Dylan's 'Roll on John' - an analysis - Part 3.
Dylan’s ‘Roll on John’ – lyric analysis – Part 3.
In this third article we take a closer look at the verses 2 and 3 of this song.
‘From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets’ refers to the early days of the Beatles. The Liverpool docks – Merseyside - is the place where it all started. Today, located within Liverpool's historic Albert Dock there is a Beatles museum called ‘The Beatles Story’. ‘The red-light Hamburg streets’ is a reference to the period 1960-1962 when Beatles members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best regularly performed at various clubs in the ‘red –light’ district of Hamburg in Germany. The St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg, where they performed and where the Indra club was located was in this ‘red-light’ district, a district where there was a lot of prostitution. This period marks a chapter in the group's history which improved their performance skills, broadened their reputation, and in the end led to their first recording.
‘Down in the quarry with The Quarrymen’ is some sort of a pun and may provide the first link between John Lennon and the other John referred to in this song: John, the Apostle.’ The Quarrymen’ (also written as "the Quarry Men") was a British skiffle and rock and roll group, formed by John Lennon in Liverpool in 1956, which eventually evolved into the Beatles in 1960. Originally consisting of Lennon and several school friends, the Quarrymen took their name from a line in the school song of Quarry Bank High School, which they attended. The first lines of this song called "The Song Of The Quarry” read: ‘Quarry men old before our birth, straining each muscle and sinew, toiling together Mother earth, conquered the rock that was in you’.
A quarry is a type of open-pit mine from which rock or minerals are extracted. Quarries are generally used for extracting building materials, such as dimension stone, construction aggregate, riprap, sand, and gravel.
We feel that ‘Down in the quarry’ can hardly be related to John Lennon or to his group the ‘Quarrymen’. ‘Down in the quarry’ rather takes us back in time to the year 95 AD, to what happened on the small Island of Patmos. Patmos - measuring only about 6 by 10 miles- was a quarry mine for the Roman Empire. Today the island is part of Greece. It is located in The Aegean Sea near the west coast of present Turkey. The island housed many of the Roman Empire’s political and religious prisoners and slaves. John, the beloved apostle of Jesus, was being held as a prisoner of Rome on this island for his continuous preaching of Jesus. Rome believed that by banishing the old man John to the remote, desolate and forsaken island of Patmos, his voice would be silenced. When John was exiled by the emperor Domitian in the year 95 AD to this island to do hard labor in the quarry mines, John was aged in years, and near to the end of his life (his ‘bones were weary, and he was about to breathe his last’).
According to the tradition the Roman emperor Domitian was so outraged by the fact that John miraculously survived when he was dipped in boiling olive oil, that he banished him to Patmos. Since John was a contemporary of Jesus, John would have been by that time well over 90 years old, making him very likely the only apostle to survive to such an old age. The rest of Jesus apostles and disciples were already martyred decades earlier.
‘Playing to the big crowds’ refers to the years 1963-1966 when not only the Beatles concerts in Europe, in the United States, and Australia were attended by large crowds of fans but also to their TV appearances. On 9 February 1964, the Beatles made their first live US television appearance. No less than 73 million viewers—about two fifths of the total American population—watched the group perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, at the time the show had the largest number of viewers that had been recorded for a US television program.
‘Playing to the cheap seats’ is a reference to the Royal Variety Performance of the Beatles in London (November 4th 1963) attended by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret. John Lennon said to the audience: ‘For our last number, I'd like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll, just rattle your jewelry’. Of this incident Mark Hertsgaard reported in ‘A Day in the Life’: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles (1995): "The remark provoked warm laughter and applause, and was greeted with profound relief by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who had feared Lennon would make good on his pre-performance threat to tell them to "rattle their fuc****' jewelry". ‘ Another day in the life on your way to your journey's end’, ‘A day in the life’ is a track from and a reference to the Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Released in June 1967, the album is considered the most influential and most famous rock album of all time, and is one of the world's best-selling albums ever. This highlight marks another day in the life of the Beatles, and marks the start of a journey which for Lennon would come to a dramatic end when he was murdered in 1980. For John, the Apostle, doing hard labor in the quarry mine of Patmos, seemingly marks a low, a nadir, which in the end would produce something beautiful: The Book of Revelation.
