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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.
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