Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966) | cover excerpt
Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966) | cover excerpt

Same Song Different Readings: Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’

Bob Dylan’s 1966 song, “Visions of Johanna”, stirred Germaine Greer, Greil Marcus, and other notable critics to argue the song’s meaning and influences. Who is right?

Blonde on Blonde
Bob Dylan
20 June 1966

That said, so extensive is Dylan’s lyric, so wide is its scope, that it demands to be compared as a whole with a more ambitious work. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land comes to mind. It offers a phantasmagoric journey through the inferno of modernity, and in doing so it deploys a discontinuous narrative, with characters emerging, merging, and disappearing – all of them lost souls in the corrupt metropolis, devoid of meaning. As with Eliot’s poem, the cultural landscape is depicted as barren: ‘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…’ 

With these lines, the whole business of being seen viewing works of art in approved places is defamiliarised and challenged with a startling verbal economy. ‘Infinity’ – the endless series of artefacts and the seemingly interminable sequence of days which one has to live out – is treated as synonymous with eternity, which in turn suggests ‘salvation’. Dylan is addressing not only the tedium of conventional religion but also the whole religion of art that self-congratulatory aesthetes ostentatiously celebrate.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – the most famous painting of the western world – is suddenly made strange, as Dylan queries the pretentiousness of the affluent cognoscenti. Seeing the woman in that painting as having the ‘highway blues’ is a far more interesting, far more radical, rethinking of that work than Marcel Duchamp’s smugly clever gesture of representing Mona Lisa with a moustache (an aesthetic joke that Dylan invokes ironically in a later line about the ‘wallflower frieze’, in which one of the ‘jelly-faced women’ sports – yes! – a moustache). 

Greer misses all this, so keen is she to put Dylan in his place as both a ‘creep’ and an incompetent lyricist. However, she did not go unchallenged – at least in general terms. On the ‘Comment Is Free’ page of the Guardian website, the poet Michael Horovitz queried the basis of Greer’s argument: 

As a literature professor rather than God, Dr Greer ought to know that lyric – derived from the Greek ‘for the lyre’ – was always the name given to verses sung to music, from those by Sappho and Pindar to those of blues and gospel raps, and those written, set and sung by Fats Waller and the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Allen Ginsberg, Brecht and Wolf Biermann, Joe Strummer, Damon Albarn, et al. Greer should also know better than to swirl her battleaxe over Dylan’s entire songwriting oeuvre on the basis of a few tacky lines from ‘Visions of Johanna’. Playing His Bobness on an off-day against Blake’s lyrical prime in ‘O rose, thou art sick’ is as critically spurious as it would be to juxtapose Greer’s piece against Dr Johnson’s Life of Savage as proof that she can’t even write journalism.

– Michael Horovitz

The case is well made in general terms, and its point about popular songs of the 20th century restoring the profound, ancient connection between words and music is one worth bearing in mind as we proceed. It’s a shame, though, that Horowitz implicitly concedes defeat on Greer’s choice of Dylan text. He rightly objects to the arbitrary nature of her selection of one particular verse out of context but grants the lines to be ‘tacky’. Of course, it would be foolish to claim that everything that Dylan has ever written is brilliant; but two things need to be said about that. 

Firstly, in responding to any given line, one has to respond to the whole song, and to the given performance of the song. So, for example, if you listen first to the version of ‘Visions of Johanna’ on the Blonde on Blonde album, performed with a group of musicians playing electric guitars and drums, and then listen to the live version performed solo by Dylan with only an acoustic guitar on his British tour in 1966. Differences in intonation, emphasis, and atmosphere are bound to affect one’s interpretation. 

Secondly, and more controversially perhaps, it has to be stated at the outset that Blake himself did not always produce poetry of undeniable quality. The point is to be able to see how his curious lapses of expression, which are also lapses of thought, never quite mar his body of work or detract from his original and powerful vision. The same goes, I would suggest, for Dylan.

