@#1 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.
Written and performed by Bob Dylan on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Several critics have acclaimed “Visions of Johanna” as one of Dylan’s highest achievements in writing, praising the allusiveness and subtlety of the language. Rolling Stone included “Visions of Johanna” on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1999, Sir Andrew Motion, poet laureate of the UK, listed it as his candidate for the greatest song lyric ever written. Numerous artists have recorded cover versions of the song, including the Grateful Dead, Marianne Faithfull and Robyn Hitchcock.
Clinton Heylin places the writing of “Visions of Johanna” in the fall of 1965, when Dylan was living in the Chelsea Hotel with his pregnant wife Sara. Heylin notes that “in this déclassé hotel…the heat pipes still cough”, referring to a line from the song. Greil Marcus reports that when the song was first released, “the story was that the song had been written during the great east coast blackout of November 9, 1965.”
Blonde on Blonde was released May–July 1966.
Known studio recordings:
Columbia Recording Studios
New York City, New York
30 November 1965
The 2nd Blonde On Blonde session, produced by Bob Johnston.
- take 8 released on THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL 7. NO DIRECTION HOME: THE SOUNDTRACK, August 30, 2005
- take 5 released on THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 12 BOB DYLAN 1965-1966 THE BEST OF THE CUTTING EDGE, 6 November 2015.
- all takes released on THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 12 BOB DYLAN 1965-1966 THE CUTTING EDGE – COLLECTOR’s EDITION, 6 November 2015
- Bob Dylan (guitar, piano, harmonica)
- Robbie Robertson (guitar)
- Garth Hudson (organ)
- Rick Danko (bass)
- Richard Manuel (piano)
- Paul Griffin (piano)
- Bobby Gregg (drums)
Columbia Music Row Studios
14 February 1966
The 6th Blonde On Blonde session, produced by Bob Johnston.
- take 4 released on BLONDE ON BLONDE, June 1966.
- First known performance: Westchester County Center, White Plains, New York – February 5, 1966
- It has been performed 216 times live – last performance: Sydney, Australia, Enmore Theatre – August 19, 2018
- Top year 2012 – 28 performances.
Visions of Johanna – Live in Sydney – August 19, 2018:
Dylan really had to work at ‘Visions of Johanna’ – which many, myself included, consider Dylan’s finest work/song – in the studio before capturing the sublimity of the Blonde on Blonde recording. In keeping with previous instances when he stepped beyond the paradigms of popular song, he initially seemed in something of a hurry to get the song captured in the studio, as if the inspiration would fade as quickly as the night vision he sought to contain. …
But the real triumph on ‘Visions’ is the way Dylan manages to write about the most inchoate feelings in such a vivid, immediate way. For now, it must have seemed like he didn’t even have to try writing something this great. As he said to the ever-attentive Hentoff only a matter of days before he wrote the song, ‘I’m not trying to say anything, any more. Once upon a time I tried to say, “Well, I’m here. Listen to me. . . . Will you let me stay at your house tonight?” . . . I don’t have to say that any more. . . . [The new songs]’d be there if anybody listened to them or not. They’re not manufactured songs.’
– Clinton Heylin – Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973 (Songs of Bob Dylan Vol 1)
Even if the song “Visions of Johanna” could be considered a poetic enigma, the pictorial and literary references in it are actually quite real. Thus, the Mona Lisa with a mustache evokes the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, revised by Marcel Duchamp, the precursor of pop art and the father of ready-made art. The text itself is characteristic of the cut-up technique employed by the writers of the Beat generation, in particular William S. Burroughs. Finally, as pointed out by Robert Shelton in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (basing his claim on Bill King’s doctoral thesis, “Bob Dylan: The Artist in the Marketplace”), the similarity between Dylan’s surreal musical ballad and the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats is obvious. Shelton states, “Bill King’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Artist in the Marketplace,’ calls ‘Johanna’ Dylan’s most haunting and complex love song and his ‘finest poem.’ He finds that the writer constantly seeks to transcend the physical world, to reach the ideal where visions of Johanna became real. That can never be, and yet life without the quest is worthless: this is the paradox at the heart of ‘Visions,’ the same paradox that Keats explored in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” 7 This song reflects Dylan’s continual, but hopeless, quest for happiness and perfection.
– Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Michel (Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track)
Dylan came to Nashville after playing a show in Norfolk, having resumed his touring with the Hawks (now joined by their old backup drummer, Sandy Konikoff). He was determined to finish “Visions of Johanna,” the masterpiece that had initiated the entire enterprise. It emerged in its final recorded form at the first date and inside just four takes (only one of them complete). Dylan now knew what he wanted, and the sidemen quickly caught on: Kooper swirled his ghostly organ riffs around Dylan’s subtle, bottom-heavy acoustic strumming and Joe South’s funk hillbilly bass; Robbie Robertson’s feral lead electric guitar sneaked in at the “key-chain” line in the second verse; Kenny Buttrey mixed steady snare drum with tolling cymbal taps that came to the fore during Dylan’s lonesome whistle harmonica breaks.
– Sean Wilentz (Mystic Nights – The Making of Blonde on Blonde in Nashville)
A major work in which five long verses and a coda structure an aura of nightmares, hallucinations, trances. The instrumental introduction draws us into a seven-and-a-half-minute work. The mournful mouth harp plaintively breaks the silence; chugging drums and stealthy organ insinuate themselves. The organ maintains the haunting feeling. The singing is superb, so purposefully phrased, so weary with rhythmic emphases as portentous as heartbeats. Electric guitar fills in, underlining and deepening. The skittering images hurl off like fragmentary chips from a mind floating downstream, neither time nor structure holding forces in check. The non-sequential visions are like a swiveling camera recording a fractured consciousness. The atmosphere is almost unbearably fetid and sad until verse four, where the rapidly piled-up rhymes of “freeze,” “sneeze,” “Jeeze,” and “knees” lighten the mood. We are back again among the grotesques: peddlers, countesses, all-night girls, lost little boy, Mona Lisa.
– Shelton, Robert (No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan)
Hypnotic and screwy and beautiful all at the same time. The way he sings the words “gall”, “all”, “wall“, “hall” are the stuff of legend. Again, he has a poet’s phrasing, he plays with the words, bends them, rolls them, makes them suit his agenda.
The lyrics are so imagistic, so liberated, so free-flowing that listening to the song is to take a journey. If you listen to it drunk or after too much coffee or when you’re stoned or when you’re tired or when you’re irritable or when you’re jet-lagged, no matter what, it shifts in every possible way every time you hear it. That’s great music for you: of its time and timeless.
– Nick Johnstone (Uncut Magazine – Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs)
This sparkles with that dreadful mystery that’s Dylan’s own. Hearing it for the first time has never left my mind. Suddenly I wasn’t a 15-year-old lis- tening to music anymore; I was hearing poetry. “Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft.” And there’s a pay-off line with Dylan. He says: “But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.” You listen and think, What the fuck was that? All the time this young man of 24 was thinking of a lost love. Maybe apocryphal, maybe genuine – but he’s a poet and he has licence to create. Every pay-off at the end of every verse just says there’s nothing here. Nothing exists. It’s all fantasy. Am I awake? Am I asleep? All I’ve got is visions ofJohanna, which keep me up past dawn. The man can’t sleep! He’s lovesick. But is he really? Or is this poetry? This isn’t Wordsworth or Keats. Dylan is beyond them.
