(Published in The Owl, Hilary ’04)

Bob Dylan – what’s all the fuss about? Why do people get so excited about a crap singer with a rhyming dictionary? And what is this Dylan vs Keats rubbish? As a Dylan obsessive myself, I feel obliged to offer an explanation (or an excuse, at least). Perhaps the best way to do this is to demonstrate the richness of what many consider his greatest song, Visions Of Johanna, from the album Blonde On Blonde. Now Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet. But that doesn’t mean that his lyrics can’t withstand close reading. By reading his lyrics on the page we are not thereby automatically neglecting the importance of, for example, his singing (which often, believe it or not, rescues dodgy lyrics). Our question here, then, is whether it is worth studying his lyrics.

I propose to read Visions Of Johanna in its entirety, verse by verse. I will offer my reading, not a definitive one. My aim is simple: to show that it is worth the bother. (No past experience of Dylan or literary criticism is required.) Before we start, a brief introduction. On the most literal level, the action in the song takes place in bed. The narrator (call him Dylan) is in bed with a girl called Louise; by the end of the song he’s having sex with her; and all the while, he’s thinking of Johanna. My claims will be these: Louise represents the earthly, the prosaic, the finite; and Johanna represents the pure, the poetic, the infinite. So the Louise vs Johanna opposition which runs through the song has three dimensions: they are opposed as women, as styles of writing, and as metaphysical positions. All three will be explained in due course, and all three are present from the very beginning.


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 song opens with a rhetorical question. The feel is worldly-wise, wry. What tricks? we wonder. The creaking of floorboards springs to mind, or the coughing of pipes. But there could be others. Dylan’s signal is that we must be on our guard throughout. Is there a hint ofHamlet’s opening gambit? – ‘Who’s there?’ asks Barnardo, fearful of again encountering the spectre of Hamlet’s father, a terrible vision.

Dylan’s second line takes the form of an answer to the first. What tricks? The tricks of denial, perhaps the false consciousness that represses the earthbound nature of our existence. We must be on our guard, in case the night tempts us into denial of our finitude, he suggests. And Louise is to be on our side in this battle, urging us to defy the need to deny it. Louise wants more than friendship, though. She holds a handful of rain, tempting you. This is plainly a fertility image: Louise is womanly, and knowingly so – she offers tangible rewards. Repressing the urge to enjoy these offerings is itself denial, of a different sort.

Note also the clever rhymes of the first three lines. ‘Deny it’ and ‘Defy it’ are elided in a lazy, three-in-the-morning drawl, to rhyme with ‘quiet’, which is correspondingly pulled apart to something like ‘Qui-et’.

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

The next two lines are scene-setting, their spare description evoking a late-night eeriness. The stillness is interrupted by the lights, the pipes, and a country music station playing soft. But there’s nothing really, nothing to turn off. This is a virtuoso metaphor for a songwriter’s (Dylan’s?) worst nightmare. Failure isn’t being hated, it’s being a nothing.

This fear of nothingness is explicitly tied to loving Louise in the next line. The night plays tricks on the songwriter, forcing on him intrusive visions, visions of Johanna, where there’s nothing – nothing to turn off, only Louise and her lover. If there’s nothing to turn off, there’s nothing turned on either – and that includes Dylan, who is so unimpressed by his entwinement with Louise that his focus is (comically) on a loft that’s far away and noises that are barely audible. Louise and her lover are the country music, just as Johanna will be poetry.

One of Dylan’s favourite tricks is to play around with the first-, second- and third-persons in his narrative (think Tangled Up In Blue, if you know it). ‘You’, ‘we’, ‘him’ and ‘me’ are all the same person here, though Dylan can exercise a lot of purchase on the story by varying the perspective at different moments. The use of “her lover”, which is in fact ‘me’, implies here a distancing of the singer’s true self, conquered by visions of Johanna, from his current situation, caught up with Louise, thereby reinforcing the impression of an oddly distracted lover.

The first verse of the song contains all the themes of the rest of the song. The opposition of Dylan’s true and false selves. The opposition of Louise and Johanna – on one level, the dime-a-dozen girl vs the non-existent soul mate; and on another, the earthly vs the pure, the ideal. This last opposition, when inflected by the singer’s evident concern with songwriterly failure, turns into a question of artistic mundanity vs pure creativity. If we see this aspect, we might see the singer’s being entwined with Louise as him being engrossed in writing a mediocre song. These motifs haunt the form and content of the remaining verses, to which we now turn.


