- Important: All passwords were reset on 06/15/11. Old passwords will no longer work. Click here to retrieve your password.
- Subscribe to Our Free Dewsletter
We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
He Shines On
The John Lennon Song By Bob Dylan
It’s not the best song of the year – not even the best song on Tempest, the Bob Dylan album it concludes. But “Roll on John” has staying power, similar to the spirit of its subject, John Lennon. Dylan pays tribute to the great man, taken from us in 1980, now gone twice as long as he and Lennon were friends. Some losses you’re never meant to get over.
“Roll on John” has a sweet but stoic melody. It chimes and it despairs. So the music lingers as it gives way to the words: the tribute now at hand. More than a simple eulogy, it’s an affirmation that takes in much of Lennon’s life. There was much taking place in those 40 years: growing up in Liverpool, making the friends who’d journey with him, the honing of his craft in Hamburg, delivering a clever line about the cheap seats when giving a Royal command performance in London. On and on in a life so full – but done too soon.
The influence Dylan and Lennon (especially through the Beatles) had on each other is well documented. There was also a sense of rivalry between them coupled with their mutual admiration. Each could be heading in opposite directions and still come up with brilliant works in the same brief span of time. In October ’70, Dylan released his New Morning album, the work of a contented family man, embracing a gentler pace. He sang of building a cabin in Utah, catching rainbow trout and having “a bunch of kids who call me ‘Pa’.” “That must be what it’s all about,” Dylan sang out. He was “happy to be alive underneath the sky of blue.”
Less than two months later, Lennon released his first post-Beatles solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. There would be blue skies ahead for Lennon, but on this outing, the storm clouds gathered. The album served as a catharsis for Lennon. There was a lot to get off his chest. After spending the last decade in what he later dubbed “the greatest show on earth,” Lennon pulled away, shaking things off. In “God,” he let fly, naming all that he no longer believed in. The Bible, Gita, Buddha, Elvis, Kennedy, Beatles and even Dylan (“I don’t believe in Zimmerman”) are dismissed. But he believes in himself and wife Yoko Ono. That’s his existence and he’s got to “carry on.” There are, however, less exacting moments on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In “Hold On,” an amiable tune, he sings of getting things done and how it would be alright. Still, the mood conveyed is far from that of the cabin in Utah.
From there on, Lennon, who had already immortalized the words “all you need is love” and “give peace a chance,” again sounded more optimistic tones in his songs. The man in isolation becomes the dreamer. Lennon’s own dreams came true midway through the 70s when Yoko gave birth to their son, Sean Ono Lennon. The newly contented family man devotes the next five years to hearth and home with Sean the center of his universe. When he returns to the studio to record Double Fantasy, Lennon has the bell ringing in celebration, a one hundred and eighty degree turn from the way John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band commenced.
The 70s had been busy – and interesting – for Dylan too. Since New Morning, he came forth with a potpourri of sounds, styles and forums. He made his own film, Renaldo and Clara, just a few years after recording the original soundtrack album for Sam Peckinpah’s, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There were three live albums. Also released was The Basement Tapes, the ’67 recordings he made with The Band. Between ’74 and ’79, there were five studio albums, three of them ranking among career highs, especially Blood on the Tracks. The pain felt by Dylan over the separation from wife Sara colors and drives Blood on the Tracks, according to many who’ve closely followed his career. Dylan has countered that perspective, claiming the songs were based on short stories by Chekhov, even though son Jakob has said “the songs are my parents talking.” He was more open, however, about what drove his ’79 album, Slow Train Coming. It was his new-found Christianity. Dylan loses his marriage, hits the road, finds Jesus and moves on- faster than any train.
Dylan and Lennon, each delivering much of the brains and brawn in music over the previous twenty years, had more thoughts and melodies in their heads. On a roll after the Double Fantasy sessions, Lennon was back in the studio, working on the next album. His nearly six-year hiatus from recording left a void in our daily sounds but now he was back in the game. Happy with where life had taken him, even writing a new song entitled “Life Begins at 40,” John Lennon was stepping out again.
Late in the evening of December 8, 1980, Lennon took his last steps. The cruelty occurring that moment is still felt. So senseless. Another selfish action by another depraved mind. In “Roll on John,” Dylan walks us through the moment. The memory, still fresh, becomes more vivid.
He turned around and slowly walked away
They shot him in the back and down he went
The depraved mind, having conducted his business, with captors on the way, opens the pages of The Catcher In The Rye and presumably reads. Soon, the world takes in the shocking report.
I heard the news today, oh boy
They hauled your ship up on the shore
Now the city’s gone dark
There’s no more joy
They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core
John Lennon was taken from us, but still he shines on, “like the moon and the stars and the sun.” We know that. So does Dylan.
Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John
Writing of “Roll on John” in Counterpunch, Peter Stone Brown notes how “Dylan tells various parts and aspects of Lennon’s story and it’s one of those things where you have to hear the way he sings the lines he quotes.” Music’s top wordsmith of the last 50 years recognizes Lennon had a lot of great lines, dropping a few in “Roll on John.” On that terrible night, December 8, 1980, coming through loud and clear were the words that summed up everything, “I think I’m gonna be sad, I think it’s today.” And though we’re still sad, John rolls on.
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
I have a built in magnet. It works to attract people that I otherwise might not meet. My magnet can be depended upon to pull near to me the craziest, neediest, saddest, and loneliest people in proximity. Tales of woe, distress, illness, sabotage, conspiracy, and government plots all have been the subject of unprovoked sharing. Likewise I hear about triumph over adversity, evil corporations, and politicians. They approach in grocery aisles, department stores, ladies rooms, parking lots, and today in a crosswalk. What is it about me that says "Spill your guts, I can take it?" Having been told on numerous Read on →
Readers of my articles on LikeTheDew will know that I’m not an advocate of defying the law, but I’m about to encourage this where necessary. Often focused on the joys of my grandchildren, this time I’m focused on yours too. I’m talking about Climate Change and our need to DO something about it. I was heartened to read about two activists who set an example in May 2013, protesting about the burning of coal in an attention-seeking move, by taking a small lobster boat named “The Henry David T,” (a reference to Thoreau) to picket the Brayton Point Power Station off the Massach Read on →
If you ask me what makes the world spin around, I'll tell you it ain't love or money or even oil from the Middle East. I swear to God, it's irony -- sheer good old-fashioned, unadulterated irony. Sometimes I get the impression the thing has jumped on my back, attached itself like a leech and hung on like the hot Georgia sun in the Dog Days of summer. Irony seems to stalk me wherever I go. Of course, I'm getting a little ahead of myself... *********************************** Man, I wish I could take credit for that look on her face! I'd like to Read on →
Summary: President Obama should have made it a top priority to help the American people see what the Republican Party has become. That would lead the people to take away that Party's power. Unfortunately, Barack Obama seems ill-equipped by temperament and character to fight that battle. With your help, I can deliver a message that can focus our national conversation on the destructive force that has taken over the Republican Party. *** If Barack Obama had become president at a time of normal politics, with a normal opposition party, there's no telling how much he could have accomplished. On many issues, President Read on →