In this article we continue the analysis of this intriguing song.
‘Charlotte’ is among others described in the Urban Dictionary as a girl who is known for being beautiful both inside and out. Although the Urban Dictionary says that Charlotte is also good in bed and although there once was a song called “Charlotte the Harlot” by a group called ‘Iron Maiden’, yet the meaning of the name ‘Charlotte’ in itself cannot in any way be linked to being a harlot. Therefore when Dylan says that ‘Charlotte’s a harlot’ he seems to have chosen the name ‘Charlotte’, not only as a vague reference to and a stepping stone from that song “Charlotte the Harlot”, but mainly because it rhymes with ‘harlot’ and not because the meaning of this name may in itself in any way be connected to a harlot or to any whorish behavior whatsoever. ‘Charlotte’s a harlot’ is further defined by the words ‘She dresses in scarlet’. The word ‘harlot’ combined with the word ‘scarlet’ immediately takes us to the Book of Revelation Chapter 17:3-5 ‘So the angel took me in the Spirit into the wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it. The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality. A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement’. Duessa, Redcrosse’s counterpart in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem ‘The Faery Queene’ is also dressed in scarlet. This is not without importance because this epic poem – as we will outline further below – seems to have had an influence on this song. Spenser made the same allegory on Revelations 17:3-5 as well. The rhyme combination ‘scarlet, harlot’ is also made in the final verse of Dylan’s song ‘Jokerman’ and like in this song, the combination of these two words has a negative connotation. Scarlet is a vivid red color, sometimes with an orange tinge, and just like purple is typical of the exuberant lifestyle and clothing of the rich and the wealthy (cf Proverbs 31:21). The red – scarlet – color of the woman’s clothing represents her blood-thirstiness and fully portrays her as a whore. In the Bible a harlot represents the apostasy of God’s own people and also – like in the Book of Revelations - the antagonistic world empires. It is obvious that such a whorish woman cannot fulfill the poet and therefore cannot be his future bride.
Whereas ‘Honey’ and ‘Charlotte’ represent vice, ‘Mary’ who follows the two, represents virtue. Very little is said about her, only this: ‘Mary dresses in green’. At the same time this brief qualification of Mary is a very significant one and represents the core of the song. Who is this Mary? Some have argued that the virgin ‘Mary’ is referred to here. Although she was already introduced in the opening song of the album ‘Duquesne Whistle’ where it says: ‘I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our LORD’, yet we don’t feel that Dylan had the Virgin Mary in mind when he wrote: ‘Mary dresses in green’. Firstly, the Virgin Mary is usually portrayed dressed in blue, not in green. Secondly, we feel that the woman of whom Dylan here says that she is dressed in green and who in the final verse of the song is addressed with the words: ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’ and also ‘I don't want nobody but you’ is one and the same person. Therefore, to address the Virgin Mary with words like ‘I don’t want nobody but you’ would not only be inappropriate, to some ears it would even sound blasphemous and all this makes it very unlikely that the Virgin Mary is meant here.
We feel that Mary of Magdalene (sometimes called Mary of Magdala) is the likeliest candidate to be the ‘Mary’ Dylan may have had in mind here. She is often portrayed dressed in green, green, in the color of fertility. (On the right top of this article you see a picture of a painting of Mary of Magdalene, dressed in green, by the Italian Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini). In the New Testament Mary of Magdalene is a very important woman. Mary of Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most ardent followers and traveled with Jesus. Mary of Magdalene was with Jesus during the most crucial moments of Jesus’ life, during the crucifixion she stood by His side at the cross and she reappears immediately after the Resurrection, to be the first to see Jesus back again (Mark 16:9). What makes Mary of Magdalene so special is the fact that before she started to follow Jesus and travel with Him, Jesus cleansed her of ‘seven demons’ (Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9). So, when in the final verse it says: ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’ it is as if Dylan has Jesus speak through his mouth and have Jesus say about Mary of Magdalene: ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’. This ‘ I didn't think you would do’ does not mean - as the Da Vinci Code seems to suggest - that Mary of Magdalene was ever involved in a romantic love relationship with Jesus nor that she ever was some kind of a harlot.
On the contrary, for such a theory there is not a shred of Biblical or non-Biblical evidence available. So when Dylan has Jesus say: ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’ it is as if Jesus would have said to Mary of Magdalene: ‘When I first met you, you were possessed by seven demons, in that dreadful condition you were unable to follow me, first I had to cleanse you of those demons and make you fit to follow me’. There are more – and deeper - things to be said about the words ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’ but we will do so below when we discuss the final verse.
When the poet goes on to say that ‘It's soon after midnight, and I've got a date with a (the) fairy queen’ he seems to take us into a dreamland, into the fancy land of fairies, elves and midgets, the land where he has a date with a fairy queen. The dream woman will be Mary but he has not got her yet, he is not yet mentally there – he is still ‘away with the fairies’ - and he is still fantasizing on how things will be. Some have argued that ‘Mary’ and the ‘Fairy Queen’ might be one and the same person but this thought seems unlikely because he does not speak of some imaginative woman but of a real woman – which does not preclude the fact that this woman also symbolizes much more than just a ‘physical’ woman because – under the layer of that ‘physical’ woman – there is also a ‘spiritual’ woman shining through This spiritual woman symbolizes the relationship between God and his people, and between Christ and his bride, the church.
There are a number of resonations in this verse line ‘It's soon after midnight, and I've got a date with a (the) fairy queen’. A first resonation is said to be the 16th ballad ‘Tam Lin’. In this ballad – which has many different versions - the elfin Tam Lin is captured and owned by the Fairy Queen. This elfin Tim Lin however, makes visiting girls from the real world pregnant and in this way more or less acts like a two timing elfin, something to which Dylan would later on in the second bridge Dylan allude to by speaking of ‘a two timing Slim’. Another connotation may be, that the girl – though named ‘Janet’’, not ‘Mary’ - who in this ballad Tam Lin has made pregnant happens to be dressed in green.
A second resonation is said to be a Shakespearean. As outlined above, some see in the song’s title ‘It's soon after midnight’ not only a direct reference to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but they also see in the words ‘I've got a date with a (the) fairy queen’ an allusion to the Fairy Queen who is this play has a midnight encounter with Bottom. But it would seem to me that only some word combinations from both the ballad ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ resonate here but that there is no real connection with the meaning of this verse line, or with any other part of the song for that matter.
A third resonation which is also Shakespearean and which may well have much more connection with the meaning of the song is the fairy queen ‘Queen Mab’ referred to in Shakespeare's play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Queen Mab’s is involvement in in this play, is described in a speech by Mercutio. Queen Mab is portrayed by Mercutio as a sort of miniature creature who drives her chariot into the noses and brains of sleeping people, forcing them to have dreams in which their wishes and wildest dreams are fulfilled. At one time Mercutio says about Queen Mab: ‘And in this state she gallops night by night, through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love’. This is exactly what happens in this song. The poet hasn’t got her yet, he has to wait for her, the woman or bride is very much a promise for the future, yet he knows for sure that she will be his and he is now fantasizing on how great and wonderful the prospect will be of being with her forever.
