Dylan's 'Roll on John' - analysis Part 4.
Dylan’s ‘Roll on John’ – lyric analysis – Part 4.
In this installment we take a closer look at the verses 4, 5 and 6.
‘I heard the news today, oh boy’ is again a reference to ‘A day in the life’, a track from the Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ where it says: ‘ I read the news today oh, boy, about a lucky man who made the grade’, and ‘ I read the news today oh, boy four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’ .
Now it seems not without significance that Dylan deliberately writes: ‘I heard’ the news, instead of what one would expect: ‘I read the news’. It was on Patmos that John the Apostle wrote down in a scroll The Book of Revelation, all that "he saw and heard". John's sworn testimony about how he received the messages is given in Revelations 22:8 “I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me”. It is as if the poet immediately wants us to shift our attention, away from John Lennon (The Beatles) to a deeper layer, to what happened to St John on Patmos. This is confirmed by what follows: “They hauled your ship up on the shore”. First of all it is noteworthy that these words are inspired by Robert Fagles translation (1996) of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, on page 138 it says: ‘Once I reached my ship hauled up on shore’. If you apply these words to John Lennon’s life it may either be a vague reference to the dangerous and stormy 600-mile sea voyage which Lennon made in June 1980 or – more likely - it may refer to his violent death in 1980. “They hauled your ship up on the shore” could be a metaphorical expression meaning that this is where John Lennon’s life finally ended up; Lennon’s life ship came home, although against his will.
However, chapter 120 of Ellen Gunderson’s novel ‘John ,Son of Thunder’) reveals the deeper meaning of these words: how they hauled John the Apostle’s ship on the shore of the island of Patmos in the year 95 AD, and how immediately upon his arrival on the island he was led into the quarry to do hard labor.
‘Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy, they tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’
Peter Stone Brown wrote that in these words Dylan “totally captures the shock, the horror and most of all the loss of that cold December night that at times seems so long ago and somehow manages to seem like yesterday”. Dr. A.T. Bradford observes that: "They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core" has a clever double meaning, between the metaphor of Lennon's passing and the actions of the pathologists performing the autopsy, where the heart is indeed removed and examined surgically”.
However, also in this case, we came to understand that there are deeper layers in those words. We have good reasons to believe that the ‘city’ to which Dylan refers here, may very well be the city of Jerusalem and more specifically the Jerusalem which was destroyed by the Roman emperor in 70 AD. Thematically this fits in well on the album ‘Tempest’ which is full of allusions to the times of the early Roman kings, to the times of the Roman Emperors when also John the Apostle had his days.
John the Apostle was banished to Patmos in 95 AD. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed 25 years earlier by the Romans in 70 AD. Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege of Jerusalem and that 97,000 people were captured and enslaved: "The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination".
Chapter 110 -113 of Ellen Gunderson Traylor’s novel ‘John, Son of Thunder’ describes how John the Apostle managed to flee from the crumbling city of Jerusalem. All these dreadful events occurred during his lifetime and when John arrived on Patmos, banned and enslaved and bereft of all basic human rights and the city of Jerusalem destroyed, things looked as if all hope was gone and times looked gloomier than ever before, that’s why it says: ‘‘Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy”.
There is a rabbinic saying in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) which states that heaven, earth and Jerusalem are the essential components of the Hebrew soul.The rabbis say: ‘As the world was being created, God gave out ten portions of joy to the world and nine were given to Jerusalem; ten portions of beauty God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem; ten portions of suffering God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem’.
So when you destroy Jerusalem, ’there is no more joy’ left. Jerusalem is seen by many Jews, Christians and Muslims as the ‘heart of the world’. If you tear the heart out and cut it to the core you will lose everything and that is exactly what happened in 70 AD to Jerusalem: ‘they tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’
Jerusalem is regarded as the city where all the joys, aspirations and pains of humanity come together. Jerusalem is the city where dreams are dreamt and either realized or shattered. A medieval map shows Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple as the epicenter of the world, the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia spreading out from the center like huge petals. It is all based on a vision of world redemption arising from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is seen as the ‘heart’ of the world and the center of history, just like Elie Wiesel once said: “Jerusalem must remain the world's Jewish spiritual capital, not a symbol of anguish and bitterness, but a symbol of trust and hope. As the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said, "Everything in this world has a heart; the heart itself has its own heart." Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul”.
