Shakespeare in the Alley

Show Seven-love songs, part iI



Part II focuses on a single song, “Visions of Johanna,” one of Dylan’s richest and most complex songs about human longing for the eternal.  The real vs. the ideal is explored as Dylan declares, “Inside the museum infinity goes up on trial.”  This is perhaps Dylan’s finest song in the Romantic mid-sixties period, where "little boy lost" longs for the ideal.

This show extends last week’s look at love songs.  We found that  many of Dylan’s love songs are not traditional love songs at all.   This week’s focus is on one of Dylan’s most haunting and complex love songs, first recorded for the 1966 Blonde on Blonde album, “Visions of Johanna.” 


In this show I focus on a song so complex that is comparable to the great odes of John Keats. “Visions of Johanna” is in many ways typical of Dylan in the mid-sixties: it is twelve minutes long.  Its forty-eight lines portray a rather ambiguous relationship with a woman, or rather with several women, (thus the album title, perhaps, blonde on blonde).  It is filled with obscure images, some with a surrealistic quality.  Reviewers speculate about who or what is represented by the mysterious Johanna.  Is it a code name for Joan Baez?  Is it Sara, Dylan’s wife?  Is Johanna some fantastic being or a real woman?

As with several of the songs on the 1966 double album Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was already performing “Visions of Johanna” in early 1965 but chose not to record them until mid-1966.  It is certainly not one of the songs dashed off in the studio as the outlaw Dylan would lead us to believe, though some of his songs were, including “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  The song’s mystery is clear from the very first line:


Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tyin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it.
Lights flicker from the opposite loft,
In this room the heat pipes just cough,                                                                            5
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off,
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Is this really so mysterious?  We’ve all had those moments when, late at night, we get into a mood and ask ourselves what life is all about?  We contrast the mundane reality which we face with the ideal which only exists in our dreams.  Faced with Louise, we have our visions of Johanna.  But Johanna is not just another woman.  If all we want is “another woman,” there are many kinds, as the next verse opens to point out:

In the empty lot the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight, ask himself if its him or them
that’s really insane.
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near,
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror/veneer,
But she makes it all too concise and too clear                 
That Johanna’s not here.
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

If all you want is another woman, you can swap wives at parties where husbands throw car keys in a hat and wives pick a key and go home in that car.  Or you can go find one of the “all night girls who whisper of escapades out on the D train.”  All under the eye of the night watchman.   But that’s not what’s longed for, that’s not Johanna .  Both the speaker and Louise long for something that transcends the mundane reality of country music and meaningless sex.  Louise is “delicate and seems like veneer (not the real thing) or the mirror, which only produces a reflection of self.  Dylan likes both words and sometimes uses one, sometimes the other. 

At the end of the first verse the speaker says that the visions of Johanna have replaced Louise, they have “conquered my mind.”  At the end of verse two the reverse happens and Louise replaces her lover with the visions of Johanna.  Louise’s longing can be seen in that famous image:  “the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face/ where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.”

The speaker observes himself entwined with Louise and yet wishing she were the ideal, the madonna who links one with God or Truth or Beauty or whatever name one gives to transcendent reality: Dylan uses Johanna.  This is implicit in the final section of stanza one, but in verse two becomes explicit: Louise “makes it clear/That Johanna’s not here.”  Verse two also emphasizes another contrast: if Louise is not Johanna, neither is she an “all-night girl” or a lady who plays “blind man’s bluff with the key-chain.”  The opening section of verse two depicts the decadence of sexual games, games which are merely attempts to escape the feeling of emptiness.  Louise, however, is without pretense, a victim of neither of these games, but for the speaker she is a mirror which gives back his own reflection, an image which is not Johanna.  The final section of verse two carries the process a step further, for in it Louise too replaces her real lover with her own “visions of Johanna.”

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

So the progress of the song moves from the loft in verse one where the speaker and Louise listen to country music but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off to verse two where other alternatives to Louise are presented, various other women—or kinds of relationships, and then the realization that Louise too is dissatisfied, that she too has her visions of Johanna.  The third verse jars us with the appearance of a new character it seems, but, as often is the case, little boy lost is not another but that part of the speaker who has been in touch with Johanna :

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously,
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously                                           20
And when bringing her name up he speaks of a/her farewell kiss to me.
He’s sure got a lotta gall
To be so useless and all,
Muttering small talk at the wall
While I’m in the hall.                                                                                          25
How can I explain?  It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past dawn.