However, as far as contributing meaning to this verse line ‘ I've got a date with a (the) fairy queen’ is concerned, we feel that Edmund Spenser’s epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene’- first published in 1590 -1596 - may be an important source. The heroic knight Redcrosse (a Christian) has finally conquered the dragon. Yet his long ago planned and promised marriage to Una must be delayed again. Before Redcrosse, the valiant knight and warrior, is allowed to marry Una, Redcrosse has has more work to do and his mission is not fulfilled yet. Redcrosse, as Dylan puts it, has ‘got a date with the Faerie Queene’ ,which means that Redcrosse made an arrangement with the Faerie Queene that, before he can Marry Una, he has to serve the Faerie Queene for another six years to defeat the king Paynim. The poem says that the knight Redcrosse must go "Backe to return to that great Faerie Queene, and her to serve six yeares in warlike wize, gainst that proud Paynim king (I.xii.18)." This attitude of heroic bravery combined with docile servitude, this whole concept of faith in the future against all odds, this notion of endurance, perseverance and patience before one finally reaches the ultimate goal is typical of Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, not only in this passage but in the entire epic poem. We see this same attitude and notions also very prominently present in Dylan’s ‘Soon after Midnight’. We have already seen that the poet is not ‘in a great hurry’ and he is not afraid ‘of the fury’ his brave stance will evoke in other people’s judgments. He has ‘got a date with the Fairy Queen’, he made an arrangement with her to hold back his passions and to restrain his emotions till the right time has come and the final battle has been won. Meanwhile the Fairy Queen allows him to fantasize and dream about the great future which is about to come and for which he is prepared to wait because he knows that the battle is nearly over. It will be soon ‘after midnight’, it is nearly twelve o’ clock, it is nearly midnight and his day will begin soon.
Like the first bridge of the song, also the language of the second bridge of the song is reminiscent of the strong, robust and violent language of the Old Testamentical prophets and kings, language which King David used in his Psalms. To understand this language of the second bridge in our modern times, we have to bear in mind that again, a great and righteous king and valiant warrior speaks here, a king and warrior just like King David once was and in his wake – and to perfection - the great King and warrior Jesus Christ. He chose his bride – the church - but in the eyes of people this bride was not good enough. That’s why it now says: ‘They chirp and they chatter’ which means that people and the public in general, like flocks of birds that chirp together, gossip and chat idly about all kinds of minor and unimportant details and also great faults they find in his future bride, with only one goal and that is to denounce this bride and to express that she simply won’t do in their eyes. The poet, however, is determined to go on and is not really touched by all this and lightheartedly dismisses the slander and gossip by saying ‘What does it matter?’. All this gossip and slander will not make him go back and the best remedy is to simply ignore all criticism, just like Shakespeare once said: ‘To tame a shrew, and charm her chattering tongue’. ‘What does it matter?’ has another denunciative connotation. ‘What does it matter?’ also refers to the words that follow: ‘They're lying and they're dying in their blood’. Again, to understand the impact of these words in our age, we have to take into account that Dylan has a great and righteous King speak here; a warrior who has conquered his enemies and that is why we hear war-like language. ‘What does it matter?’ is as if the poet now says: ‘Why should I care any longer about my enemies, we fought and I won, they lie on the battlefield, on the killing floors, in their blood, and they will all die, that is why I now say: ‘They're lying and they're dying in their blood’.
But there is more to the words ‘They're lying and they're dying in their blood’. If you put the emphasis on the words ‘They’ these words contrast with the situation his future bride was in when he first met her, as if he says: ‘My enemies are lying and dying in their blood, but not so my future bride. O, Yes she too was lying in her blood but unlike my enemies I came to her rescue and she did not die in her blood, on the contrary, look to what the prophet of Ezekiel says in Chapter 16, verse 6 and following: ‘But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood. As you lay there, I said, ‘Live!’. And I helped you to thrive like a plant in the field. You grew up and became a beautiful jewel. Your breasts became full, and your body hair grew, but you were still naked. And when I passed by again, I saw that you were old enough for love. So I wrapped my cloak around you to cover your nakedness and declared my marriage vows. I made a covenant with you, says the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine’. When in the last verse Dylan says: ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’ the above words of Ezekiel may have been on his mind. He found his future bride lying in her blood, so at first it looked as if she would not do, but he rescued her even if she did not deserve it.
‘Two-Timing Slim who's ever heard of him?’ dwells on the same subject; it is all about loyalty and faithfulness in a love relationship. What does ‘Two Timing’ mean? A person is said to be ‘Two Timing’ when he or she tries to maintain two separate ‘love’ relationships at the same time, without the persons involved in this love affair know about each other that they are dating with one and the same person. Why does Dylan add ‘Slim’ to the words ‘Two Timing’? To whom does he refer? Some have argued that he refers to Slim Whitman, an American country music and western music singer, songwriter and instrumentalist who died in 2013. But this explanation sounds odd because Slim Whitman has never been known to be ‘two timing’. On the contrary, when Slim Whitman’s wife died in 2009, she had been married to Slim Whitman for 67 years so if there has ever been an artist who was not ‘two timing’ is must have been Slim Whitman, at least so it seems.
Others have argued that Dylan, when he says ‘Two-Timing Slim who's ever heard of him?’, he would refer to himself, to his old nature, to his mischievous behavior prior to becoming a Christian, but now that he is inwardly renewed, he has got new eyes and he is burying the ‘old’ man by ‘dragging his corpse through the mud’ and in this way he would publicly denounce his former ‘two timing’’ life style. In fact, he would speak here of that same enemy inside who ‘crashed into the dust’ (‘Long and Wasted Years’).
However, we feel that the above analyses do not satisfy. We feel that ‘Two-Timing Slim’ does not refer to any specific person but that ‘Two-Timing Slim’ is a personification of disloyalty, unfaithfulness and adultery. Disloyalty, unfaithfulness and adultery have no real face, name, or future and therefore, in eternity, will not be remembered and will end up in the land of oblivion. It is the reason why the words ‘Two-Timing Slim’ are qualified by the words ‘who's ever heard of him?’. The poet takes us back to the Latter Day, to what will happen ‘soon’, ‘after midnight’. (For the meaning of ‘soon’’ in this context we refer to Rev. 22:20). At the Latter Day the great King, Christ, will present His bride, in a majestic style, as written in Revelations 19:7,8: ‘Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself. She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear’. This bride – the church – did not deserve it at all to stand there in such a glorious fashion. Throughout history she had been ‘two-timing’ on Him. As stated above, Ezekiel 16:6 pictures that she was dying in her blood, but He came to her rescue. But the rest of Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 2 show that she was not at all grateful for her miraculous redemption. On the contrary, she was unfaithful to Him and acted – as Dylan wrote elsewhere - ‘as whorish as ever’. But His burning love never gave up on her, as is written in Ephesians 5: 25, 26:” He gave up his life for her, to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault’. At the Latter Day, it will appear that Chris has forgotten her ‘two timing’ behavior as if it never happened and He will say of all ’two timing’ conduct: who's ever heard of him?’ It is as if He will then say: ‘I paid for this bride in my own blood, she is cleansed now and anyone who now dares to accuse my chosen bride will meet with my violent wrath and I'll drag his corpse through the mud’, which means that I will publicly condemn, denounce and humiliate such a person’.
