Visions Of Johanna

Although the song’s title seems to have been adapted from Jack Kerouac’s thematically related novel ‘Visions of Gerard’, there is also much in common between the song and T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’.

In the latter the narrator is walking home at midnight when he sees various things in a distorted, but apparently insightful,  way due to tricks of the light. The world appears dead or dying. For example, he sees a woman, perhaps a prostitute, who is poor and ageing, ‘the border of her dress … torn and stained with sand’. The unsightliness of her eye reminds him of a dead branch, ‘as if the world gave up the secret of its skeleton’.  Any hope of spiritual escape from this death turns out to be just ‘The last twist of the knife’.

Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, night-time is the  setting for ‘Visions of Johanna’. And here too  the light produces distortions which cause the world to be viewed in an insightful way. The narrator experiences certain visions and these seem to be of a world which is empty, miserable and without decent prospects. The emptiness is also represented by a radio programme  so devoid of value that  it’s not even worth switching off. The girl Louise, previously presented as a happy lover, is now represented as  bones inhabited by an unhappy spirit – reminding us of Eliot’s skeletal imagery used to present a world whose secret is that it is dead. Outside things appear to be no better. In a lot described as ’empty’,  ‘ladies’ resort to playing a mere children’s game, and prostitutes try to escape their miserable reality by indulging in escapist fantasy. To the night-watchman the world appears pointless  – mad.

The lack of hope for the future is represented by the museums which are empty  (‘voices echo)’ – presumably vast halls containing only long-dead things. The narrator sees no hope in heaven as an escape from this world’s emptiness  because heaven (‘salvation’) will be no better than a museum, a vast hall for dead people. Like a museum, existence in heaven would eventually just seem tedious. Hope for the future on earth is equally missing. Even the Mona Lisa seems to the narrator to represent the misery of our existence.  And an unsophisticated young girl, the ‘primitive wallflower’, freezes – presumably in horror – when the appearance of the jelly-faced women  makes her realise what the future has in store for her (like mirrors reflecting her future, in the way Louise seems to be a mirror for the narrator).

If Johanna is taken to represent the world as it is – reality – then the visions of Johanna are the world as it now appears to the narrator. It would seem it is the visions, rather perhaps than the reality itself, which are impressing themselves on the narrator because we are told  ‘Johanna’s not here’. The suggestion could be that the visions are, at least in part, a false representation of reality – literally a result of a trick of the light. In fact the narrator’s outlook is unduly pessimistic . We’re told ‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / you can tell by the way she smiles’. One thing that’s usually said about the Mona Lisa is that the smile is ambiguous – it’s not obviously happy or sad. Yet the narrator sees only a representation of sadness.

It’s not just the narrator who opts for seeing the world in a negative way. So too does the listener. We’re told that the ‘primitive wallflower’ freezes, but it’s the reader rather than the narrator who decides that this is so. It’s because she too, like Mona Lisa, has the ‘highway blues’ – meaning a miserable journey through life. Part of the songwriter’s skill is to force our decisions.

Louise crops up in a number of places and is presented in various ways. Overall she can be taken to represent good sense, love, understanding and kindness. For the first of these she is a source of sensible encouragement to  the narrator to  refuse to resort to (‘defy’) drugs (‘a handful of rain’) as a means of overcoming the horror of being ‘stranded’ – unable to escape our lot.   Then she’s a lover, then the narrator himself (‘she seems like the mirror’), perhaps in that that he recognises his lot in hers. Later she shows understanding when she criticises the cynical peddler – the drug supplier, representing  a false escape from reality. And she represents generosity in that she ‘prepares’ for him, rather than indulging in a pretence of care like the countess. Only when she forms one of the narrator’s possibly misleading visions is she presented in a negative way (‘bones’, ‘ghost’, ‘howling’) – a way which perhaps, in keeping with the visions generally, does not represent reality at least at its worst.

Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ there’s a suggestion of hope, so too there may be some hope here. The Mona Lisa’s smile might just as well represent contentment as the ‘highway blues’. The ‘little boy lost’ not only ‘brags’ of his misery, suggesting it might not really be genuine misery, but will (according to Blake from whom the phrase ‘little boy lost’ is taken) be a ‘little boy found’  – by God. Madonna, if taken as a representation of Christ rather than Mary, can also be taken to represent hope. Her cape which once ‘flowed’ is Christ’s blood which once flowed to save the world. Christ’s second coming is still awaited despite his (Madonna’s) not having yet ‘showed’. As in ‘Rhapsody’, hope is not the final suggestion, however. The emptiness of existence, a world which self-destructively ‘corrodes’, continues. And the fact that Christ’s blood ‘once flowed’ suggests that it isn’t doing so any more. And not having ‘showed’ might suggest not going to show.

Equally open to contradictory interpretation is the fiddler’s ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’. This may refer to Christ’s successful redemption of the world, but equally could be presumption on the part of the fiddler. The suggestion, then, is that our debt has to be paid by us as well as Christ, and our part is still to be paid.  Since the fish is an emblem of Christianity, Christ being a fisher of men, the fish in the fish truck too could be taken to be Christians on the road to their just reward, their debt to God having been paid by Christ. Equally, though, since the fish in a truck are likely to be dead, they could be seen as representing the pointlessness of existence (or a certain type of existence).

It’s curious that when the fiddler writes on the fish truck that ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’ the narrator’s conscience explodes. It would seem that either the narrator is the fiddler, or is someone who at least sees himself reflected in the fiddler. And that in turn suggests that the narrator’s conscience is rebelling against his presumption. In the end he doesn’t accept it because his negative visions are ‘all that remain’. Like ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ the song ends on a pessimistic note.

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4 thoughts on “Visions Of Johanna

  1. This song is clearly and simply about spending the night at some party in a loft. Johanna is Joan Baez and she even replied to the song in her own “winds of the old days” song in her “diamonds and rust” album.

    Bob is simply describing how he is hoping Joan will show up and she does not. “Louise” is Mimi (Joan’s sister), looking like Joan (She’s delicate and seems like the mirror- image of her sister – But she just makes it all too concise and too clear That Johanna’s not here), and her lover (Richard Farina) is the “lost boy” who likes to live dangerously as he indeed did and died.

    “Everything’s been returned which was owed” refers to his denying that he owed anything to Baez who boosted his career start by parading the wonder boy on stage, and he did NOT return the favor during his latest UK tour (eat the document) but he felt he had done enough before.

    This is not MY interpretation, it is what BAEZ herself understood from this song.

    Dylan himself says his songs are clear and simple. They do not require over-complicated pseudo-interpretations like yours.

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  2. Yes, it always could just be about someone who fails to turn up to a party, but one trouble with that interpretation is that it fails to explain so much. Who are the ladies, and why are they playing blind man’s bluff? Why does it matter that the night watchman thinks about insanity? In what sense does infinity go up on trial, and why does it happen in museums? Why does the wallflower freeze? Why does Dylan reference William Blake? What’s the significance of the fish truck, and why’s it a fish truck rather than any other sort of truck? Who is Madonna and why is it worth mentioning that her cape ‘flowed’. No interpretation which fails to address all these issues, and more, is going to be adequate. And as far as I can see the Joan Baez one doesn’t come anywhere near to doing that.

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  3. I came across this website by looking up interpretations of Dylan songs as I always do, and I’m thankful that I found this. Dylan references “fishermen” in Desolation Row. I believe the “fishermen” in Desolation row are artists of some kind, similar to Dylan him self: “While calypso singers laugh at them
    And fishermen hold flowers”. I believe there might be a connection to Visions of Johanna with the “fish truck”. -“the fiddler he now steps to the road, he writes everything’s been returned which was owed, on the back of the fish truck that loads while my conscience explodes” I think I might understand the Desolation Row reference, but I can’t seem to grasp the fish truck. The only other connection I drew was a biblical one with Jesus’ “fisher of men” like it seems y’all already have. Can anyone elaborate on this? Hope I added some evidence to the case!

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    • Thanks for the contribution. I think your Desolation Row suggestion is interesting. The calypso singers are laughing at Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot fighting which is arguably cruel compared to the fishermen whose flowers might associate them with peace.

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