One of Dylan’s poetic techniques which is found in many of his songs is his shift of perspective or point of view.  He frequently moves from the first person ‘I’ to the second person ‘you’ to the third person ‘he’ or ‘she’ within the same song, sometimes even within the same verse.  As we have seen in earlier shows, sometimes Dylan is speaking of himself in more than one way, as in “She Belongs to Me” where the ‘she’ is himself as artist and the ‘you’ is the rest of is identity. 

She's got everything she needs,
She's an artist, she don't look back.
She's got everything she needs,
She's an artist, she don't look back.
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black.

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees.
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees.
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees.

In “Visions of Johanna” we see him playing this same trick of splitting himself into parts, roles.  ‘Little boy lost’ represents that part of himself which has made contact with Johanna, the ideal, the beautiful, the true, leaving the rest of himself ‘in the hall.’  Art is, after all, the pursuit of the ideal, the quest for beauty and truth, which, as Keats’s claims in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” are the same.  That ode ends with the famous lines:  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  But the beauty of art is, like little boy lost, useless.  In fact art is often defined by that very trait: lack of functionality, of use. 

So the ‘he’ third person which refers to little boy last and the I who stands in the hall are merely different aspects of the complex character which we call Bob Dylan.  In an interview Mary Travers in April, 1975, Dylan commented that his use of the first person on Blood on the Tracks made it more personal.  Dylan’s reply was that first, second, third, even “fourth person” were “all the same.”  One cannot speak except about himself, Dylan implies, and once the listener becomes aware of the intermixture of these perspectives Dylan’s songs become less obscure. 

In the first verse there’s Louise who is referred to as the second person ‘she’ and her lover, the first person ‘I’.  The opening line introduces the second person: you.  But it’s the ambiguous ‘you’ we use frequently to many anyone: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet.”  Line two produces first person plural: “we sit here stranded thought we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” That “we” refers most obviously to  “I” (the speaker), and she, Louise (the speaker’s lover), but it also includes  “you” (everyone, especially the listener),and “he” (the speaker observing himself).  That last is the most important, for it is the ability to see oneself from the outside, to see all the “selves” within one, which distinguishes the artist.    This self-observation is first obvious in the third section of stanza one where the speaker refers to “Louise and her lover so entwined” and is extended even further in the third verse where we get “little boy lost.”  That ends with a transition from night to day: “And these visions of Johanna have kept me up past the dawn.”  

Verse four expands beyond the night, beyond Louise, beyond the other women, beyond the little boy lost with his gall—to the world whose purpose it is to express those visions of Johanna:  the world of art.  Unfortunately we have tried to encapsulate that world in a tomb-like environment.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.

Even here in this world of timeless art, where the Mona Lisa rules, where the freezes from ancient Greece are displayed to remind us of that golden classical age of Plato and Aristotle, even here there is pretension and prostitution.  Art which gives eternal expression to that restlessness at the heart of human experience has been artificially preserved in the museums where the visions are put “up on trial.”  Through these museums parade the “veneer” people, staring at the visions which are safely isolated from life in their cold tombs.  We can hear Dylan’s attitude expressed differently in the 1966 Playboy interview.  He tells Nat Hentoff this:

Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that.  To go to an art gallery thing where you get free milk and doughnuts and where there is a rock’n’roll band playing: that’s just a status affair.  I’m not putting it down, mind you: but I spend a lot of time in the bathroom.  I think museums are vulgar.  They’re all against sex. 

Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” was released at about the time of this interview.  Verse four evocates the feeling of the typical museum with the word “echo” which captures the sound of hard stone walls and high ceilings.  More important, it captures our emotional response to this second-hand, artificial experience.  This is reinforced by the words “see” and “hear” which parody the tour guide’s language.  The meaninglessness of the art to the jelly-faced tourists who stare cruelly as “Infinity goes up on trial” is heightened by a double entendre.  When Dylan says “See the primitive wallflower freeze” he refers not only to an ancient work of art but to another kind of woman whose shyness contrasts decidedly with the sneezing jelly-faced women.  (Are they, perhaps, allergic to art?)  Finally, there is the wonderful word “mule.”  “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.”  This line suggests that the tourist gawking throught the museum is not only stubborn but ugly and sexless.  To one with visions of Johanna, to one who prizes the infinite value of art, who seeks the ideal beyond the limits of mundane reality, the mule’s relationship to art “all seems so cruel.”

The other fate for art besides being confined to the museum is to be bought and sold.  Dylan is quite aware that he is an artist working in the market place.  In “Tough Mama” he has this line:  “I ain't a-haulin' any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore.”  How is the artist to survive in the marketplace?  Dylan, of course, has chosen to work in a medium which is even more noticeably “in the marketplace,” yet by using this medium he has escaped the museum.  His art is out there where the people live.