When it says: ’I'll drag his corpse through the mud’ we must keep in mind that this is again war-like language of a righteous King and Warrior. The word choice is also reminiscent of the Trojan War when Hector was killed by Achilles, and Achilles dragged Hector’s corpse behind his horse. ’I'll drag his corpse through the mud’ may also allude to the prophet of Isaiah, chapter 14 verse 19 where it is written: ‘Like a corpse trampled underfoot, you will be dumped into a mass grave, with those killed in battle’. All this heroic language seems to make it clear that the acquisition of the eternal bride is serious business and nothing – not even the most extremely violent resistance - can stop Him from reaching His ultimate goal.
When Dylan – in the final verse of the song - goes on to say that ‘It’s now or never’, he intends to say more than just to quote an old Elvis Presley song. ‘It’s now or never, more than ever’ emphasizes the urgency of the situation and that the whole affair of his future bride has reached a decisive stadium. Against all odds, in defiance of what people expect him to do, He is now ready to present the bride of His choice to the world. His choice for her is not based on any outward beauty or any high moral standards of His bride to- be, on the contrary, he explicitly states that ‘When I met you I didn't think you would do’. Again, the Biblical allegory shines through here. The people of Israel were chosen to be God’s bride. When God came to the rescue of His people in Egypt- as described by the prophet of Ezekiel in Chapter 16, verse 6 – He found that Israel was helplessly ‘kicking around in her blood’. When God ’met’ her, so to say, she ‘wouldn’t do’, there was no reason why He should have been so merciful to His bride Israel. But His goodness and benevolence got repaid with scorn. The prophets, especially Ezekiel and Hosea, made it abundantly clear that also later on Israel ‘wouldn’t do’. Israel was very unfaithful to him and acted even worse than –to speak in the language of this song – ‘Charlotte, the harlot’ because as Ezekiel 16: 33 says: ‘Prostitutes charge for their services--but not you! You give gifts to your lovers, bribing them to come and have sex with you’. But yet God gave never up on her and in the end He will make it possible that she will do!. This allegory continues in the New Testament. Above we already outlined in the passage ‘Mary dresses in green’ that Mary of Magdalene was chosen to be one of the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, albeit the fact that when Jesus first met her ‘She wouldn’t do’ because at the time she was possessed by seven demons.(Mark 16:9). But what about the New Testamentical bride, the church? When He, Jesus, first met her on earth, and also later on when He accompanied her from heaven on her journey through history ‘She wouldn’t do’ either. The church committed many horrible crimes and instead of helping the poor and wretched, the church often became an institution of oppression, power, greed and sexual abuse. Also this bride, the church acted whorishly. But He, Jesus, never gave up on her. We read in Ephesians 5: 25, that: “He gave up his life for her, to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word”. At the end of times, on the Latter Day, ‘soon, after midnight’, the bride- Israel and the church- will be standing there, cleansed for the eternal wedding (Rev. 19:7,8) and wearing – as Dylan wrote elsewhere in great poetic style - ‘silver bracelets on her wrist and flowers in her hair’.
The song ends by saying: ‘It's soon after midnight, and I don't want nobody but you’. The ending ‘I don't want nobody but you’ can be interpreted as a pretty carnal, if not unchaste, way of expressing his passion. And if so, do these final words ‘I don't want nobody but you’ not contrast with the spiritually elevated language and allegorical biblical imagery which we feel is hidden in this song? However, we have to bear in mind that in the Bible this sort of romantic language is not at all as unusual as it may sound. The Book of Songs for instance, is full of the same allegoric language, in which the love of God for his people is expressed as a romance, as the love between a young man and a young woman, in words which may sound pretty carnal but are yet chaste, e.g. Songs 3: 1 where a young woman says: “One night as I lay in bed, I yearned for my lover. I yearned for him, but he did not come”.
‘I don't want nobody but you’ is as if the groom now says: ‘Nobody expected me to choose you, even if you did not deserve it to be my bride, yet you are the only one, ‘I don't want nobody but you’. The long quest to find the real woman has finally come to rest. His woman is on board.
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In this article we continue the analysis of this intriguing song.
This song from the album ‘Tempest’ really is a very great song. This precious gem captured and mesmerized me from the first minute I heard it. The music has this typical joyful 1950’s doo-wop swing and Dylan’s voice sounds really sweet and gentle and we hear some great phrasing too!. At first glance, it looks like a simple love song, but as the song starts to grow on you, you find out that there is much more to it and, as is so often the case with Dylan, in the end things are not what they seem.
In his 2012 RS interview Dylan said that ‘Tempest’ wasn’t the record he set out to make. "I wanted to make something more religious," he said. "I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread — than it does with a record like I ended up with."
If we interpret ‘more religious’ as more ‘gospel’ like’ – albeit not ‘gospel’ like in the same manner as during Dylan’s so-called Christian era 1979-1981 - then we have good reasons to assume that ‘Soon after midnight’ may have originally been intended to be one of those religious songs which Dylan had in mind for this more ‘religious’ album. This idea is supported by the fact that this song starts off as a psalm: “I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises” but as the song progresses Dylan’s well spring of creativity takes him somewhere else but then again –as we will see - in much deeper waters than one would expect, because the song –even if it may sound as a simple love song at first glance – is suffused with Biblical imagery. Also, lyrically the song starts off in a bright and positive mood and although the two bridges of the song reveal some dark undercurrents which give the song an obsessive and even hostile trait, these elements cannot prevent the song from ending in an equal positive mood and in such a way that the overall joyful and even exalted spirit of the song is maintained. The question is: what is this song about? I think that overall, the song is more about ‘the’ ideal woman or bride than about ‘an’ ideal woman or bride, which does, however, not necessarily mean that there are no personal, autobiographical, undercurrents in the song, reflecting the poet’s personal lifelong quest to find this ideal woman or bride. In this quest for the ideal woman or bride there are both physical and spiritual elements of this quest pictured but in the end –as we will see - these elements melt together. In other words, in this song, in the quest to find the perfect bride, there is a struggle going on between lust, infidelity, and disloyalty on the one hand and chastity, fidelity, and loyalty on the other hand. In this respect Dylan must have been inspired by the Bible where we see the relation between God and His people – or between Christ and the church for that matter - described by some of the same metaphors Dylan uses here. God (Jesus) is the groom and his people (the church) are the bride. The Bible reveals that over and over again, God’s chosen people were disloyal to Him and acted like a harlot. In particular the prophets describe this metaphor in all sorts of varieties, see for instance the book of Hosea (e.g. Hosea 4:15) and Ezekiel. But in spite of this continuous adultery, God’s burning love keeps on searching the bride’s heart, till in the end He finds her and cleanses her and makes her ready for the eternal marriage (Rev. 19:7,8).
