Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #70: Visions of Johanna

Most of us are familiar, I assume, with Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's legendary play about two men's comic misadventures waiting for a person that never shows up. There have been a legion of interpretations since the play's release, casting Godot as God Himself, or turning the story into an allegory about the Cold War, all in the vain hopes of trying to pin down meaning onto this most elusive of plays. To me, the interpretation of the play is the simplest - Man's eternal search for the ethereal, for something that we desperately want but always seems just outside of our reach. That's why you've got two characters that always stay in the same place despite constant entreaties to each other to just get up and leave, doing everything possible to stave off "terrible silence", no matter how trivial or slight. Forgive the philosophical nonsense for a second, but that sounds a lot like what we do with our own lives, falling into endless routines and habits in order to avoid the pain of searching for a deeper meaning which, by definition, will always be just outside of our grasp. No wonder Waiting for Godot has been so enduring for so long - we're endlessly fascinated by our own existence, and the play touches on both the tragic and comic sides.

"Visions of Johanna" doesn't quite touch that same level of deeper meaning, but the idea is still the same to me - the narrator, with visions of a woman that never makes a physical appearance throughout the course of the song, finds himself in a world both dully realistic and totally surreal, and yet all that matters are those visions that he sees. And just like Godot, people have been trying to figure out just who Johanna actually is (I kinda hope it's not Joan Baez, not just because I don't think she needs that ego boost, but because the song would lose something if it was just pining for his ex-lover). My personal favorite of those theories is that "Johanna" is related to "Gehenna", a Hebrew word for Hell - and considering that the song's narrator appears to be some kind of purgatory, that might actually make some sense. As for me, much like Godot, I think of Johanna as a basic term for that which we cannot reach, no matter what we do.

What really gets me, after having heard the song X number of times in its electric and acoustic forms, is just how desolate the world of the song feels to me. I mean, Dylan wrote a song called "Desolation Row" that isn't as desolate as the landscape he paints here, in all its urban burned-out glory. To me, that line in the first verse is the key to what Dylan had on his mind - "we sit here stranded/Though we all do our best to deny it". And in the song we see that isolation everywhere we turn, from the lone companion of the song (Louise) who always seems to be keeping her distance, to the useless little boy lost muttering to himself, to that vast museum where infinity goes up on trial (I picture the halls of the Louvre, so famously run through in Band of Outsiders, utterly devoid of any human visitors, only the paintings and the all-encompassing vastness they inhabit), and to the narrator himself, whose only constant companion are those visions of that whom we never, ever get to see. And, in a way, that narrator is us, constantly struggling to find meaning in our lives, rarely ever going so far as to outright admit that we are.

And I know that there are going to be many of you partial to the Live 1966 version, where Dylan bites off his syllables with particular gusto and the acoustic accompaniment throws those lyrics into even sharper relief. But, to me, the studio version is one of his great accomplishments, the perfect melding of one of his greatest lyrics and a musical accompaniment that meshes to it with Superglue-like strength. I still remember one description of "Visions of Johanna"'s finest musical moment being that perfect little guitar lick after the "infinity goes on trial" line, and Robbie Robertson is certainly at his economical best on this song. And a lot of credit needs to be given to the drums/bass rhythm section that so gracefull holds down the track, and Dylan's stinging harmonica at the end of every verse. But, to me, it's the organ (Kooper again?) that really stands out to me, a ghostly apparition that almost acts like Johanna's representative within the song, on the outskirts of the track without really feeling like a part of it the way Robertson's guitar. In fact, a goofup I've always loved serves as example of that organ's separate nature - in the final verse, as Dylan goes into the fourth line of the pre-chorus the organ ramps up like it does before every chorus, only Dylan doesn't go into the chorus and the organ has to go back into ramp-up mode. That moment means as much to me, in its own way, as any lyric in the actual song.

In a funny way, Dylan could very well be talking about himself in "Visions of Johanna"; after all, he talked on and on about how the "thin, wild mercury sound" and how this song was the closest he ever came to capturing what he always heard in his head. Maybe that's what the visions mean to him - not an image of what we mean as humans, but what he meant as a musician and what he strived for in every song that he wrote. And doesn't that seem like something that might preoccupy him every day of his life? Imagine being a man who has written great song after great song all his life, waking up every day knowing that you never really reached what you feel you can reach as a musician, and that no matter how many people love what you've written and sung it just isn't good enough for the inner critic inside yourself. Who knows, maybe Bob still feels that way today. For his sake, I hope not. If Vladimir and Estragon are any indication, that wait can be absolute hell.

Author's note: EBDS is taking a break for the holiday season - "Visions of Johanna" seemed like a good place to close up shop for 2008. I look forward to picking up where I left off in 2009. Thank you all once again for reading and commenting; my big resolution for '09 will to be more of an active commenter, so that it doesn't feel like I'm putting you on an island, but that you're as much a part of this site as I am. Have a great holiday, whichever yours may be, and see you in the New Year!

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Anonymous said...

Waiting for Godot isn't legendary. It really is a play, you know.

Unknown said...

Merry xmas to you Tony. Great work here and always look forward to the next installment. I agree with you regarding studio vs live VOJ - the musical arrangements are such (especially Robbie's guitar) that the live version is not as thrilling. Sounds hollow - maybe intentional given subject matter. Can't wait for the basement tapes. Ignore the twit who posted the fist comment

NBooth said...

Great writeup. VoJ is my bar-none (well, perhaps bar-"Red River Shore") favorite Dylan song precicely because of the way he captures the backwards-looking or inwards-looking or upwards-looking nostalgia. My own intuition is that it is about an ex-lover, but of course that doesn't mean that it's only about that: like "Red River Shore" and "Shelter from the Storm," there seems to be something bigger in the wings.