At about the time Dylan wrote this song in 1965, he wrote the liner notes to his first album recorded with a band, Bringing It All Back Home. Those liner notes address this issue of the artist functioning in a medium which is usually not considered art. 

i'm standing there watching the parade/
feeling combination of sleepy john estes.
jayne mansfield. humphry bogart/morti-
mer snerd. murph the surf and so forth/
erotic hitchhiker wearing japanese
blanket. gets my attention by asking didn't
he see me at this hootenanny down in
puerto vallarta, mexico/i say no you must
be mistaken. i happen to be one of the
Supremes/then he rips off his blanket
an' suddenly becomes a middle-aged druggist.
up for district attorney. he starts scream-
ing at me you're the one. you're the one
that's been causing all them riots over in
vietnam. immediately turns t' a bunch of
people an' says if elected, he'll have me
electrocuted publicly on the next fourth
of july. i look around an' all these people
he's talking to are carrying blowtorches/
needless t' say, i split fast go back t' the
nice quiet country. am standing there writing
WHAAT? on my favorite wall when who should
pass by in a jet plane but my recording
engineer "i'm here t' pick up you and your
lastest works of art. do you need any help
with anything?''


my songs're written with the kettledrum
in mind/a touch of any anxious color. un-
mentionable. obvious. an' people perhaps
like a soft brazilian singer . . . i have
given up at making any attempt at perfection/
the fact that the white house is filled with
leaders that've never been t' the apollo
theater amazes me. why allen ginsberg was
not chosen t' read poetry at the inauguration
boggles my mind/if someone thinks norman
mailer is more important than hank williams
that's fine. i have no arguments an' i
never drink milk. i would rather model har-
monica holders than discuss aztec anthropology/
english literature. or history of the united
nations. i accept chaos. I am not sure whether
it accepts me. i know there're some people terrified
of the bomb. but there are other people terrified
t' be seen carrying a modern screen magazine.
experience teaches that silence terrifies people
the most . . . i am convinced that all souls have
some superior t' deal with/like the school
system, an invisible circle of which no one
can think without consulting someone/in the
face of this, responsibility/security, success
mean absolutely nothing. . . i would not want
t' be bach. mozart. tolstoy. joe hill. gertrude
stein or james dean/they are all dead. the
Great books've been written. the Great sayings
have all been said/I am about t' sketch You
a picture of what goes on around here some-
times. though I don't understand too well
myself what's really happening. i do know
that we're all gonna die someday an' that no
death has ever stopped the world. my poems
are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/
divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/sub-
tracted by people constantly torturing each
other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive
hollowness -- seen at times through dark sunglasses
an' other forms of psychic explosion. a song is
anything that can walk by itself/i am called
a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some
people say that i am a poet

(end of pause)

an' so i answer my recording engineer
"yes. well i could use some help in getting
this wall in the plane"


How do you get the wall in the plane.  How do you deliver this new kind of art?  How, if you have visions of Johanna, do you convey this to others, whether Louise or the night watchman or the American public in general?  And if it doesn’t come in the usual package labeled “art” or hang in the museum, how are we, the audience, to know that it’s art? 

It can’t be art if it’s popular, some say.  Commercialism and art don’t mix.  Dylan has summarized this attitude:  “there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.”  When one has to peddle his art, does that make it merely a commodity?  The last verse explores these issues, introducing the peddler and his patron, the countess. 

The peddler now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him
Sayin', "Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out
and say a prayer for him"
But like Louise always says
“Ya can't look at much, can ya man?" as she herself prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

This final verse adds what at first seems to be two more characters: the countess and the peddler.  What is he peddling, we wonder.  Surely not art, since we don’t’ “peddle” art.  He seems a bit defensive about his dependence on the countess, who he suspects only pretends to care for him.  Is she like the mule?  Is her love of what he’s peddling in vain?  His own cynicism comes through when he claims we are all parasites, not just him .  He claims that everyone is looking out for number one, that everyone is a parasite of some sort, but if everyone is parasitic then ultimately its one big symbiotic mess.  Louise chides both for not taking a larger view: “You can’t look at much can you man?”   But she too is doing some pretending, for she is preparing surrender to the peddler, which is to say, not Johanna. 

No matter what view one takes, however, Johanna, like the Jack of Hearts, is “the only one on the scene missing.   “Madonna, she still has not showed.”  The term “Madonna” here expands the significance of Johanna beyond the aesthetic sphere to the spiritual.  Johanna suggests not just the eternal world of art but of the spirit, the soul.  There is no salvation from the situation.  A reporter asked Dylan, after his mid-sixties albums and tours had catapulted him into international fame, “What have you got to look forward to?”  He answered with just one word: “Salvation.”