Therefore, as we are getting nearer to the end of the poet’s life, this song is an ultimate and successful attempt to bring the life long quest for this ideal woman or bride to rest. In the first song of the album, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ we hear the final whistle of time blowing and indeed, this whistle is ‘Blowing like my woman's on board’. In the end he has found her and has come to terms with his woman and he is now ready to enter into eternity with this ethereal woman.
Apart from the Bible there may be other sources which inspired Dylan to create this song. Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ may resonate, especially in the song’s title and also maybe the 16th century ballad ‘Tam Lin’. But as far as other sources are concerned Edmund Spenser’s poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ may have been the most important influence, as we will outline later on in this article. Let’s first delve deeper into the specific words of the song.
“I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises, I need to tell someone” is reminiscent of “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice in reason or rhyme” which Dylan wrote in the song ‘Mississippi”. The question is who does Dylan address here? It may be God because “to sing your praises” is a terminology which occurs quite often in the book of Psalms and such an eulogy is invariably addressed to God, e.g. Psalm 144: 9. “I will sing a new song to you, O God! I will sing your praises with a ten-stringed harp”. Above we wrote that the two bridges of the song reveal some dark undercurrents which render the song a trait of animosity. We also see this phenomenon frequently occur in the book of Psalms, sometimes even within the same Psalm, e.g. “To sing your praises” of Psalm 144:9 goes with Psalm 144: 11 where it says “Save me! Rescue me from the power of my enemies. Their mouths are full of lies; they swear to tell the truth, but they lie instead”. In this song “to sing your praises” goes with “They're lying and they're dying in their blood” and with “I'll drag his corpse through the mud”.
Yet we have good reasons to believe that “I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises” is not primarily addressed to God but to his (ideal) woman, wife or bride. Such language is not at all unusual in the Bible, in fact the book of Songs is full of such praises addressed to a woman or bride, e.g. Songs 6: 9 where a young man says: “The young women see her and praise her; even queens and royal concubines sing her praises”. In this song, one may say that in a certain way Dylan follows the same route which the Bible follows in finding the perfect bride, a long and narrow road indeed, on which a number of women pass by – some of them ‘as whorish as ever’- till at last the true bride is found in Dylan’s favorite Bible book the Revelation of St John, Chapter 19 verse 7: ‘Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself’.
Therefore, this first verse of this song shows us the final result of his quest to find this woman. The poet has reached the end of the trail and he can hardly believe that at last he has found her. Her beauty is so exuberant and her serenity so overwhelming that he cannot find the right words to express his exaltation, therefore when he says ‘I need to tell someone’ he actually intends to say that he wants the whole world to know how intensely happy he is with the outcome.
In this first verse it looks as if the end of time has just begun, that is why he now says: ‘It's soon after midnight, and my day has just begun’. Some see in the song’s title ‘It's soon after midnight’ a direct reference to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in which Bottom has an encounter with the Fairy Queen after midnight. This seems the more likely because later on in the song the poet has a date with the fairy queen. Although Dylan has Shakespeare’s play resonated in the song’s title, we feel that the poet predominantly wants to express something else, at least in this first verse. ‘It's soon after midnight, and my day has just begun’ may express that the Latter Day has just arrived. At midnight a new day has begun. It is ‘his’ day and this day will never end. This spiritual matrimony will last forever. The idea that Christ will return at midnight – as bridegroom to meet his bride, the church, - is wide-spread within the Christian tradition and is based on Matt. 25:6 where it says: ‘At midnight they were roused by the shout, 'Look, the bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!'
But before this day will finally come, a number of obstacles have to be overcome, a number of women pass by and these women try to distract him from the road. This theme is also dealt with on the Tell Tale Signs song ‘Marching to the City’ where it says: ‘Once I had a pretty girl, she’s done me wrong, now I'm marching to the City and the road ain't long’ The first woman that passes by is ‘A gal named Honey’ .The Urban Dictionary says that the name ‘Honey’ is a nickname for a beautiful girl who has just about everything. Deceived by beauty as he may have been, he soon found out that this woman was not in for a lifelong relationship of enduring love but that only ‘she was passing by’. Her ‘love’ was selfish and superficial. She is the kind of woman who –after a brief period of infatuation - comes and goes and shows no genuine and lasting interest in you, in fact she only wants to take and not give, that is why it says that she ‘took my money’. There may even shine through some self-criticism from the part of the poet when we see this same selfish attitude reflected in the male counterpart of Dylan’s cover of The Mississippi Sheiks’ song ‘Blood in my Eyes’ on the album ‘World Gone Wrong’ where he has Honey’s male counterpart say: ‘I tell you something, tell you the facts, you don't want me, give my money back’. In summary, this first girl or woman called Honey represents the type of marriage or relationship which is only based on material things and has no deeper spiritual foundation. Because there is no strong foundation, such marriages or relations ‘pass by’, they break up easily and they leave you behind, robbed and – as Dylan wrote elsewhere –‘howling at the moon’.
When he goes on to say that ‘the moon is in my eye’ this reminds us of a song called ‘Moon Got In My Eyes’ written by Johnny Burke, and Arthus Johnston. The song has been covered by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby .One of the verses reads: ‘You know the saying, 'All who love are blind', it seems that ancient adage still applies, I guess, I should have seen right through you, but the moon got in my eyes’. Apparently, beauty deceives the eye and romantic feelings may easily blind a man and these feelings are often associated with the moon which may block your view. Just like in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the moon is continuously associated with a midnight realm where dreams and imagination flourish but in real life however, these sweet notions are wiped out by the harsh reality of matrimony’s every day’s wear and tear..
The language of the first bridge of the song is reminiscent of the strong and robust language of the Old Testamentical Kings David and Solomon which they used especially in the Book of Psalms and Songs. ‘My heart is cheerful, it's never fearful’ is an example of the determination and valiance of these kings. ‘My heart is cheerful, it's never fearful’ expresses confidence and faith that the ultimate goal will be reached: he will surely find the perfect bride and this bright prospect is a reason for abundant joy. This firm mental attitude resembles the resilience shown in Dylan’s song ‘Mississippi’: ‘My heart is not weary, it is light and it is free’, and echoes what King Solomon says in Proverbs 15:13: ‘A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.’
