brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from Bob Dylan …
Usually, I use this space to write about criminally underrated songs that few people have heard. Or minor hits that no one remembers anymore.
This isn’t one of those.
‘Visions Of Johanna’ is one of Bob Dylan’s most heralded songs. Some hail its lyrics as some of the best ever composed. Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 greatest tunes of all time.
But until this week, I had never heard it. And I’ve spent the last few days wondering how I’d ever gone 28 years without it.
I’ve known Bob Dylan’s music in a cursory way — all the famous songs, the backstory of his career. But it wasn’t until last weekend — when I saw No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s great documentary on the rock legend — that I was inspired to dig deeper into his music. I bought a bunch of his albums.
And ‘Johanna’ has haunted me since.
The Side 1 centerpiece of Dylan’s classic 1966 record Blonde On Blonde, ‘Johanna’ is a masterful piece of songwriting. The melody doesn’t have an immediate hook, but it lingers in your mind. The vocal sounds longing, lonely and bewildered. And the lyrics — my God, the lyrics. They’re poetic, of course, but not just pretty. They tell the sad, tragic story of being with someone open and willing to love you — but having someone else planted in your mind. (I’ve included the words below, because they have to be read as well as heard.)
But the most striking thing of all? Dylan was only 24 when he wrote it.
Maybe you haven’t heard ‘Johanna’ either. It wasn’t a hit. It’s not on any of Dylan’s greatest hits collections. But it shouldn’t be a lost song for anyone.
P.S. — The album version isn’t available on YouTube. But it doesn’t matter. The live, solo, acoustic version is just as — if not more — affecting.
‘VISIONS OF JOHANNA’
Words & Music by Bob Dylan
Released by Bob Dylan in 1966
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