Running 7:31, "Visions Of Johanna" is one of more mysterious Bob Dylan songs. So what are the "visions of Johanna that conquer my mind," and who is "Louise?" We'll never know for sure, and it seems Dylan intended it that way. He did offer this guidance when addressing the song in Rolling Stone magazine: "It's easier to be disconnected than connected. I've got a huge hallelujah for all the people who're connected, that's great, but I can't do that."
According to Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin, Dylan was living with his future wife Sara in the Chelsea Hotel when he wrote "Visions Of Johanna." Greil Marcus, another esteemed Dylan scholar, narrowed it down to an even more specific timeframe. He claims the song was written during the East Coast blackout that hit New York and seven other states on November 9, 1965. If true, that could explain the lyric, "These heat pipes just cough." The Chelsea Hotel has long been a New York City landmark, but even back then it was kind of dumpy. The part about the pipes was most likely about the literal heating pipes of the Chelsea.
Al Kooper, who was a prolific session musician, played the Hammond B3 organ on this track. Kooper went on to become a successful producer and worked on some of Lynyrd Skynyrd's most famous tracks. He also played the iconic organ on "Like a Rolling Stone
The song was first recorded on November 30, 1965, in Columbia's Studio A. It went through many takes as Dylan tried to narrow down his vision. He didn't finalize it until February 14, 1966. By then, recording had moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
Dylan flew in and got to work right away. He sat at a piano in the recording studio and wrote for hours. Without ever getting up or taking a break, he finished the work, called the other musicians in, and they laid down the final take right there.
On January 6, 1966, in between the initial recording session and the final take, Dylan's first son Jesse was born. Jesse and mom Sara flew into Nashville with Dylan on the day the song was finalized.
In her 1975 song "Winds Of The Old Days," Joan Baez seems to be making the case that she is Johanna. Sample lyrics: "A decade flew past her and there on the page, she read that the prince had returned to the stage," "Most of the sour grapes are gone from the bough, ghosts of Johanna will visit you there."
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Some lyric analysis:
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous artworks in the world. Leonardo da Vinci painted it in the early 1500s. It's a portrait of a woman sitting placidly with a subtle, mysterious grin on her face.
And Madonna, she still has not showed
In Catholicism, a "Madonna" is a work of art featuring Mary, mother of Jesus. Sometimes the piece also features Jesus and sometimes not. This is interesting considering both the spiritual undertones of the song and the frequent references to museums and works of art. There's another possibility, though, given what we know about Dylan's life at the time.
Madonna was a nickname for folk musician Joan Baez. Baez already fits into this song in the sense that Dylan had been in a serious relationship with her not too long before writing it. Baez was as instrumental to launching Dylan's career as any other person in Dylan's life. In 1963, she brought Dylan onstage to perform with her at the Newport Folk Festival when she was a bigger star than he was, a move that seriously elevated Dylan's status.
Baez earned the Madonna nickname after her performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. After that show, a writer referred to as the "barefoot Madonna," and the name stuck. Her persona was always as an earthy, spiritual voice of the people.
In this room the heat pipes just cough
It was wintertime when Dylan was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City when he wrote this song. So, while much of the song is symbolic or surreal, the coughing heat pipes might have been literal.
The first time Dylan played the song live was February 5, 1966, at Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York. This was nine days before recording the final, definitive version recorded in Nashville.
The song's working title was "Freeze Out." This adds credibility to the claim that Dylan wrote it during the New York City blackout.
In their June 1997 issue, Mojo magazine named this one of their 100 Greatest Psychedelic Classics. Jon Savage wrote of the song: "As early as 1963's 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune,' Dylan was exploring the egoless surrender to the universe that would characterise the first, benign phase of psychedelia. From 1965 on, his gnomic, gnostic utterances laid down the parameters for what would follow, as The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones fell under his spell. Dylan issued disclaimers - "I never have and never will write a drug song... It's just vulgar," he exclaimed on the last night of his 1966 world tour - but this 'Visions Of Johanna,' taken from the night before, has the infinitesimal focus of acid-time compression."
Psychedelic Furs lead singer Richard Butler cites this as the song that had the most influence on him. "I think the words are great and the imagery in the verses is fantastic," he told Songfacts
. "His voice is fantastic on it and the whole song is so beautiful - kind of mournful, but beautiful. The whole mood of it is fantastic."