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 doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain
Tempting 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 insane.
Louise she's all right she's just near.
She's delicate and seems like veneer
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here.
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
While 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.
Oh, how can I explain? 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, "Jeez!
I can't find my knees!"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a 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
Saying, "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 everything'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 in the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.
The lyric of Visions of Johanna is more complex than any Dylan had offered before, having three distinct parts and an ever changing refrain that only repeats the words “visions of Johanna” in entirely different contexts. The penultimate verse is even extended to add three more lines to great climatic effect, ending on “my conscience explodes!” And the wordplay at several moments is very striking and memorable: “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”; “inside the museums infinity goes up on trial”; “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule”; and “harmonicas play the skeleton keys in the rain.” Dylan’s language is frequently evocative of sensual impressions, such as “in this room the heat pipes just cough” in such a manner that they seem over-determined, like experiences on an acid trip or in a dream; that is, as if carrying more meaning than what is apparent in fact. In the case of the heat pipes that cough, the image has prompted critics to imagine the lyric was composed in the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Greil Marcus has suggested that the first verse describes the first great East Coast blackout on November 9, 1965. [Marcus: Bob Dylan’s Dream, published in The Guardian, June 21, 2008]
Much has been written about the characters Louise and Johanna in this song. Louise seems to be the woman at hand, offering a sexual pleasure without depth, while Johanna is the absent woman of the poet’s desire. Further implications connote that Louise is a prostitute, one of them “all night girls”. Perhaps Johanna is the muse, like Mona Lisa for Leonardo de Vinci, or Madonna for devout Catholics. The poet seems to be stuck between the present and his hopes for the future. All other identities in the song seem subsumed within the trinity of the poet, Louise, and Johanna. “Little boy lost” may be the poet talking roughly to himself (he interjects “Oh how can I explain? It’s hard to get on!”), as well as filling in the shoes of the peddler and the fiddler. Louise reappears as a countess. Johanna as Madonna seems to have abandoned her niche in the incensed Church and been brought out to the street among the stinking fish trucks. The mixture of the sacred and profane in the psychedelic experience of the poet makes his religious “conscience” explode (rather than the more unpoetic “consciousness”).
Robert Shelton [No Direction Home (2011), p. 225] writes that Dylan's technique in Visions of Johanna of throwing out "skittering images" evokes "a mind floating downstream" [as John Lennon would tell his audience to do in the soon to be released Tomorrow Never Knows]. Shelton continues that these "non-sequential visions" are the record of a fractured consciousness. He further argues that the song explores a hopeless quest to reach an ideal in Johanna, and yet contains the knowledge that without this quest life becomes meaningless. He suggests that the same paradox is explored by John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn.
It has been observed that the idea for Visions of Johanna may have been derived from the Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s novel Visions of Cody, in which heterosexual Kerouac worships his bisexual friend Neal Cassady (who served as poetic muse to homosexual Allen Ginsberg). Given Dylan’s immersion in Kerouac, which was also apparent in Desolation Row, there is some merit to this. The poet seems to have a similar obsession with Johanna as Kerouac had with “Cody” who lived out in California while Kerouac was stuck in New York City. The song, when heard under the influence of hallucinogens pulls very strongly on nostalgic longing for a distant friend. Psychedelics were famous for destroying ego and leaving only desire: “these visions of Johanna are all that remain.” In another sense, like a dream, psychedelic experience is such that you have to write it down, or make some other artifact out of the experience, for it won’t be retained well in conscious memory. It could be that Dylan is saying that the song is all that remains of his vision.