– Steve Harley (MOJO Magazine – Bob Dylan – 100 Greatest Songs)
Every track on Blonde On Blonde is superb. But “Visions Of Johanna” seems to retain an edge because its mysterious and truly poetic language hasn’t become explicable. Who knows what this is about? Yet the lyrics ring absolutely true. Researching Down The Highway, I spent some time in a suite at the antiquated and cockroach-ridden Hotel Chelsea, where Dylan lived when writing Blonde On Blonde, and each morning before dawn, as the hot water came up from the boiler in the basement, the vibrating and expanding heat pipes in the old walls did indeed seem to “cough“, as Dylan puts it in “Visions Of Johanna”. Only a poet would describe it thus.
– Howard Sounes (Uncut Magazine – Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs)
“Visions of Johanna” is a tour de force, a breakthrough not only for the writer but for the very possibilities of songwriting. An extended, impressionistic account of a woozy New York City night, rich in pictorial detail and erotic longing, the five long verses zigzag between Dylan’s acute dissection of one woman, the tangible and available Louise, and his longing for an absent ideal. Johanna may not even be real. But she is an addiction. “It’s extraordinary,” Bono once said. “He writes this whole song seemingly about this one girl, with these remarkable descriptions of her, but this isn’t the girl who’s on his mind! It’s somebody else!” …
“I still sing that song every once in a while,” Dylan said in 1985. “It still stands up now as it did then. Maybe even more in some kind of weird way.”
– Rollingstone.com (100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs)
A sprawling (7:27) epic with no traditional pop chorus, “Visions of Johanna” is a view of an unattainable woman set against the backdrop of a mostly nocturnal downtown Manhattan. The lyrics are impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness, druggy, and surreal. The images are fleeting. The singer seems trapped with “Louise” while he desires and seems to chase the allusive Johanna. The journey takes Dylan through lofts, the D train, a museum, empty lots, and through snippets of overheard conversation, as well as a discussion with some “little boy lost,” who “takes himself so seriously,” and who is “so useless and all/muttering small talk at the wall” (this could possibly be a swipe at a critic). Meanwhile, through all the mundane and absurd, “these visions of Johanna” are haunting the singer. The simple, folky melody and thought of Johanna seem to keep the singer grounded in the face of a slipping reality.
– Bill Janovitz (allmusic.com)
A mesmerising masterpiece, Dylan at the absolute peak of his powers. How does it feel, as a songwriter, to have written something so perfect and unforgettable? Apparently the original title was “Seems Like A Freeze Out” – so even the stuff he rejected for the song is fucking great! When I’m groping for a song in the dead hours of the night, this is what l’m wishing I could summon up! And if I could swap my soul for the talent to write lines like. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”, I’d do it. What’s a soul compared to that level of poetic expression?
– Lyndon Morgans (Uncut Magazine – Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs)
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 (in*) the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
*most certainly in
16 May 1966
Theater Of Living Arts
21 June 1995
19 April 1996
Cumberland Civic Center
25 February 1999
New York City, New York
26 July 1999
Visions of Madonna version
24 September 2000
1 October 2000
13 July 2001
The Point Depot
27 November 2005
Grateful Dead – live 1995:
- Bob Dylan – The Lyrics: Since 1962
- Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon – Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track
- Robert Shelton (No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan)
- Clinton Heylin – Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973
- Paul Williams – Bob Dylan Performing Artist I: The Early Years 1960-1973
- Uncut Magazine – Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs
- MOJO Magazine – Mojo – The 100 greatest Dylan songs (september 2005)
- RollingStone Magazine – 100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs
- Olof’s – Still On The Road
3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Visions of Johanna”
Superb piece of writing posting and thank you for it Egil..
Impossible to argue with the No. 1 ranking. Song is truly magic!
Thank you so much for your site and work here.
I totally agree this may be his best song. I have listened to many versions over the years. I was lucky enough to be in the Enmore theatre here in Sydney for this latest outing for Johanna. This was right up there truly remarkable when you think the first live performance was in 1966. In 2018 it is still like a new song, with Bob sitting at the piano but performing with perhaps more passion than 1966. There is no doubt in 2018 he owned the room during this performance. Listen to the audience at times on this eg at “on the back of fish truck that loads” or at “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face”, we were in heaven.
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