Bob Dylan's 'Roll on John' - an analysis - Part 2.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Roll on John’ – an analysis – Part 2.
In this article we take a closer look at the first verse and the refrain of this song.
Somewhere I read a very creative interpretation saying that the words ‘Doctor, doctor tell me the time of day’ would refer to a common practice used in hospitals for attendants or nurses to note the exact time of death of a patient. ‘Another bottle’s empty’ would refer to blood transfusion, to the fact that another bottle (bag) of blood is empty and that further treatment of the patient is useless, also useless because ‘another penny is spent’, which would mean that another life is blown out. ’He turned around and he slowly walked away’ -according to this interpretation- would refer to doctor Lynn who on December 8th 1980 at 11.15 pm - turned around and slowly walked out of the emergency room of the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center to notify family and press that John Lennon had passed away.
Intricate and inventive as this interpretation may be, we don’t feel that this is what Dylan had in mind. What seems more realistic is that the first line of this song was taken from an old song from Lonnie Johnson called ‘Oh! Doctor The Blues (1926)’, which has the following opening lines: ‘Oh doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day, Oh doctor, tell me the time of day, all I wants is a good drink of whiskey, to drive my blues away, some people say, that it's women, wine, and song, but it's the blues and whiskey, that lead another good man wrong’. So the opening lines have more to do with the use of alcoholic beverages, of liquor, and the effects this use has on the mental status of the poet. He was so much in a state of intoxication that he had lost all sense of time and now he starts to awake and begs for help from a doctor, as if he says: ‘Doctor please help me, I don’t know who I am, where I am, and what day it is, help me out of this dreadful trance, it is enough now, another bottle’s empty, another penny is spent’. The expression ‘to spend a penny’ means ‘to use a public lavatory’. It refers to the (former) use of coin operated locks on public toilets. It was used mostly in the UK and mostly by women (men's urinals were free of charge). Within the context of the song it refers to the frequent use of a public lavatory following excessive drinking.
It would seem that Dylan uses this whole scene of drinking and the effects it has on him, primarily to express a sort of anesthesia he underwent, to make the unbearable in some sort of a way bearable, to make the unthinkable in some kind of way thinkable. Unbearable and unthinkable is what now follows: ‘They shot him in the back and down he went’. This is so hard to bear for a sober mind and almost too terrible to be true, just as he wrote elsewhere: ‘I need something strong to distract my mind’. It is the more so unbearable because Lennon was a fellow- artist and this makes it extra scary, what happened to Lennon may happen to any celebrity, may in fact also happen to Dylan: some lunatic who catches you off guard and shoots you in the back.
But there may be a second reason why Dylan opens the song with this drinking scene. I wrote in my previous article that the opening lines of this song are reminiscent of some sort of medieval dream-vision poem in which the poet enters into some kind of trance at the start of the poem, loses all sense of time, and loses contact with the present world and enters an entirely different, ancient world, a world where the difference between the conscious and the subconscious and the difference between reality and fiction is continuously obliterated. ‘Doctor, doctor tell me the time of day’ indicates that the poet has lost all sense of time and that he is now ready and in a position to sway backwards and forwards between the times and experiences of John Lennon on the one hand, and the ancient times and experiences of St John, cooped up on the isle of Patmos in 95 AD, on the other hand.
‘He turned around and he slowly walked away, they shot him in the back and down he went’ refers to the horrible and senseless murder of John Lennon on December 8th 1980. John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman at the entrance of the building where he lived, The Dakota, in New York City. Lennon had just returned from Record Plant Studio with his wife, Yoko Ono. Chapman took aim directly at the center of Lennon's back and fired five hollow-point bullets at him from a Charter Arms .38 special revolver. After being hit four times in the back Lennon staggered up five steps to the reception area, saying, "I'm shot, I'm shot" and ‘down he went’ to the floor and died shortly afterwards.
It says ‘they’ shot him in the back, where one would expect ‘he’ shot him in the back. The reason why Dylan uses a more generic ‘they’ here, may be that Dylan somehow feels that the society as a whole bears responsibility for the fact that it creates circumstances which make it possible for kinky and deranged personalities as Chapman to arise and commit such horrible crimes, also a subdued feeling is expressed, as if Lennon was in a generic sense killed by his fans or pubic, even if only one individual actually pulled the trigger.
