Spanish Harlem Incident”

When I first looked at the track-list for Another Side of Bob Dylan, and saw the title “Spanish Harlem Incident”, I wrongly assumed that it was a topical song about Spanish Harlem.  This was back when I didn’t know much about Dylan, and had yet to realize what  Another Side of Bob Dylan was about.

It should come as no surprise that Dylan would be attracted to such a girl.  He’s always had a fascination with the exotic nomadic lifestyle – he’s romanticized his travel from Minnesota to New York.  The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975/76 was a sort of circus/gypsy touring extravaganza.  And “One More Cup of Coffee” is another song about gypsies.

“But now destiny was about to manifest itself,” He wrote in Chronicles Volume One. “I felt like it was looking at me and nobody else.”   Is this why he wandered up to Spanish Harlem, to confirm what he already thought might be true?  “Let me know babe, about my fortune,” He tells the mysterious woman.  “Down along my restless palm.”  Perhaps that was his original intention, but as the song goes on, he is seduced by the gypsy girl’s powers.  “You have slayed me, you have made me,” He tells her.

While on the surface, the attraction is purely sexual – perhaps Dylan felt a subconscious connection as an exile with her.  In the 1960’s Dylan had not only abandoned his home in Minnesota for a better life and opportunity in New York City, but he also abandoned his life as a Jew, adopting Dylan as his last name versus his surname Zimmerman.  Both Gypsies and Jews were targeted by Nazis in the Holocaust, so perhaps Dylan and the “gypsy gal” both saw themselves victims and exiles trying to make it in New York City, where all different kinds of cultures and races came together for a better life.  “I’ve been wondering all about me,” Dylan admits in the song.  Could he be referring to his new found identity as “Bob Dylan” versus “Robert Zimmerman”?  Did he think that this woman he found on the street could help him?

At the song’s conclusion, Dylan wants to know if he is real.  Is this referring to his legitimacy as a songwriter, or if making the move to New York was in fact the right move?  A year later, on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as his narrator wanders through Mexico in a drug-haze he answers this question by stating: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’d had enough.”

“Spanish Harlem Incident” – The only version I could find on Youtube was this cover by James Mercer:

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