Some analysts feel that ‘Put down your bags and get 'em packed, leave right now, you won't be far from wrong, the sooner you go the quicker you'll be back’ would refer to the fact that just before his death John Lennon had spoken about his intentions to make a trip to England to visit his relations and friends in Liverpool and that he had some sort of feeling in his bones, a premonition, that something bad was about to happen. ‘Leave right now, you won’t be far from wrong’ would mean that his premonition that something terrible is about to happen is not far from wrong – ‘not far from wrong’ meaning that this premonition is in fact accurate - and that he’d better hurry up and leave.
Within this context ’You been cooped up on an island far too long’ is interpreted as a reference to the island of Manhattan, where John Lennon had lived for more than 5 years in some sort of reclusion, ‘cooped up’ as it says, in his apartment at the Dakota, and that is was now time to break away.
How does this verse relate –if it does - to the deeper layers of the song, to the times of the Roman Emperors and John the Apostle? First of all ’You been cooped up on an island far too long’ is again inspired by Fagles translation of the’ Odyssey’ which has on page 136: "Here you are, cooped up on an island far too long, with no way out of it, none that you can find, while all your shipmates’ spirit ebbs away’ and on page 139: "Here I am, cooped up on an island far too long".
Secondly, whereas the next verse slows things down: ‘Slow down, you're moving way too fast’ the atmosphere this verse breathes is one of urgency and of speed.
John the Apostle received his visions on the island of Patmos. These visions were set down in the Book of Revelation. The notion of urgency is very prominent in the Book of Revelation. Both the beginning of Revelation and the end of Revelation stress the sense of urgency. At the beginning: Revelation 1: 1 ‘This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John’. At the end: Revelation 22: 20 ‘He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon!" Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!.
The words ‘Put down your bags and get 'em packed, leave right now, you won't be far from wrong, the sooner you go the quicker you'll be back’ may on a deeper level function as an incentive for John the Apostle to hurry up and to forget his troubles and woes and to leave the island as soon as possible and to have the Apocalypse revealed to the world. Time has come to a halt and history cannot unfold itself until the Apocalypse has been revealed, just like it says in Revelation 5: 1 and 2: ‘And Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?”. ‘The sooner you go the quicker you'll be back’ may be an allusion to Jesus. Only Jesus proved worthy to break the seals of the scroll and to unfold history (Rev. 5: 5-7). The sooner His work on this earth is ready, the quicker He will be able to return to this earth and finish His works. ’You been cooped up on an island far too long’ may be another incentive for the Apostle to get the chain of events started as if it says: ‘You’ve been a prisoner long enough now on this island, hurry up and leave because you have very important work to do’.
Not without good reason, some see in the first line of verse 6 ‘Slow down you’re moving way too fast’ a reference to the Larry Williams song ‘Slow Down’ (1958) which the Beatles recorded in 1964. The song’s chorus reads: ‘You’d better slow down…baby, now you’re moving way too fast’. Others however, see some vague reference to the opening line of "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)" by Paul Simon: ‘Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last’. The singer of the song gently urges you not to hurry through the beauty of the morning but to take notice and to savor the bounty of life so abundantly present, in ordinary things all around him. Does it allude to Lennon’s hard won happiness as a husband and father while living with his family in New York and of which he has said it was a joyful time of renewal in his personal life? Or does it even allude to the fact that the hospital Lennon was transported to after being shot on December 8 1980 was situated at 59th Street and 10thAvenue?