Justin Hamm said...

Has a more evocative song line ever been written than this:

"The ghosts of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face"

When my writer friends who aren't convinced of Dylan's literary merit ask for proof, I point them to this song. The truth of what Dylan expresses here is just devastating--and every bit as powerful as the best literary short stories we were supposed to drool over in grad school.

Definitely a peak in the art of songwriting.

Anonymous said...

I gotta add that all live versions are not equal. I've listened to many. Bob's mood in the particular show can be summed up in how he does VoJ (if he does VoJ). Try Muenster 2000....


Anonymous said...

thin,wild,mercury music.
the best

joe butler said...

for me it's a 3 o'clock in the morning, you can't sleep, and your on the verge of a breakdown kinda song.

Pete said...

I don't know the Muenster 2000 show ... pointers? ... I'm partial to the Beacon 2005 version ... I think this is his most perfect song, and if Tambourine Man is my favorite forever that's just because I prefer imperfection, which probably explains why I still have a soft spot for the 1965 Freeze-Out version (especially the moan in the middle), even though it's nowhere near as good and he was quite right to rerecord it.

And in case anyone didn't know, check out the cover of the Stones Ya-Ya's live album -- jewels and binoculars hanging from the head of, well, I think it's a donkey but you get the picture

Anonymous said...

VoJ, long time, perhaps all time favorite, just because and don't know why.

A more recent favorite, All the Tired Horses in the Sun. I swear, this troubador has got to be the slyest humor around,
takes sometimes thirty, forty years to get the joke. Seems those horses are all rested up...frisky, prancing, ready to bolt. Some poor unsuspecting soul will find themself in the,
taken for a ride.

Anonymous said...

Happy Hollies Mr Tony!
EBDS has been one of the best things of 2008.

keep rockin, see ya next year.

Anonymous said...

very interesting writing...although it's not necessary to call yourself a genius... however I guess that's not my business.
The issue at hand - this is a beautiful song, sublime and great poetry. Obviously open to interpretation..a great sign of any poet.
Even if you're not interested in the Dead, find yourself one of the very few versions that the Dead did of this in '95 before Garcia passed. I have the Philly Spectrum version and it undeniably and astonishingly strong and emotional. A man pouring his heart out in his last moments. Sublime in it's own right.

Nicolás Pérez Arce said...

It's like a follow up of Mr. Tambourine Man, isn't it? Just a more straightforward approach I think. It's not about Johanna but about the visions. Probably: Mr Tambourine man = Johanna. Or if not it's a pretty tight relationship between them. Look, doesn't it fit?:

"Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?/ Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind"


"And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain/Down the foggy ruins of time"

And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind...

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite Dylan song, in any form I've heard it in, but my favorite version is off of Biograph which is just sightly different than Live 66. In this version the Harmonica is absolutely stunning. It replaces the organ in the album version with an almost horrifying out of world feeling to it. It makes the song more personal in someway, not necessarily more personal to Dylan nor more personal to me, but still somehow more personal. Whatever version you like, the lyrics are amazing.

Jewels and Binoculars, hang from the head of the mule.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

starboymikey said...

VOJ tops my personal list of all-time Dylan songs. I've been listening to it for 40 years and it still gives me the chills, and the nuances always keep growing and changing.

Some might think this is off-the-wall, but I think "Little Boy Lost" is Dylan himself. I read an article once where someone talked about how they came across Dylan (in his most drugged-out period) muttering to himself in the hallway during a party ... literally "muttering to himself." When I read that, of course, I immediately flashed on the line from VOJ, and that whole verse suddenly appeared in a new light.

Who knows? I guess it's as good an interpretation as any.

Unknown said...

there is no such a hebrew word "gehena" .The correct word for hell is "gehenom"
I really hope that it is his ex girl. works great for me

Rachel said...

I've thought of Johanna as childhood. This is a wonderful post, beautifully written. Never knew about this site but thrilled to find it.

Moose said...

Saw Dylan perform this last year. It was a highlight and the best song he did imho.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the name 'Johanna' translates to God's Grace, or God is Gracious... my mother chose it as a middle name for me. I love reading this about the lyrics, and the comments; I have not researched the song before, really..
My sense is Johanna here in his song, points to the 'thin wild mercury music' of Faeryland, which are alternate planes not easily found on this planet, and in the past, many musicians went back and forth along the borders (feel free to differ)..
in the world of Fae, one is accepted as one is, and time drifts there strangely, but the jam sessions are awesome. a blessed summerland of sorts, I feel. ---
For me, living with the name, I try to keep my awareness of God's grace, or direction in me/ guidance, as a kind of compass in my life how to flow with things and changes. I am nudged here by Spirit to type this for the readers who follow.
thanks again for the wonderful comments, so varied.

kenkap99 said...

Very good review, especially about the comparison to Withing for Godot. I DO think the song is informed by Baez but not in the literal way you dread. I think the "Visions of Johanna" are the "visions" of a better world in the purest sense, her commitment, that Baez held, and kept to all her life, and that Dylan rejected for a far more acerbic and explosive exploration of personal and social issues. The third verse seems to reference their relationship in which Dylan is "little boy lost"., and "in bringing her name up, he speaks of her last kiss". Dylan drove Baez away from him on his 1965 tour and she was deeply bitter about it. Here I think he feels regret.

So its not about "pining for her", he was already close to marrying Sara Lownds. But the higher ethereal ideals that Baez fought so strongly for (he was her lover after all), I think ended up as the primal representation in this song.

David George Freeman said...

Hello, thank you for your fine analysis of this song. When you have done enough reading come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to all the great versions.

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