As the song comes to an end the fiddler who is the peddler who is the speaker,18 can only hit the road, as we hear in the middle section of that final verse:

And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes

This middle section from the last verse illustrates one of Dylan’s favorite tricks: the accordion section that expands as needed.  Each of the five verses has three sections marked by consistent rhyme scheme, line length, and musical division.  The middle section has four lines each until the final verse which has seven lines.

Dylan also manages to do his accordion trick within lines.  In song, meter is quite different from poetry meant for the page.  The music allows for the measuring of lines not in traditional feet but in musical beats or measures, producing an effect similar to that of the “sprung rhythm” used by British poet Gerard Hopkins.  This allows Dylan to give the same five stresses to both this short line in verse one:

            And Louíse holds a hándful of ráin, temptin’ yóu to de it,

As he gives to this much longer line in the last verse:

But like Louíse always sáys, “Ya can’t look at much cán you man?” as she hersélf prepáres for him.

This is one of the qualities that demonstrates how Dylan’s songs are for the ear rather than for the eye.  One the page these two lines don’t scan.  They don’t read the same, but sung, they work.

The final two lines of the song are as enigmatic as the closing lines of Keats’s famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  In that famous ode Keats’s speaker contemplates an ancient work of art, a Grecian urn, one that he would have seen in a museum.  The final lines address the urn itself:

When old age shall this generation waste,  
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe  
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,  
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all  
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Illustrating how this is a poem for the page, scholars argue about the placement of the quotation marks in the final two lines.  Does the urn say “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” and then the speaker of the poem comment that “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”?  Or does the urn say it all.  Keats put the quotation marks both ways in various manuscripts.  Dylan has that sort of ambiguity in his final lines, but is ambiguity for the ear:

The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

These lines rival Keats’s for teasing us with ambiguity.  We cannot be sure whether the harmonicas play both the skeleton keys and the rain, or if both the rain and the visions “are now all that remain,” or, indeed, if the harmonicas play the whole thing.  Are the harmonicas like the urn, speaking to us?  And if so, how much do they speak and how much does the speaker add as comment?  The phrase “skeleton keys” is itself hauntingly ambiguous, musically appropriate, since each harmonica is in a specific key while additionally suggesting both death and the key which opens every door.  The beauty of poetry is that it can mean more than one thing.  In the best poetry all meanings are complementary and “Visions of Johanna” must be counted among the best poetry.

 This song is so rich that it requires multiple listenings to even begin to take in its complexity.  I want to play it through without interruption for you at the end of show, but first, (pause) I want to make a few more comments, beginning with the opening line, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when we’re trying to be so quiet.” It evokes that late night mood which often descends on us when we are up late with a friend.  Dylan’s use of the word “loft” suggests both sensuality and isolation.  There is a feeling of intimacy which we try to convince ourselves is not superficial, but the cloak of illusion is pierced by the reality outside when Louise with her “handful of rain” tempts us “to defy it.” That third feminine rhyme following “quiet” and “deny it” ends the first section of verse one.

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it

            The second section consists of four shorter lines filled with poetic images which create the scene for us:  flickering lights, coughing heat pipes, country music from a radio. 

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off

Then that first verse closes with two which punctuate and comment on the scene portrayed in the verse :

Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

It’s a complex verse form which carries through five verses, all rich in images which, ironically, point beyond the physical world to something beyond which cannot be reached: those visions of Johanna .  Yet what is  life without the quest for Johanna?  This is the paradox at the heart of “Visions of Johanna,” the same paradox explored by Keats in his odes, especially his “Ode to a Nightingale.”  In a couple of performances Dylan even adds a line in the accordian section of the final verse:

The fiddler he now steps to the road
Knowing everything’s gone that was owed,
He examines the nightingale’s code
Still left on the fish truck that loads…

The tension in the song between Louise, the flesh-and-blood lover, and Johanna, the transcendent ideal, is a theme found in more than one of the English Romantic poets.  This quest for the ideal, this longing for the world of Keats’s nightingale and Grecian urn, this is the pursuit of little boy lost, a name borrowed from the title to one of those Songs of Innocence and of Experience by another of those English Romantic poets, William Blake.

This quest for the ideal can lead only to the desperate cry of the final stanza where we hear the pain of being caught inside the nightingale’s code with the highway blues again. 


This is covered in chapter one ofThe Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics. This chapter is online. Click on the title.

© Shakespeare in the Alley, 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Website Design by Juliana Harrisking