‘I been down on the killing floors’ shows that the poet- as a valiant warrior - has undergone a lot of hardship and suffering. ‘I been down on the killing floors’ may also resonate Howling Wolf’s song ‘Killing Floor’ (1964) which says: ‘I was fooling' with ya baby, I let ya put me on the killing' floor”. Herbert Sumlin, blues guitarist and at the time a member of Howling Wolf’s band, is said to have said about the song’s title: “Down on the killing floor–that means a woman has you down, she went out of her way to try to kill you. She at the peak of doing it, and you got away now.” However, we feel that Dylan may have used the words of this song ‘Killing Floor’ as a vehicle to express a deeper meaning. The language used here resembles that of a great king and warrior. King David was such a great warrior who had been involved in many battles and had been down on the killing floors many a time. But what about David’s great Son, the great warrior Jesus Christ? If there has ever been a man on earth who can literally say ‘I been down on the killing floors’, it is Jesus Christ. In fact He was killed on the killing floor but He rose from the dead and continued His quest throughout history to find the perfect bride like it says in Ephesians 5: 25- 27 ”For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her, to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault’.’
‘I'm in no great hurry’ not only means that the quest to find the perfect bride takes a lot of time but also that it has to be done at the right time. The poet is fully in control of all his passions, so he is patient enough to wait for the right time. Some have argued – and quite rightly so – that this song reflects some of the menacing and spooky feelings of Dylan’s song ‘Moonlight’ where it says: ‘Well, I’m preaching peace and harmony the blessings of tranquility, yet I know when the time is right to strike’
Hurry and impatience go with lust but true love goes with patience and endurance, just like King Solomon says in Songs 8: 4. “Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, not to awaken love until the time is right’.
The poet’s mind is well balanced and he knows exactly what he wants. ’A gal named Honey’ is not what he is looking for and he is ready to face her violent anger and scorn, that is why it now says: ‘I’m not afraid of your fury’. A famous saying in this respect is: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." This saying is based on lines from ‘The Mourning Bride’ a tragedy by the playwright William Congreve, premiered in 1697: ’Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’.
‘I've faced stronger walls than yours’ confirms the epic altitude of these words. It looks as if a valiant king is addressing us here. The king and poet David shines through here, who says in Psalm 18:29 “With my God I can scale any wall”. And not only king David, but also in his slip-stream, the great king Jesus Christ who in his quest to find the perfect bride has faced stronger walls than the fury and resistance of His bride to be. A much stronger wall was death, but He rose from the dead and continued his quest to find His bride.
In our next and final article we will deal with Charlotte, Mary, The Fairy Queen and Two-Timing Slim and we will wrap this whole thing up. Please feel free to comment on this article.
In this 5th and final installment we review the final two verse of this song.
The seventh verse of this song: ‘Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow, take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam, they'll trap you in an ambush 'fore you know, too late now to sail back home’ seems to be one of the obscurest verses of the song. The verse seems no tot refer to any event that can be connected to the real life of John Lennon or to the life of John the Apostle, or to any other ‘John’ for that matter. It is as if the poet invites you to evoke moods in you, to feel the mood of the song and to put you in a state of mind in which you draw inferences and make connections, even if these interferences or connections are not actually there in the text of the song. We have to remember that quite often Dylan does not use language in the same way that ‘normal’ people use language. Dylan increasingly makes poetry by borrowing words and making collages, using phrases, images and quotes from other people and sources and then blending them together until in the end they mean something entirely different. Why does Dylan refer to animals in this verse –the buffalo – and to a tiger in the final verse when there seems to be no real connection to any ‘John’?
Although the words "They'll trap you in an ambush before you know" maybe vaguely inspired by Robert Fagles translation of ‘The Odyssey’ which on page 139 has: "Which god, Menelaus, conspired with you to trap me in an ambush?”, one might wonder if there is any lose connection to the American semi-biographical comedy film ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’?This film, made in 1980, depicts Hunter S. Thompson’s rise to fame in the 1970s and his relationship with Chicano attorney and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. Music in the film included rock and R&B songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, the Four Tops and Credence Clearwater Revival. Additionally, characters played by Bill Murray and Rene Auberjonois sing lyrics from the Sergeant Pepper’s track “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
We have to bear in mind that what many people call the American buffalo is actually an animal named the American bison. The Buffalo is an inseparable part of the American history; no other wild animal has played such an important role in human affairs.The tribes of the American plains relied for many centuries on bison for food, shelter, clothing, and also as a powerful spiritual symbol. American bison are associated closely with the American Old West.They once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. In the 19th century, however, they nearly became extinct due to widespread commercial hunting.
So the first mood this verse evokes in me personally is that of the Wild West. Herds of buffalo, gun shooting, cowboys trapped in ambushes etc. It brings back to memory the atmosphere of the western movie ‘Patt Garret and Billy the Kid’ including anti-violence songs like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, an atmosphere where the bad memory of ‘they shot him in the back and down he went’ still lingers. You might hear the echo of Steve Tilston’s song ‘Slip Jig and Reel’ where it says: ‘A train to St Louis, just one jump ahead, he slept one eye open a gun 'neath his head, but he dreamed of the green fields and mountains of home while crossing the plains where the buffalo roam’ and further on in the song:’ In the deadliest ambush near old Santa Fe, a young buck was taken, togged up in a coat’.
The second mood this verse evokes in me personally is in what is expressed in the words: ‘too late now to sail back home’. In my imagination I once again see John the Apostle, trapped in his house in the town of Ephesus in 95 AD where he was finally arrested by the Roman Emperor and banished to the island of Patmos. For John the Apostle it was too late then to ‘sail back home’, to his home land Palestine, he had to undergo all the pain and suffering on the island of Patmos to make it possible for the light of the Apocalypse to emerge and to burn so brightly. It is as if in this song two types of violence and suffering are pictured. The one type is ostensibly senseless and at random: the bullets of the Wild West and the bullet of some lunatic shooting you in the back. What good will it do? The other type of violence and suffering seems to be more submissive and meek, the sufferings of John the Apostle.This suffering however has produced something quite good: the enduring light of the Apocalypse that shines forever.
I want to give special thanks to Dave Richards (see his comments below|) who pointed out to me that the ‘John’ referred to this verse may refer to John Smith, (1580-1631) who was an Admiral of New England, a soldier, explorer, and author. Smith is said to have played an important role in the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America. Apart from the Indian tribes the local weather is said to have been the biggest threat for these early Jamestown settlers. That is why it says ‘roll on John through the rain and snow’. Dave Richardson pointed out to me that ‘ Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian tribe, warned Smith about her tribe’s plot to ambush and kill John Smith in 1608, when this Powhatan tribe invited them to their land on supposedly friendly terms’. This may be the reason why it says: ‘they trap you in an ambush before you know’.‘John’ Lennon and ‘John’ Smith and ‘John’ the Apostle may have in common that their lifetime work was done far away from their home land, across the sea and both Smith and Lennon led a sort of British invasion. The invasion that John the Apostle led was of much greater importance, it hugely set up the invasion of the gospel throughout the entire world.
The final verse: ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’ is undoubtedly the most significant and intriguing verse of the song, it gives the impression of some sort of an epilogue and retrospectively colors the meaning of the whole song.This last verse is mainly made up of quotations but we feel that it is the collage of quotations which renders the verse its deeper meaning.
