Today, we look at a brilliant Bob Dylan lyric that it as mysterious as it is awesome.
This is To Quote a Phrase, a spotlight on notable pop culture quotes.
October is a Month of To Quote a Phrase, both here and at Comics Should Be Good!
Generally speaking, you’ll drive yourself nuts if you try to get literal meanings out of all of Bob Dylan’s music, and that’s just normal. Obviously, even songs that are otherwise fairly straightforward in terms of just telling a story about someone’s life (think something like Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well,” about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal) will have SOME lines that are not 100% direct references to a real life incident. You’d go crazy if you tried to take very single last line of a song to a specific incident in someone’s life.
So obviously, the same goes for Bob Dylan songs, but in the case of Dylan, he was so famous that not only does everyone in fandom do it, but even people who KNEW Dylan would do it. This brings us to “Visions of Johanna,” which appears to be a story of a man who is with one woman, but dreaming of a former love. Bob Dylan wrote the song in November 1965, right before he married his then-girlfriend, Sara Lownds, when they were both living in the Chelsea Hotel (nominally in separate rooms).
Throughout the song, there is a “Louise,” who is the woman the song’s narrator is currently with, but there is also “Johanna,” who the song’s narrator can’t stop thinking about. Dylan’s former girlfriend, Joan Baez, always believed that SHE was “Johanna,” and, hey, what do I know? Maybe she’s right. However, I think a more likely guess is that “Johanna” is just a symbol for all the women Dylan is ostensibly putting aside once he settles down with “Louise.” Again, do note that this song was written, like, literally the same MONTH that Dylan got married to Sara Lownds, who he would remain married to for about a decade, having four children with her (and adopting her first child, as well).
So if I had to guess, I’d say it’s a general lament for a guy with a lot of girlfriends questioning whether his current girlfriend is “enough” for him to settle down. But whatever, maybe it’s a lament for Baez. It really doesn’t matter SO much for the line that I’m going to spotlight, which is nestled into a section that shows the song’s narrator up late at night with “Louise,” listening to the sounds of New York City late at night from the windows:
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 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
Okay, so, “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the boens of her face” is an amazing lyric, right? And yet, what do you think it MEANS? Is he watching someone on television? Is Joanna on TV? Is he referencing the way light can reflect off of a person’s face? Is he just referring to some sort of “magical” (quotes because I don’t mean literal magic, but like the way someone can make you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re around them. Stuff like that) electricity?
Either way, the line is beautiful, but hey, if you all want to play along with your guesses, feel free to leave a comment!
Okay, folks, if you have notable quotes from TV, movie or music that you’d like to see me spotlight this month, drop me a line at email@example.com!