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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 – A Reflection & Personal History

(Since it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, I decided to write about him – again.)

Say what you want about greatest hits collections, but one greatest hits collection changed my life.  On a break from college freshmen year, my dad decided to take me out to Borders to buy me some music to cheer me up since I was having a hard time adjusting to college-life.  My dad never quite understood my obsession with music, so it was significant that he would want to take me out to get music.  I couldn’t think of a CD to buy, and on a whim I decided on The Essential Bob Dylan. My dad looked at my selection and asked me if I was sure.  He may not have understood rock and roll, or my obsession with music, but I could tell that he knew who Bob Dylan was.

Once I got back to school and started listening to the CDs, I decided to do some research on Dylan.  If my dad knew of him, surely his influence must have been vast.  Once I started looking around, I realized that most of the other artists that I liked practically worshipped Dylan.  How had I been missing out on him all these years?

It wasn’t until I discovered “Visions of Johanna” that I became obsessed after hearing in it in English class. (This is what majoring in English is good for us let me tell you.)  My professor told us the line about the jelly-faced women sneezing is actually referring to a painting.  (For the life of me, I wish I wrote down the name of the painting, but you don’t really think about those things at 20.)  I knew Dylan was literate, but that little bit of information totally changed my view of him.  Here was a guy who was basically taking my love of literature and poetry and putting it to music.

I quickly when out and bought both Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, Dylan’s music opened up a whole new world for me.  It’s a world full of circus freaks, historical figures doing absurd things, literary figures trapped by their sins and lifeless, and quite often having the upper-hand in relationships.  It’s also a world where civils rights and protest is brought to forefront. While Dylan never played punk-rock, he retains its spirit in being anti-authority.  In Dylan’s world, nothing stays the same, and going against the grain is not just a credo, it’s a way of life.  Just when you think you’ve understood him, he turns the other way.  (For instance, lots of people were expecting Christmas in the Heart to be a very absurd take on the Christmas tradition, but by making a traditional Christmas album, Dylan  managed to go against people’s expectations of his version of Christmas.  In that way, it is very Dylan.)

Before listening to Dylan, I thought I knew a lot about music.  As it turns out, by listening to Dylan, I found out how little I knew and have to learn.  Nashville Skyline gave me a further introduction to Johnny Cash and traditional country music. The Basement Tapes provided me insight into Americana and folk music.  After listening to The American Anthology of Folk Music (which if you haven’t listened to, I highly recommend it) I began to understand where Dylan fit in with folk music.  To those who says they can’t stand his voice, his first few albums were sung in the voice that was part of a tradition of old folk music – he was just the first to truly popularize it.

By taking cues from folk singers and creating his own stamp on that world, Dylan recreated musical history.  So many of his early songs such as Blowin in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall have been such standards and are so rich, it’s almost hard to believe that they aren’t traditional.  When Dylan and the Band recorded “Apple Suckling Tree”, many of the members of The Band, thought it was in fact, a traditional, and not a Dylan original.  Ultimately, unless you’re a folk-purist it’s almost impossible to listen to American folk music, without conjuring up Bob Dylan into your mind.  To many, he is American folk music personified.

American Folk music isn’t just the only type of music that Dylan has influenced vastly.  Almost every single genre of popular music has been filtered through Dylan in one way or another.  The Beatles began to shy away from songs about girls after listening to The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.  The great soul legend Sam Cooke covered “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan himself dabbled in gospel during his Christian-period, and along with The Band, he single-handedly created alternative country.  And while Dylan has written many songs better than “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, with its quick barrage of lyrics and accompanying promotional film was a forerunner to rap, and MTV.

Besides his vast catalogue of songs, I think tend to think part of the appeal of Dylan is his attitude and mystique.  I’ve read quite a few books about the man, and I still don’t know that much about him.  Whether they admit it or not, almost every single person who listens to Dylan wishes they could take off for New York, erase the past and start a new life.  While many writers and artists try their best to subvert the system and attempt to say “fuck it”, Dylan did just that several times throughout his career.  It didn’t always work (think the Christian-period). But when in the mid 60’s Dylan took the attitude of, “fuck it, I’m going to do what I want, consequences be damned” and went electric, the world came around to him.

As much as I (or others) would love to have Dylan’s attitude and constantly be on the move, to paraphrase Bono – we’d all just be happy carrying his guitar-case.   So happy birthday, Bob.

(Also if you’re interested, check out my literary comparison between Dylan and James Joyce.)

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Visions of Johanna

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:

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