October 16, 2016

Something Wonderful: Visions 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

Why did Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Many think this devalues "literature." Many are ignorant of the Troubadour tradition. But does Bob Dylan's oeuvre devalue literature? It might if it wasn't literature.

Let rock music scholar -- and one time pal and collaborator -- Greil Marcus lay it out for you as he unwinds Visions of Johanna:

The June 1966 issue of the youth-oriented American fashion magazine Glamour carried an unusual feature: lyrics from the soon to be released Bob Dylan song Visions of Johanna, which Dylan had been performing onstage, alone, with an acoustic guitar, since late in the previous fall. "Seems like a freeze-out," he'd say to introduce the song before stepping into its slow, languid account of a night of bohemian gloom. Soon the song, recorded in Nashville earlier in the year with the best session players in town, would make a black hole on the first side of Dylan's double album Blonde on Blonde.

What was unusual about this was that the lyrics worked on the Glamour page as they were presented: bare, without accompaniment, without a singing voice, as poetry. All through Bob Dylan's writing life - beginning before his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan, the songs leaping in ambition, sophistication, daring, and style at first year by year and then month by month if not week by week - Dylan had written words meant to come to life when they were played and sung. A clumsy line meant as no more than a way to get from one place to another. The limp "He really wasn't where it's at" between the unflinching "Ain't it hard when you discover that" and the swirling "After he took from you everything he could steal", in Like a Rolling Stone, could fly by all without harm when it was lifted by a melody that was itself shot out of the cannon of a song by the singer increasing the pressure. But on the page a song's words are naked.

Line by line, Blowin' in the Wind is pious, or falsely innocent - isn't it obvious that whoever wrote "Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand?" already knows the answer, assuming he, or anyone, can actually bring themselves to care about such a precious question? But Visions of Johanna is asking different sorts of questions. Such as: Where are you? Who are you? What are you doing here? So you want to leave? Think you can find the door?

If you read "We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it" in Glamour in 1966, without having ever heard the line in a song, you could feel stranded in the white spaces between the words. People wandering from one corner of a loft to another, doped, drunk, half-awake, fast asleep, no point to the next breath, let alone the next step. "Sitting on the floor," as musician Steve Strauss wrote of the song in 1967, "collecting highs like so many stockbrokers collecting shares before retirement." As slowly as the song was played in late 1965 (at the time, the story was that the song had been written during the great east coast blackout of November 9 1965) on the page it was slower, because as a reader you stopped at every word, trying make it give up as much as it promised.

As a set of five verses, Visions of Johanna makes a narrative solely out of atmosphere. That's one reason why it read so slowly in 1966, and why it can read so slowly today: why the song as words on a page can silence the song you might carry in your head, and make you say the song yourself. There is a drama taking place here, in this dank room - somehow too big, too much space for too many people, too many shadows, for the person who's telling the story to get his bearings - even if nothing is happening, or if whatever does happen, whatever events actually push the air aside and mark a moment in time the narrator can actually remember, are not really events at all. This is what happens here: "We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight." Someone says, "Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him." A woman opens her fist to show the drugs she has and dares anyone to say no. "The country music station plays soft." And yet the peculiar contours of the fable that is being related immediately make sense. The words seem to meet each other in perfect balance, and separate with a sense of having said everything there is to say.

With poetry having left rhyme behind in the 19th century, rhyming couplets are now almost impossible for the modern eye to scan; here the gravity of the words, the dread in the synapses ("But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off"), erases all awareness that a line that ends with face is followed by one that ends in place. It's a locked-room mystery and you're in the room. As you read, you can't imagine wanting to get out, because you haven't yet explored every corner or plumbed the darkness for whoever might be lying in it. You haven't found the skeleton keys the guy on the other side of the room keeps muttering he's going to play on his harmonica.

As the room is locked, there is a way that for the reader no less than for the characters in the song - Louise, her lover, little boy lost, the "D" train whores - the walls are made of air. That may be why, over the last months of 1965 and the first months of 1966, Dylan was able to record the song in so many different ways. Always singing solo when he took the song to a crowd, in the studio he always took it to a band: to the Hawks, the bar band he was touring with, the group that, in 1968, would step out on their own as the Band. Here in New York in November the song is almost a honky tonk, with a bouncy rhythm; two months later it rises off the ground like a cloud; not long after in Nashville it's low-budget film noir, Detour without a road but with the same dead end; double back to New York as the new year breaks and it is a fury, threatening to shatter anyone who gets too close to the sound. Reading the song as it moves across a page, it's hard to hear any of that. The words make their own rhythms, and their rhythms enforce their own quiet.

The other songs collected here struggle to escape from the recordings the reader brings to them, and sometimes, for moments, they do, but there's no reason why they should; they weren't made to live a life outside of music. Who knows what life Visions of Johanna was meant to lead when it was written? The answer is to a different question: this is a song with countless lives, most of them as yet unlived.
-- Greil Marcus on Bob Dylan's lyrics

Full lyrics revealed if you....

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
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

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 really 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

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
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

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

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

Posted by gerardvanderleun at October 16, 2016 6:20 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Thanks, Gerard. This song has been floating in my mind for fifty years. How is this possible. Fifty years.

Posted by: pbird at October 17, 2016 9:07 AM

Dylan has written so very many beautiful tunes. While I don't always agree with his politics his songs always speak to me.
Talent cannot be hidden or denied.
I believe the Nobel committee got this one right.

"A long, strange trip..."

Posted by: Odins Acolyte at October 18, 2016 9:59 AM