Some say that ‘Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South’ would refer to a stormy 600-mile voyage which Lennon made in June 1980, from Rhode Island to the Bermuda triangle in a 43-foot schooner called ‘The Magan Jaye’. A sort of captain’s logbook was made of the voyage which includes notes and doodles made by Lennon. The book also contains other entries and anecdotes which hint at the importance of Lennon’s Bermuda trip, and of which some say that it lifted Lennon out of depression and inspired him to start working on his last album ‘Double Fantasy’. Some rock historians even considered the Bermuda trip one of the most important events of John Lennon’s life.
Yet we have good reasons to believe that not only this line but in fact this whole verse does not refer to John Lennon but to St John the Apostle and his whereabouts on the island of Patmos. This is also sustained by the fact that whereas the first line ‘Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South’ may in some way –albeit not necessarily- be linked to Lennon, the following line however,: ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave’ cannot in any way refer to John Lennon. So, if it is much more likely that it refers to St John, what does it mean? First of all, St John had been living for some
time in the town of Ephesus when he was captured by Rome and subsequently banished to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea in 95 AD. Ephesus was a port on the South-West coast of Minor Asia – present Turkey –. A voyage from Ephesus to the island of Patmos took only a few days. Patmos was roughly situated south of Ephesus and that may be the reason why the lyrics say: ‘Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South’. Secondly, apart from this, in this area there is a kind of ‘a trade wind’, it is called the ‘Khamsin’ and it is a southeasterly wind which blows from North Africa to the eastern Mediterranean. We conclude therefore, that ‘Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South’ most likely refers to the voyage from Ephesus to the barren island of Patmos which John, the Apostle, made in 95 Ad as a banished prisoner and slave of Emperor Domitian.
The following words ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave, ‘they tied your hands and they clamped your mouth ‘ 'Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave’ and later on in the song also ‘You been cooped up on an island far too long’ , ‘they hauled your ship up on the shore’ and ‘they'll trap you in an ambush 'fore you know’ are all words taken more or less literally from Robert Fagles translation (1996) of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. To read these quotations within the context of Fagles 1996 translation of ‘The Odyssey’ we refer to the very interesting contribution of Scott Warmuth on this subject. The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is believed to have been composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia. One may wonder what the influence of The Odyssey is on this song. When you take a look at the quoted words in The Odyssey, you will find that these words themselves do not really help you to understand the (deeper) meaning of the song ‘Roll on John’. It rather looks as if the Odyssey’s words are only used as a sort of a vehicle to reach deeper layers. We find the same phenomenon elsewhere on this album and especially on the album ‘Modern Times’ when poets like Ovid and Timrod are frequently quoted. Therefore, to find deeper meaning it may be helpful to have a look at The Odyssey as a whole. Which main themes in the Odyssey are relevant in this respect and are these themes reflected in the song?
First there is a strong theme of homecoming (nostos) in the Odyssey, caused by the fact that Odysseus is on a journey home after the Trojan had finally ended. We also find this theme of homecoming, of reaching the end of the trail, in this song: Both John Lennon and John the Apostle are on their way ‘to their journey’s end’, John, the Apostle has nearly reached the end of his journey: ‘his bones are weary and he is about to breath his last’. Lennon has reached the end of his journey: ‘they shot him in the back and down he went’.