In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s insane
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just 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

The second verse begins, in its first four lines, with a mysterious story about ladies playing blindman’s buff, all-night girls whispering of escapades, and a troubled nightwatchman trying to figure it all out. I can think of two readings of this story. What does seem to be present is a distinction between females having fun, and males wondering what’s going on. Something’s happening here, but the nightwatchman doesn’t know what it is. We could read Dylan himself as being the night watchman, surveying the night, clicking a metaphorical flashlight of focus onto the empty lot beneath his loft. Indeed, the whole song could be read as a study of the workings of ‘night’ – imagination, sex, temptation, guilt – the theme being introduced in the opening line.

Or we could, I would suggest, read the first four lines as being the mediocre song I mentioned in the last section. On this account, the story becomes an attempt to conceptualise the problem of the singer’s dissatisfaction with Louise, and yet finding the Louise-ness of his own writing a barrier to that process. It’s all right, it’s just near. Art, as Hamlet says, should aim “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature”. But Louise-writing only seems like the mirror. It’s too easy, too concise, too clear…that Johanna’s not here. This deft enjambement(running a phrase over a line-break for effect) serves to highlight not only the central contrast between Louise and Johanna, but one of the expressions of that divide, the form of the song itself. Clarity is equated with falsity, with seeming to be like the mirror of art (Hamlet: “I know not ‘seems’.”); transcendence forbids clarity of form: Johanna must remain a vision.

Louise is prose, Johanna is poetry. The ghost of poetic electricity, the creative spark if you will, haunts the singer as he considers Louise’s face, as he is consumed by visions of Johanna’s perfect beauty. This image is the highlight of the song for me. Just as in Dylan’s later song,Blind Willie McTell, in which a lament on the death of the blues becomes itself a rebirth of the blues, in deploring the lack of poetry in Louise’s face the singer creates poetry, with a line of startling transcendence that whose meaning is clear yet opaque: “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.”


The third verse continues to transform Louise vs Johanna into a question of writing.

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously

The first line of the verse jumps out at the listener with a clear reference to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. In some ways, this is a problem, because for those who don’t pick up the allusion the line reinforces the impression that they just don’t ‘get’ Dylan. But given our present purpose, to see whether Visions Of Johanna repays close reading, it couldn’t be better. Not only is the allusion rich when examined, but also its sheer presence is self-consciously writerly and thereby underscores the theme of the verse.

There are two Blake poems titled ‘little boy lost’ in the aforementioned collection: the former being The Little Boy Lost and the latter A Little Boy Lost. Both are concerned with the theme of God’s nature: if He transcends everything, then He is little more than a “vapour”; because of this, he is impossible to love without anthropomorphizing; and yet to declare that is to set “reason up for judge of our most holy mystery.” Innocence leads the boy astray in following this vapour; Experience sees him, having learnt from his mistake, questioning the vapour and paying the price. We see the latter in Songs Of Experience:

‘Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.

‘And father, how can I love you,
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.’

The priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair.
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.

And, standing on the altar high,
‘Lo, what a fiend is here!’ said he,
‘One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.’

The weeping child could not be heard;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burned him in a holy place,
Where many had been burned before.
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?’

For Blake, transcendence has become not something to be wondered at, but a constraint on wonder. It has become institutionalised. Dylan picks up this theme in the fourth verse of Visions Of Johanna. Here, though, his reference to himself as a ‘little boy lost’ shows him wondering whether the Louise/Johanna question is a Catch-22 situation: to declare, like the little boy in the first two verses of Blake’s poem, that transcendence is impossible to conceive, is to call forth a public hanging from those who have institutionalised transcendence; and yet is transcendence not possible after all? What exactly is the trick the night is playing here?

