I know it’s fall because I’m playing Visions of Johanna all the time. It’s certainly not because of San Antonio’s breathtaking foliage.
Visions is one of my favorite Dylan songs, partly because it reminds me of fall in my home state of Indiana, when sharp, cold gusts come at you out of nowhere. I don’t know how the line “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” could make sense to anyone who never spent a Friday night in a high-school football stadium or walking around looking for a college party in Muncie in early November.
The studio version on Blonde on Blonde is fine, but I like better the recording of Dylan’s 1966 performance of Visions at Royal Albert Hall. This time of year, my favorite, I play it on my phone in the car, on the bus, at work, while I’m washing the dishes.
Dylan’s opening chords create this sense of warmth and intimacy, a richness only achievable when it’s chilly and damp outside. It’s like he’s walked you out of the cold and into a small, toasty room with a single yellow bulb that doesn’t take its job seriously. People sit murmuring on couches and folding chairs against the walls, but you can barely see them. It’s like a dorm-room party late at night.
You leave the room after a while, as the song’s tempo picks up and its field of vision expands. You meet up with Louise and her lover.
Johanna never materializes, even as the structure softens and finally gives way to hallucination. And Madonna, she still has not showed. There’s always the promise of grace, never grace itself.
But Louise is with us from the beginning.
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
I don’t idolize women, and I’m not religious, so I never thought much of Johanna. But I like Louise a lot. She’s smart, gregarious, funny, and sexy. She’s great company. Dylan is just wrong about her.
He has this habit of sanctifying women and raising them up to insane heights. He’s done that with Johanna and the women of Shelter from the Storm, Isis, and scads of other songs. Fortunately, the landscape of Visions of Johanna is spacious enough to accommodate our disagreement, as big as it is.
That’s one of the hallmarks of a great work of art — you can reject the big idea at its core but still love its texture, moods, and rhythms.
And that’s the kind of experience we need most of all in this dry, hot fall of ours.