Secondly, there is this theme of ‘exile’ in The Odyssey. This theme is abundantly reflected in the song, e.g. when it says about John the Apostle: ‘they tied your hands and they clamped your mouth ‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave’ and ‘You been cooped up on an island far too long’
Thirdly, there is a theme of disguise in the Odyssey; the gods disguise themselves so that they can interact with mortal human beings. Odysseus’ protector, the goddess Athena, adopts many disguises such as a shepherd, a girl, Telemachus, and Mentor. Odysseus also disguises his identity by telling that his name is ‘Nobody’ so that he will not be recognized as the one who blinded the Cyclops. When he returns home to Ithaca he also disguises himself as a beggar to protect himself from being killed by the Suitors.
Disguise is a main theme in many a Dylan song, also in this one. Nothing is what it seems. When you hear this song for the first time, it seems it is only about John Lennon, when in fact it is just as much –if not more- about John the Apostle. Even when it seems that evil rules the earth –expressed in the tragic and senseless murder of Lennon- yet it looks as if you are invited to find the contrast and to make a choice between the success and world fame of Lennon (and the Beatles) and how it all ends, and the humble servitude of John the Apostle on the island of Patmos: ‘rags on your back just like any other slave’ and how he ends: ‘cover him over and let him sleep’. It is as if the poet says: ‘Look how it all ends and then make a choice!’. You are also invited to find the contrast and to make a choice between Lennon’s Hindu ‘Instant Karma’ light: ‘Well we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun, come and get your share’ and the light of Jesus which John the Apostle reflects: ‘Shine your light’. In other words: you have to decide between Lennon’s ‘serving yourself’ and being a light source yourself or John the Apostle’s light – which is the reflection of the light of Jesus – and to serve somebody else (the Lord).
To resume the thread of verse 3, we have to bear in mind that in the English language as well as many other languages, the word ‘odyssey’ has come to refer to an epic voyage. Ellen Gunderson Traylor’s novel ‘John, Son of Thunder’ (referred to in Part 1 of my analysis) describes in Chapter 122 this epic voyage, how during John the Apostle’s time in exile, the legend of John’s strength of mind became an example and a testimony for the hundreds of severely tortured prisoners on Patmos and how St John was able to rise above the darkest hour of any circumstance. Gunderson describes how the community of oppressed in the quarry more and more began to look upon the weak, fragile, bent, old chain-ganged Saint as an epic hero, an epic hero on his way to the end of his epic journey. We also wrote in Part 1 of our analysis that it looks like as if words like ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave, they tied your hands and they clamped your mouth’ more or less literally walked out of Chapter 120 and 121 of Gunderson Traylor’s novel into this song. ‘They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth’ not only refers to the literally chain-ganged Apostle doing hard labor in the quarry but also figuratively to what John himself wrote in the Book of Revelation 1:9: ‘I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus’.
I doubt whether in the line ‘Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave’ Dylan had Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ in mind, where at Prospero's cave, Miranda meets Ferdinand carrying logs for her father. At this cave they exchange their love for one another and vow to be married, nor, for that matter, Fagles Translation of ‘The Odyssey’, page 137, where it says "He heads for his bed of rest in deep hollow caves’.
We rather feel that ‘Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave’ refers to the cave on the island of Patmos where John the Apostle, in a vision, received the Apocalypse: ‘The Book of Revelation’ in 95 AD. A sanctuary and the Monastery of the Apocalypse were later built around the cave that tradition identified as the site where John received those visions. Today this site is still a major tourist attraction on Patmos.
Ostensibly silenced and outranged by the Roman emperor Domitian, it looked as if John the Apostle had entered a dead end street: ‘Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave’. The same feeling is expressed here as Dylan once wrote in the song: ‘Marching to the City’: ‘I’m chained to the earth like a silent slave, trying to break free out of death's dark cave’. However, when it says: ‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave’ this also means that there is at the same time something positive and uplifting in this phrase. John was now ready to receive this vision and could not leave that cave until he had written down on a scroll all that ‘he saw and heard’. John's sworn testimony about how he received the messages is written down in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation.
Will be continued……Comments on this article are more than welcome. To comment please scroll to the bottom of the page and press the button ‘reacties’.