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.