The words ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright ‘and ‘In the forest of the night’ are literally quoted from the famous poem “The Tyger" by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794. Within the context it says: ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The words ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’ are quoted from a classic children's bedtime prayer from the 18th century called:‘Now I lay me down to sleep’.The earliest version is said to be written by Joseph Addison in an essay appearing in The Spectator on March 8, 1711.One of the later versions printed in The New England Primer goes: ’Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen’.
When the Dylan says ‘Tyger, Tyger’ the first question we have to answer is: who does Dylan address here and why does he address this person as ‘Tyger, Tyger,’ a person who apparently has some of the characteristics of a tiger and is ‘tiger-like’? To answer this question we first take a closer look at the poem ‘The Tyger’. In this poem Blake elaborates on the wide spread and conventional idea that nature is a work of art and consequently nature must in some sort of a way represent and reflect its creator. The tiger is strikingly beautiful and at the same time awesome and horrific in its capacity for extreme violence. Blake implicitly raises an existential and moral issue about the nature of the deity: who is this God and what kind of a God is He who could or would design and create such a terrifying wild beast as the Tyger? In other words: what does the undeniable fact that evil and violence exist in this world tell us about the nature and intentions of God and how should we deal with a world where a single being can at once be full of beauty and full of horror? Blake pictures a tiger which is at once perfectly beautiful and nevertheless perfectly destructive. For Blake it is obvious that only a very strong and powerful Creator can be capable of such a creation. The “forging” of the tiger - as Blake calls it-triggers off also moral questions not only about the presence of evil in this world but also about the origin of evil. The words ‘burning bright’ suggest the creation of destructive fire with all the implications of purification and destruction.
Blake, however, does not resolve the issue of the origin of evil but rather hints at a way to come to terms with this issue. This happens when in the same poem Blake contrasts the tiger with the lamb:
’Did he who made the lamb make thee?’. In contrast with ‘The Tyger’ Blake also wrote a poem called ‘The Lamb’:’ He is meek & he is mild, he became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, we are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee’.
The tiger and the lamb have been created by the same God. “The Tyger” consists of unanswered questions and leaves us to awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, the combination of the horrific and the beauty. The lamb on the other hand represents innocence, tenderness and submissiveness. The Lamb is God’s gift to a fallen world.The Lamb is His offering of reconciliation, to reconcile what would otherwise be irreconcilable, to conceive what would otherwise be inconceivable. We are invited to accept this great gift of God and we can do so, not by trying to understand but to accept what we cannot understand and to flee to the Lamb for comfort.
Dylan wrestles with the same problem of the origin of evil in this world elsewhere on this album, particularly in the previous song ‘Tempest’. When depicting the sinking of the Titanic Dylan first writes: ‘When the Reaper’s (Matt. 13:39) task had ended, sixteen hundred had gone to rest, the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best’. But then Dylan writes something very significant: ‘They waited at the landing, and they tried to understand, but there is no understanding for the judgment of God's hand’. We see this same phenomenon in this final verse of ‘Roll on John’. We are invited not to try to understand what we cannot understand but to find comfort in the arms of the Almighty:’ I pray the Lord my soul to keep. In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’.
Therefore,‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ may first of all have the connotation that the good and the evil, the beauty and the ugly exist side by side in this fallen world and senseless violence may lash out, ostensibly at random, as we have seen in the case of John Lennon when he was shot in the back.Yet,‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ opens up another perspective.This may happen when the person addressed here as ‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ is not John Lennon but in fact John the Apostle.
We already noted that John the Apostle is called the ‘Apostle of Light’ and that much of St. John’s work – both his gospel and his letters - is suffused with light encountering darkness and overcoming it.Quite rightly one may therefore say that John was a light ‘burning bright’. It is also not without reason that the phrase ‘You burnt so bright’ appears eight times in the chorus of the song and it now repeated in the final verse of the song. It is meant to bring things to a conclusion and to combine the strength of the ‘The Tyger’ with the intensity of the light. And there was certainly tiger like strength and determination in John the Apostle. Jesus called John and his brother James ‘boanerges’ which means ‘Sons of Thunder’. (Mark 3:17). John and James had an explosive and destructive temper just like a tiger, as we may read in Luke 9:54 when John and James said to Jesus: "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?". But it would not stay like that because, after walking with Jesus for a lifetime, the “Son of Thunder” earned a new nickname: the “Apostle of Love.”The meekness and submissiveness of the Lamb (Christ) overwhelmed John the Apostle and softened and subdued his’ tiger like’ characteristics. The contrast between strength and weakness - the Tyger and the Lamb -, a prominent motif in Blake’s poetry, is also a prominent motif in the Gospel and Apocalypse of John the Apostle. In the Book of Revelation John no less than 25 times refers to the Lamb. It all has to do with the fact the forces of strength and power on the one hand (represented by the lion), and meekness, submissiveness and surrender on the other hand (represented by the Lamb) are perfectly united in the person of Jesus. John testifies of this notion in Revelation 5:5-7, when in a vision John sees Jesus having both the shape of a lion and a lamb. John the Apostle has taught us that the issue of the existence and origin of evil can only be resolved and be laid to rest if we flee to the Lamb for comfort and that is exactly what the poet is now going to do. It is the very reason why Dylan goes on to say ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’.
When Dylan says ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’, we see something decisive happening in the song. ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’ is much more than a recitation of a classic children's bedtime prayer from the 18th century called: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’. First of all there is a change of subject. Dylan no longer speaks of John Lennon, John the Apostle or any other ‘John’ for that matter, but turns to himself and instead of saying: ‘I pray the Lord HIS soul to keep’ he prays: ‘I pray the Lord MY soul to keep’. It is as if he now says: ‘I do know what happened to the soul of John the Apostle and I do not know what happened to Lennon´s soul. But what about me? What will happen to my soul? In the end this question is much more important than how history will look back and judge on my life and my achievements, and no matter how much I may have achieved in this life, I cannot redeem myself, therefore I humbly flee to God for redemption of my soul and ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’. Dylan confirmed the answer to this question himself in his 2012 RT Interview. When asked, "Is (touring) a fulfilling way of life?” Dylan replied,"No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn't been redeemed."
When in the final line of the verse, it says: ‘In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’, the perspective changes again into a more generic direction. It is not ‘cover me over and let me sleep’ but cover him over and let him sleep’. It seems that the focus is now again shifted to John the Apostle but its generic use also includes the poet himself as if he invites his audience to say this prayer also for him personally.