Two years before Marcus, Greer and Horowitz offered their assessments of Dylan’s song, I was working on a book called Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (2012). In the chapter on Dylan, I was aiming to demonstrate the influence that the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had on his work. With ‘Visions of Johanna’, it was Kerouac in particular whose influence I emphasised. It led me to conjecture that Johanna’s identity echoes a specific work of his, Visions of Gerard (1963). Here is my perspective on that book, as included in my chapter on Kerouac:

A book steeped in the faith of his upbringing, perhaps overburdened with references to Catholic doctrine and marred by a sentimental attitude to Catholic institutions, it is also remarkable for Kerouac’s ability to find new ways of affirming the possibility of revelation. This possibility can arise only when one has given up all certainties. 

For at the heart of this affirmation is the paradoxical figure of his brother. Gerard is an innocent child with a saintly wisdom way beyond the grasp of the adults who witness his torment. He is a boy who loves both to play and to pray, who can engage in the usual games with his younger sibling and yet who can enlighten the nuns about the nature of salvation. Each ‘vision’ of Gerard is for Kerouac the manifestation of the sacred in the profane. As such, he stands as both the challenge of suffering and the answer to suffering. Intense pain pushes the young invalid to the point of a despair which is only the prelude to spiritual rapture. 

– Laurence Coupe

Kerouac is convinced that no sooner has Gerard plumbed these depths than ‘ecstasy unfolds inside his mind like a flower…’ Nor is his triumph solely an individual matter: ‘Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.’ Here, as through the rest of the book, I attempt to show that the term ‘Beat’ is a much more comprehensive term than is commonly supposed:

To ignore the spiritual connotation is to do the movement an injustice: certainly it is to misread Kerouac. We have demonstrated here his gradual realisation that, for him at least, spirituality was best articulated in terms of a specific religious practice – for him, the Catholic one. But even if one prefers not to concur, one can still benefit from knowing about his spiritual quest. The burden of his work is that those who are ‘beat’ by life are those who are truly blessed, for it is they who are open to the ‘beatific’ vision. It is up to the ‘Beat’ writer, inspired by the ‘beat’ of music, to articulate that vision as powerfully as possible. 


In the chapter on Dylan, I spell out how the song ‘Visions of Johanna’ might be  indebted to Visions of Gerard:

‘Visions of Johanna’ depicts life in the modern metropolis as alienated and fragmentary (‘We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it’), where even art offers no solace but rather a confirmation of disillusionment (‘Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’). While ‘Louise and her lover’ lie ‘entwined’ in a warehouse apartment, the solitary figure who stands by and who narrates such story as the song contains can only hope for his visions of Johanna to be fulfilled. We note that she is referred to also as ‘Madonna’ – a word which seems to be used here with its full spiritual association, unlike the ironic allusion in ‘Gates of Eden’. Echoing Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, Dylan’s song would seem to be about the hunger for beatific experience – the hope that the sacred realm might yet be glimpsed within the profane. Johanna, like Gerard, represents the salvation that comes out of suffering. But unlike Kerouac, Dylan depicts this possibility as tauntingly remote – a cause of suffering in itself. Thus, ‘Visions of Johanna’ is one of his major ‘songs of experience’, along with ‘Gates of Eden’.

– Laurence Coupe

That last echo of William Blake’s work is deliberate. It would be interesting to explore the affinities between Blake and Dylan at length, but that must wait for another day. The point I have been making in the final section of this article is that Dylan’s chief debt is to the Beat movement by which he was fascinated and that knowledge of that debt might open up some possibilities of interpretation.

Would I want to claim that my reading of ‘Visions of Johanna’ is more accurate than that of Greil Marcus? Not at all. How about Greer’s? Hostile as it is, I think it is perfectly appropriate for her to bring Blake into the argument, as does Marcus, but her hostility to Dylan clouds her judgement. Like Blake, Dylan is a complex figure, endlessly interesting. Each commentator must find his or her own strategy of interpretation. After all, the title of his fourth album was Another Side of Bob Dylan. I can only hope here to have conveyed some impression of his seemingly immeasurable variety.



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