After a lot of head scratching and navel gazing, and with a little bit of advice from Tom the door-to-door ice cream salesman, I have an analysis of one of Bob’s finest songs, Visions of Johanna, for your consideration and discussion.
The song is basically a dark night of the soul and either a lament for a lost lover or a longing for a perfect love (or both).
I would suggest, for the sake of this narrative, that Bob has split from his lover (Johanna) and is living with two friends (Louise and her lover) in their loft space. In his book Chronicles, it is documented that Bob stayed at a lot of different friends’ places in the 60s during his time in New York.
Louise sympathises with Bob’s heartache, but later goes to sleep to leave Bob to stay up all night and through to the dawn with his thoughts.
The song is written in five stanzas. I will give my comments after each 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
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
‘And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it’ - Louise is sympathizing with Bob’s heartache but also telling him that it is fate and that he should just accept it.
Country and Western music – that bastion of hard-luck-songs, just isn’t connecting with him. He feels numb and detached.
Seeing Louise in love with her partner and ‘Lights flicker from the opposite loft’ only accentuate his feelings of isolation that other people are enjoying life and love and he isn’t.
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 electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
This first lines suggest the power of women in love’s game is something that Bob (‘the watchman’) needs to come to terms with. Prostitutes (the ladies) are using their power to mock men and make money.
Louise, with her lover, is reflecting to Bob all the things that he is missing.
‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ – one of Bob’s most loved lines – and one of my favorites. Louise is peacefully asleep; Bob is still awake, tormented by his thoughts of ‘Johanna’. The ‘ghost of electricity’ could be artificial light, from an adjacent room or a street light, reflecting on Louise’s serene face. The line contrasts Bob’s tormented state of mind to Louise’s peacefulness, in a disturbing and almost violent manner. A brilliant line though, whatever it means.
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
A bit confusing this stanza:
Maybe, Bob is now alone – the others are asleep – and he is talking to himself, internally. The ‘he’ and ‘me’ are both Bob. He is depressed and is questioning his own self esteem.
Or it could be that Bob is talking disparagingly about Louise’s lover. Jealous and resentful that he is in a relationship.
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
Bob vents his frustrations against passive people. Having loved and lost he feels that at least he is an active participant of life.
‘Infinity goes up on trial’ could be the battle between faith and reason, religion against science – the cold reasoning that if you don’t love then you won’t get hurt. Active against passive.
The habit that some people have of collecting art and then thinking that they own a piece of life or of salvation is seen by him to be a ridiculous point of view.
‘Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule’, another of his infamous lines, could be ‘passive’ art critics – like old women that get dressed up to go to a theatre, carrying binoculars to see the performance from their VIP box. They know nothing of real life; they are only interested in their social standing and appearance.
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
Louise (the countess) and her lover (the peddler) wake up. Louise’s lover resents Bob being around. Louise berates him for his insensitivity. Bob has a low opinion of Louise’s lover, hence the contrast in status between countess and peddler.
Bob has been up all night, but he still feels bad; he hasn’t had any kind of divine help (Madonna, she still has not showed) so he gets ready to leave.
The city is waking up (the fish truck is loading) and he now comes to the realization that he (the fiddler) should just keep on keeping on with his singing career. He has a head overloaded with ideas and thoughts that he decides are best channeled into his songwriting and performing.
‘Skeleton keys’ open all doors; ‘rain’ the expression of sorrow. He (the harmonica playing songwriter) now believes his road to salvation lies with himself and his songs. (Good news for us music fans.)
As to who ‘Johanna’ is – it’s not so important, is it? I don’t think knowing who she is would add or detract anything from an amazing song. It could also be that Johanna is not a real person at all, but a yearning for a perfect love – either from a woman or from God.