William Blake’s poem quoted above:‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, in the forest of the night’, evokes yet another image of the tiger. Not the image of the tiger as a strong hunter but of the tiger being hunted down. Not the image of the tiger as a destructive killer but as victim of poachers. In your imagination you see those poachers who seek to trap and kill the tiger in the forest, not only for sport of game, but also to sell the skin of this beautiful, almost extinct, animal just for financial benefit. It seems like a primordial instinct of man in this fallen world, to kill what is strong, proud and strikingly beautiful, to create a world where beauty goes unrecognized. How can you survive in such a world? The only way out of ‘the forest of the night’, the darkness of this fallen world, is to pray to God: ‘cover him over and let him sleep’. Just what John the Apostle said in his Book of Revelation Chapter 14 verse 13: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!” They will be covered over and sleep peacefully in the arms of God till finally the Latter Day will arrive at the end of times. One day the contrast between the destructive power of the tiger and its beauty will be wiped out as we read in Isaiah 11:6 “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all”.
If ‘Tempest’ would be Dylan’s last album and ‘Roll on John ‘his has last official song, this final verse would be a very worthy ending. It says it all.
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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.
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’.
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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Dylan’s ‘Roll on John’ – lyric analysis – Part 1 – Introduction.
“Roll on John” is another masterpiece from the album ‘Tempest’ which I really love. The song has a melancholy melody, it chimes and despairs, the music lingers on as we are slowly drifting from scene to scene and Dylan’s voice is really heartfelt. When I heard the song for the first time, the lyrics somehow disappointed me. My first thought was that, no matter how great an artist John Lennon may have been and no matter how much I like his music, so much praise and eulogy for a mortal human being sounded over the top and initially the song felt to me as if there were some sort of misplaced idolatry in it. Also at first glance, the praise and eulogy addressed towards Lennon in the lyrics of the song, somehow seems to suggest that Dylan and Lennon were close friends, if not soul mates or bosom buddies. But they weren’t. They certainly respected each other and the relationship they had, can best be described as good acquaintances, rather than as close friends. It gave me the first clue that there must be more to it and when I continued listening to the song, I soon found out that parts of the song which deal with the various aspects of slavery could hardly be attributed to or connected to John Lennon’s personal life-span.
Not that there were no attempts made to have the entire song deal with John Lennon only, including the references to slavery. We all know that Lennon grew up in Liverpool. I read somewhere that Dylan may have made these references to slavery because Liverpool was once directly involved in the slave trade and it had been the biggest port for trading slaves for 50 years before abolition in 1807. When you take a walk through the streets of Liverpool you will find that the remnants, which remind you of this ‘golden age’ of slavery, are still visible. Some of the street names – like Hardman Street, Bold Street, Tarleton Street, Blackburne Place etc. –where given in honor of and to commemorate slave traders. They even launched a campaign in Liverpool some years ago, to have these street names renamed. Even when the slave trade was finally abolished Liverpool remained the biggest importer of cotton – which is one of the main products of slavery- for many years. I even read that some of the architectural splendor of Liverpool’s city center might have been based on and paid by the financial benefits of slavery. Dylan visited Liverpool many times and it is therefore not at all unlikely that Dylan was aware of this when he wrote this song.
Apart from this, Liverpool was also the assembly point for Irish migration to the USA, in particular after the Irish famine of the 1840s. Conditions on these passages across the Atlantic were said to be so horrible that they were later on compared to the equally dreadful circumstances under which the African slaves were shipped to America, half a century before. When we take Lennon’s Irish heritage into account, the reference to slavery in this song is not at all far-fetched.
But there is more.’ You been cooped up on an island far too long’ is interpreted by some as a reference to the island of Manhattan, where John Lennon had lived for more than 5 years- prior to his assassination in 1980 - in some sort of reclusion, ‘cooped up’ in his apartment at the Dakota.
Some people say that the references to slavery in this song allude to the fact that the Beatles had to accommodate their act if they expected to get out of playing places like the Cavern and be accepted by the music industry at large and to make it into the London scene. The line ‘They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth’ is supposed to refer to the orders the Beatles received from their management not to publicly discuss hot political and social issues when they came to America; issues like the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties. In later interviews they made it clear that they resented these orders and restrictions placed on them during their first sequence of tours. By 1965-1966 however, the Beatles took the liberty and had the power to do, and say, whatever they pleased.
Plausible as a comprehensive analysis of the song - only dealing with John Lennon – may seem, yet there are enough reasons to assume that in the song Dylan deals with more than one ‘John’. Personally I found reasons enough to believe that the other ‘John’ Dylan has in mind in this song, is St John, the Apostle.
First of all, there is a sort of ‘finality’ prominently present on the album ‘Tempest’. ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s last play (albeit whimsically dismissed by Dylan – in his typically Dylanesque style – because, as he said, the album title is ‘Tempest’ and not ‘The Tempest’). The Book of Revelation – said to be Dylan’s favorite Bible book- is mentioned in the song ‘Tempest’ as the last book the captain of the Titanic read during the last dying seconds of his life. The Book of Revelation written by the longest lived of the Apostles, St John, in the last stage of his life, is at the same time also the last book of the Bible.
Furthermore, this song is 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. The song starts with ‘Doctor, doctor tell me the time of day’ indicating that the poet has now in fact 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.
But the lyrics are not entirely dealing with John Lennon and St John. There is a third personage and that is the poet himself. This is apparent from the last verse where the object suddenly changes. One would expect the lyrics to read there ‘I pray the Lord his soul to keep’ referring either to the soul of John Lennon or St John, but instead the lyrics read ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’. The statement of the writer, Will Hermes, who sees the song as ’a prayer from one great artist to another and a reminder that Dylan now stands virtually alone among his 1960s peers’ takes it too far. True, the song certainly has many elements of a prayer, especially in the refrain, but not a prayer from one artist to another but rather of a prayer to the Lord above. In this prayer the poet expresses on the one hand the turmoil in his soul, not only about the senseless killing of John Lennon, but deep inside also the worries about the whereabouts of Lennon’s soul. It seems as if he now implicitly wrestles with the question: where do I stand among all this, what will happen to me? How will my soul end up? How will posterity look back on me? At the same time he finds great comfort in the other John, the Apostle. Although the sufferings of St John were immense, hard labor in the quarry mines on the isle of Patmos, St John’s light shines on in the book of Revelation and until the end of time. The fire of St Jon’s suffering has gone out out but the Light is never dying, it shines on and on and rolls on and on.
Finally, Ellen Gunderson Traylor wrote a novel in 1970 called ‘John, Son of Thunder’. In Chapter 120 and 121 Gunderson Traylor describes the degrading circumstances under which St John –well over 90 years old - had to work as an exiled slave in the quarry mines on the isle of Patmos, in the year 95 AD.
Although words like: ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave, they tied your hands and they clamped your mouth’ seem to be taken almost literally from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ but words to that same effect are also in Ellen Gunderson Traylor’s novel and it is therefore not at all unlikely that Dylan read this harrowing novel..
In our next article we will delve deeper into the lyrics, in a verse to verse analysis, and we’ll see how we can piece all these things together. Please comment on this article by clicking on the button ‘reacties’ on the bottom of this page.