A lot of analysts and fans feel that in the refrain of the song:’ Shine your light, move it on, you burned so bright, roll on, John’ Dylan addresses John Lennon directly, some see it as a prayer from one great artist to another great artist. Plausible as these interpretations may seem at first glance, yet personally, for various reasons, I cannot get my neck around this interpretation.
First of all, the same words ‘Shine your light’ were also used in the song ‘Precious Angel’ (1979). In this song Dylan addresses the ‘precious angel’, who is said to be Mary Alice Artes, the woman that is said to have led Dylan to Jesus in 1979.But there is more. At the time, somewhere in 1979, John Lennon responded furiously to Dylan’s conversion to born again Christianity. When in 1979 Dylan wrote a song called : ‘Gotta serve somebody’ Lennon retorted by composing a song called ‘Serve yourself’ with lyrics like: ‘Well there's something missing in this God Almighty stew, and it's your mother (your mother, don't forget your mother, la), you got to serve yourself, nobody gonna do for you, you gotta serve yourself, nobody gonna do for you, well you may believe in devils and you may believe in laws, but if you don't go out and serve yourself, la, ain't no room service here’. Yoko Ono in in 1998 somewhat tried to soften the harshness of Lennon’s stance in this matter by saying about ‘Serve yourself’: "[This song] was right after Dylan's song "You Gotta Serve Someone", you know - the lord, I suppose, you know. So then he was kind of upset about that and it was a dialogue, you know. In that sense it's fun, I mean you can hear it was fun. He wasn't seriously against it. He showed his anger in a way but also [...] his sense of humor”. Although –as far as we know - there is no known record of this, it is not hard to imagine – to say the least of it - that at the time Dylan was not amused by Lennon’s antagonism and must have felt run down hard by these words. No matter how much respect Dylan has for Lennon as a great artist, he certainly does not see Lennon as a source of light in the way Dylan sees Light and certainly not as a Light that should shine on him and on others for that matter. Although there is a lot of compassion for John Lennon shining through in Dylan’s words, yet all this makes it not very likely that when Dylan says: ‘Shine your light’ he addresses John Lennon. Dylan seems bewildered, perplexed by the senseless murder of his good acquaintance and fellow artist Jon Lennon, who was brutally knocked down while he was still in the prime time of his life, and Dylan is now looking for somebody that could in any way shed some light on what seems utterly senseless, the incredible and the incomprehensible, the fragility of life.
The beauty of poetry as embodied in Lennon can in an instant be swept away by the most extreme violence. We see the same phenomenon come back later on in the song when Dylan quotes William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. In this poem a tiger is pictured. A tiger which is at the same time strikingly beautiful in its appearance and yet also terrifying and horrific in its capacity for violence. Therefore, in order to come- in some sort of a way- to terms with his bewilderment and perplexity, it seems that Dylan in his anguish flees for comfort to the other John, to St John the Apostle. He turns to St John, the writer of his favorite Bible –book: ‘The Revelation to John’, to have his light shine on this matter.
St John is quite appropriately called the ‘Apostle of Light’. The3rd day of Christmas (December 27th) is St John’s Day. Much of St. John’s work – his gospel and his letters - is suffused with light encountering darkness and overcoming it.
So when St John is addressed here with the words ‘Shine your light’ it is not actually St John’s own light that is meant but the light of Jesus which St John so abundantly reflects and of which he testifies. Jesus calls himself the Light of the world (John 8:12).The most senseless killing in history was the killing of the Light of the world, of Jesus, at the same time it was the killing that made the most perfect sense. Only in Him the old and weary poet finds comfort for all that would otherwise be senseless and incomprehensible.
‘Move it on, you burnt so bright’, in the Apocalypse Jesus reveals to St John that He, Jesus, is ‘the bright morning star’ (Rev.22:16), a light that burns so brightly,’ it moves on’ through history. His light not only burnt so bright when He was on earth but it will continue to shine and it will never fade.
In this refrain of the song there is also a clear sense of urgency. Words like ‘Move it on’ and ‘roll on John’ express this urgency, an urgency which we find in many a place in St John’s Apocalypse. Time after time St John makes it clear that the end is near and that Jesus will come back soon, e.g. Rev. 22:7: “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of prophecy written in this book” and Rev. 22:12, 13: “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End”. ‘Move it on, roll on John’ because the time is near and be ready for you do not now the hour.
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