‘Come together right now over me’ is a reference to the Beatles’ song “Come together”. This song was written by Lennon during one of his and Yoko Ono's bed-in sessions in Toronto in May 1969. When their friend, Timothy Leary, an LSD drug mahatma and self-ordained liberator of the world's collective conscience, appeared at the bed-in, he informed Lennon and Ono of his decision to run for political office, and proclaimed his campaign slogan: ‘Come Together’. Based on this slogan Leary requested Lennon to write a song for him to promote his political campaign. Lennon's go on the slogan was ’to come together and join the party’, and thus wrote the song. However, Leary was unable to use the song because shortly afterwards Leary was arrested and went to jail. Leary now gone, Lennon and the Beatles took the liberty to record the song for their own purposes.
’One thing I can tell you is you got to be free, come together right now over me’ and other songs by the Beatles and other groups during the 60ties and early seventies strongly called for the brotherhood of man, the overcoming of all differences between races and cultures, attempts were made to give peace a chance, culminating in the flower power movement.
Maybe the poet intends to tone things down a little, in the same way as he once did with the civil rights movement in the sixties. When the poet says: ‘Slow down, you're moving way too fast’ it may be as if he says: ‘this is all going too fast for me, ultimate and lasting peace will not be reached in this way, even if you come together over me or any other person. Peace and tranquility will come but it will come from elsewhere. Peace and tranquility will definitely come, but it has to come through a lot of pain and suffering. This basic notion that a new, peaceful, future will come but that it will come through a lot of pain and suffering may be the reason why the poet goes on to say: ‘Your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last’. Whereas ‘You’re about to breathe your last’ reminds us again of the dramatic events that took place in the evening of December 8 1980, when John Lennon was shot down in front of his apartment building, the words ‘your bones are weary’ can hardly be attributed to Lennon but rather take us back to the times of John the Apostle on Patmos. When John was exiled to Patmos in 95 AD to do hard labor in the quarry mine, he was well over 90 years old. We read of all the torture, the humiliation, the bullying and suffering the weary old man, John the Apostle, had to endure in Ellen Gunderson Traylor’s novel ‘John – son of thunder’ – chapter 121. Although John the Apostle had nearly reached the end of his trail: ‘your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last’, yet there was one more mission for him to complete: the reception of the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. John received his visions under the most dreadful circumstances, and it is as if we hear John the Apostle pray: ‘Lord, you know how hard that it can be’. On the first level, these words refer to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ where it says: ‘Christ, you know it ain't easy, You know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they're gonna crucify me’.
For Lennon it was the time when he and Yoko were singing protest songs about Angela Davis. At the time John had the feeling that ‘they’ were trying to shut him up and down and he was fighting for his rights.
The similarity between the evocation of Dylan and Lennon is that they both invoke divine powers to assist them in solving their problems. Dylan changes Lennon’s evocation from ‘Christ’ into ‘Lord’ but here the similarity ends. Because, whereas Lennon’s evocation ‘Christ’ really sounds like a curse, Dylan’s heartfelt evocation ‘Lord’ sounds like a solemn prayer. In spite of their mutual artistic respect, the different intonation of these words shows that the two of them have a fundamentally different world view and this difference in world view between the two of them could not have been put into words any better.
Commentary on this article is more than welcome. To comment please scroll down and click on ‘reacties’. In a final article we will deal with the verses 7 and 8 and wrap things up.
Click this link to respond to this article
When I first listened to "Roll on John", I was struck by the lyrics 'Cover 'em over and let him sleep'. First It seems an paradox that says he is not really dead, but since he is dead, we don't want him disturbed. I know that this in no way explains the line because I note that the poet says cover 'em over', not cover him over. Could you shed you illustrious light on this line?
— Barbara Kelley05-06-2013 06:15
Fascinating as always. Much to ponder. Regarding the "Slow down, you're moving way too fast" line, it's worth considering the refrain of the traditional song Roll On, John, which Dylan sang on Cynthia Gooding's Folksinger's Choice show on Jan 13, 1962:
Roll on John, don't you roll so slow.
How can I roll when the wheels won't roll.
— Matthew13-04-2013 11:29