Ergens las ik het volgende voorstel: laat kerkenraden de gemeente oproepen om in de viering van het avondmaal haar eenheid zichtbaar te maken. Dat is zeker een goede zaak. Tevens werd voorgesteld om het aantal vieringen uit te breiden naar 10 zondagen per jaar. Je zou zeggen: wie kan met deze uitbreiding niet blij zijn? Toch heb ik, als ik daar verder over nadenk, wat aarzelingen. Ik probeer aan die aarzeling stem te geven in het volgende verhaaltje waarin ik u vraag een mooie bos bloemen te vergelijken met het avondmaal. Een mooie bos bloemen kan een zichtbaar teken zijn waarin je uiting geeft aan je hartelijke liefde en trouw voor je geliefde. Nu gaat het om een vergelijking die natuurlijk lang niet op alle punten klopt. Het avond maal is veel meer dan een bos bloemen. Het gaat om het punt dat ik er mee wil maken en ik hoop dat het aan het einde duidelijk is wat ik probeer te zeggen. Het gaat om het volgende verhaaltje:
Ze waren zo goed begonnen aan hun huwelijk. Ze maakten voldoende tijd vrij om met elkaar te praten. Dat waren gesprekken van hart tot hart en op gezette tijden. Dat hadden ze nodig om de vlam van de liefde brandende te houden. Toen kwam er langzaam een kink in de kabel. Zijn dagelijks werk begon hem steeds meer op te slokken, ook in de avond uren en de weekenden. Dan had hij ook zijn hobby’s. Die slokten ook best veel tijd op. Avond na avond was hij op pad. Voor gesprekken samen kwam steeds minder ruimte. Ze begonnen langzaam van elkaar te vervreemden. Ze spraken elkaar nog nauwelijks écht. Hij wist wel dat dit niet goed was. Maar meer tijd voor haar vrij maken, daar kwam gewoon niet van. Toen dacht hij: “Weet je wat?, ik koop voor haar een mooie bos bloemen om het goed te maken”. Dat kwam goed bij haar over. Ze dacht: “Gelukkig, hij houdt nog steeds van mij, misschien wil hij voortaan weer meer tijd voor mij vrij maken”. Maar dat gebeurde helaas niet. De bloemen bleven wél komen, steeds vaker zelfs. Maar hem zag ze steeds minder. Op laatst zeiden haar die bloemen niets meer. Ze begon er zelfs een afkeer van te krijgen. Ze wilde niet afgekocht worden. Totdat er zelf een moment aanbrak dat ze de bloemen terug slingerde in zijn gezicht. Ze zei: “Hou op met het schenken van die bloemen, wordt het niet tijd om eerst eens echt met elkaar te gaan praten?”.
Wie goed om zich heen kijkt, ziet dat ook in het gezin en de kerk steeds minder echt met elkaar gesproken wordt. In het ND van 23 januari jl. las ik dat we volgens Maarten Dekker in een geestelijke crisis leven. Hij zei: ‘De crisis is zo ernstig dat de geloofsoverdracht in de gezinnen al mislukt. Catechisatie is daarom een hoogst missionaire bezigheid. Er is ongeloof in gezinnen en kerken, en daar heeft de kerk al genoeg aan”. Dekker noemde als oorzaak voor de leegloop van de kerken in West Europa onder meer het verdwijnen van het besef van ‘eeuwigheidsdimensie’’. Veel gelovigen, aldus Dekker, beseffen niet dat geloven een kwestie van leven of dood is. ‘Daardoor zijn we ons gaan richten op het leven hier, op Amnesty en goede chocolade. Dat is secularisatie. Het gaat in de kerk primair om Christus’. (Ik ben het overigens niet met Dekker eens dat we door die secularisatie in eigen kring niet meer naar buiten gericht zouden moeten zijn, maar daar gaat het mij nu niet om.)
In het gezin en de kerk wordt steeds minder echt met elkaar gesproken, stelden we. Dit proces begint in het gezin en zet zich voort in de kerk en wordt daar zichtbaar. Willen we die trend ombuigen, dan moet dat beginnen in het gezin. Ik zeg er maar meteen bij: dat kunnen we niet in eigen kracht, we zullen erom moeten bidden.
Wat bedoelen we als we zeggen dat er ook in de kerk niet echt met elkaar wordt gesproken? Dit: God nodigt ons in elke eredienst uit voor een gesprek. Dat doet Hij door Zijn Woord tot ons te richten. Wij, de gemeente, geven daarop antwoord. Zo ontstaat er een gesprek van hart tot hart. Daardoor wordt de vlam van de liefde brandende gehouden en versterkt. Maar wat blijkt helaas? Een steeds groter wordende groep gemeenteleden heeft hieraan in steeds mindere mate een boodschap. De toewijding begint te haperen en het gevolg is maar al te vaak dat het kerkbezoek steeds slordiger wordt. Zo heeft meer dan de helft van de gemeente geen behoefte meer aan een tweede kerkdienst. Bij de slager krijg je soms te horen: ‘Mag het ook wat meer zijn? ’Kerkleden hoor je steeds vaker zeggen: ‘mag het ook wat minder zijn?’. Bij de slager mag je gerust ‘Nee’ zeggen maar in de kerk ligt dat toch een heel stuk anders, als God daar iets van ons vraagt heeft een ‘neen’ van onze kant altijd consequenties. Jammer is het dat de hele discussie over het kerkbezoek dan ook veelal in de sfeer van het ‘moeten’ terecht gekomen is, terwijl het toch om een ‘mogen’ gaat. Je hoort mensen wel eens zeggen: ‘als het moet dan hoeft het voor mij niet meer’. Denk je dat het bij God anders is? Met Hem valt niet te marchanderen, ten diepste is het bij Hem alles of niets. En dat komt omdat Hij alles voor ons wil zijn.
In de economie wordt er soms geld bij gedrukt terwijl er geen onderliggende waarde is. Dat heet inflatie. Het gevolg is dat je met hetzelfde geld steeds minder kunt kopen. Is het niet zo dat als je vaker avondmaal gaat vieren zonder dat daar een groei aan onderliggende waarde onder zit, het avondmaal inflateert? Wordt het avondmaal dan niet van minder waarde, vervlakt het niet? Als dat zo is, dan kan het net zo gaan zoals met die mooie bos bloemen. Het zegt op den duur niets meer. Om dit te voorkomen lijkt het mij nodig dat er eerst gewerkt wordt aan de groei van de onderliggende waarde. Daar is veel gebed en moed voor nodig. Moed om elkaar aan te spreken op je toewijding aan de Heer. Maar die hernieuwde toewijding begint in de gezinnen. Daar moet weer echt met elkaar worden gesproken.
Moet het niet zo zijn: Als we iets te vieren hebben bouwen we een feestje. Als we iets extra’s te vieren hebben bouwen we een extra feestje?
De vraag die ik wil stellen is deze: Kan het avondmaal functioneren als een zelfstandige aanjager van de toewijding aan de Heer? Met ‘zelfstandig’ bedoelen we: los van de groei van het Woord en toewijding van de gemeente aan de Heer. Als dat zo is zouden we elke week avondmaal moeten vieren.