We witness another attempt by the writer to tell the story he wants to tell:

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a 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
Oh, how can I explain? It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

This is the story of a doomed relationship, told from Louise’s point of view. If we take “her name” to be Johanna, then my reading gets a foothold. The singer is criticized by Louise for his pretensions, the way he brags of his misery and takes himself so seriously. He says he must leave her, offering a farewell kiss. And then the eloquence descends into the land of the rhyming dictionary, over-written internal rhymes pile up, poetry becomes prose – and Louise has not yet been bidden farewell. As with the previous verse, we are given another example of the writer’s ability to transcend prose only when lamenting his lack of poetic ability. How can I explain? he asks. Explanation is prose; showing is poetry. With his degenerate rhyming, the singer shows that Louise is still there, and in the act of showing he gives us a brief and distracting vision of Johanna.


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

This is the most obscure verse in the song, with its rampant surrealism and dense allusions. Recall our discussion of A Little Boy Lost. Blake criticizes the institutionalisation of transcendence, the institutionalisation of infinity. The boy’s attempt to question infinity, to bring it back down to earth, is a hanging offence. It helps to read this verse in the light of Blake’s poem. Museums, like the Church for Blake, represent institutionalised infinity, an infinity which must now go up on trial in the spirit of the first line’s scepticism: let’s be sure there are no tricks here. We have the voices of orthodoxy echoing around the box of the museum, banalities distorted by the writer’s surreal ear. (Like those art guides who can tell you matter-of-factly that ‘This figure represents everlasting beauty’, before moving on to thenext transcendent masterpiece of the 30 minute tour.) And then the subversion. A bit of cultural history: Mona Lisa, a beauty without knees, encased and trapped in the palace of the Louvre, was the subject of a debunking act of Dada-ism by the great conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who, in his L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), gave her a moustache and goatee beard. (For Duchamp, infinity really must go up on trial – indeed, the title of his work, when read aloud in French, means ‘she has a hot arse’.) Modern art has been the subject of vicious attack from the Establishment of infinity, and this verse mocks that Establishment with its surreal (nothing too concise or too clear) take on the haute-bourgeosie with their wallflowers and “jelly-faced women”, their “jewels and binoculars”. But if those he mocks are cruel to Mona, to Johanna, by confining her, his attack too is revealed as cruel and petty in comparison with Johanna, unworthy of her.


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

The final verse, whether literally or metaphorically, sees the singer getting into bed with Louise. He is the peddler (of songs and ideas), she is the countess (why, I don’t know). She is appearance, and so her care for him can only be a pretence; his hope turns to disgust, idealism to cynicism, as he tells her cruelly that the only person worth praying for is the one who doesn’t exist. She retorts that he should get real (what the hell is he looking at the opposite loft for?), and demonstrates her own earthly concerns, preparing for his entry.

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

Where is Johanna, the Madonna who would rescue him from earthly degradation? A cascade of seven rhymes is the writer’s last, desperate attempt to wash away prose; we feel him straining with every sinew of writerly (and, indeed, bodily) muscle, trying his damnedest not to give up or in. But the empty cage of song which he has constructed for her has remained unfilled, and now corrodes like the church in R.S. Thomas’s The Empty Church (written later than Dylan’s song):

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

As with Thomas, Dylan continues with the song because of the hope that its cage will capture her shadow. The ghost of her dramatic presence howls in the bones of that night, of the song itself. The singer himself is now “the fiddler”, revealed as a petty swindler – the tricks of the night have been of his own making. His path is clear. He must pay Louise back for her night-long care, her putting up with his visions. The recompense must be formal: his duty is to complete the song, to consummate the relationship. The fish truck – must I point out the sexual image? – loads; his conscience explodes.

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

The final couplet resolves the matter. Harmonicas play skeleton keys – they go through the motions (nothing really, nothing to turn off; and yet somehow still enough to evoke the ghost of ‘lectricity) – as he accepts the rain, Louise’s fertile embrace. And all that is left of Johanna are visions of Johanna.

A grain of hope though: Infinity is manifest in the search for infinity. Dylan’s song does achieve poetic transcendence, if only in its search for that transcendence. There is a tragic beauty in the forlorn human quest itself. And that is hope enough. We don’t need to deny that we’re stranded to defy it. To quote Blake once more (from Auguries Of Innocence), our aim must be

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Visions Of Johanna, one of the greatest works of art produced in the twentieth century, stands as a monument to that task.