Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs is out today via Amazon.com. Written by American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia, this new book is loaded with the author’s typically insightful prose. It works as an excellent primer for new fans, and is sure to stimulate the imagination of Dylan’s hardcore admirers.
This article excerpts #100-91 of the countdown, from Tempest’s “Roll On John” to the Blood On The Tracks outtake “Up To Me.”
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100. “Roll on John” (from Tempest, 2012)
In the wake of John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, seemingly everyone in possession of a guitar or piano quickly recorded some kind of tribute to the founding Beatle. Some were quite fine, like the ones laid down by ex-bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison or old buddies Elton John and Paul Simon. Many more weren’t so good, but it was the thought that counted during that sad time.
Bob Dylan sat all of that out. In typically counter-intuitive Dylan fashion, it took him thirty-two years to get around to doing his own tribute, but when he did, it was worth the wait. Closing out Tempest, “Roll on John” doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details of Lennon’s murder (“They shot him in the back and down he went”), yet it still displays a sweetness not often associated with the man who wrote it.
Maybe it’s fitting that the song is a mixture of the darkness and light because the two music titans had a somewhat complicated relationship throughout the years. Dylan was impressed by the Beatles (as the Beatles were with him) before the two men met, and it was Dylan who introduced the Fab Four to marijuana. (This was ironic, too, inasmuch as the Beatles came to be known for their foray into drug-induced creativity while Bob’s music seemingly shied away from psychedelics.)
Each man sniped at the other through his music. Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde was widely viewed as a ribbing play on Lennon’s folk composition “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Shortly before his death, John recorded—although it wasn’t released ’til years later as an outtake—a pretty savage parody of Bob’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” entitled “Serve Yourself,” which viewed Dylan’s religious music with extreme skepticism.
A lot of this can be written off as a healthy sense of competition between two preeminent artists in their time. “Roll on John” makes it clear that no grudges were held; if anything, Dylan seems to project many of his own frustrations with fame and stardom through Lennon’s experience.
Notice, for example, how the song uses the pronoun “they” throughout when referring to Lennon’s antagonists, even when speaking of the murder, which was perpetrated by one man. By doing this, Dylan intimates that Lennon’s ultimate demise was not just the result of a senseless act. It instead was the culmination of a series of subtle persecutions, rendered in the song much more forcefully as ambushes and violent imprisonings.
Yet a songwriter always has the power to rewrite even the saddest of histories in a benevolent way, and Dylan takes that opportunity here. By addressing Lennon directly and advising him to keep moving to stay ahead of his would-be captors, it restores Lennon to us in a way. It also allows listeners to participate in the lovely vision of Lennon sailing and shining on, cleverly evading even his most ardent of pursuers.
Throughout the song, Dylan uses bits and pieces of Beatles songs as vehicles for speaking to his old buddy. “A Day in the Life,” “Come Together,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and “Slow Down” are among the classics referenced. There is also a generous sprinkling of Beatles history spread throughout, as well as a winking nod to Lennon’s famous publicity stunts for peace, which come when he tells John to “Put on your bags.”
In the final verse, Dylan turns to his poetic forebear, William Blake, and the words of his poem “The Tyger” to describe Lennon’s force-ofnature personality. (Lennon would have probably preferred something from Lewis Carroll, but it’s Dylan’s show here, after all.) The final plea to everyone to “let him sleep” intimates how now is the time to appreciate Lennon’s legacy without picking it apart, something Dylan wouldn’t mind applied to his own.
With “Roll on John,” John Lennon joins a rogue’s gallery of Dylan tribute subjects that includes the likes of gangster Joey Gallo and controversial comic Lenny Bruce. It’s likely that Lennon, wherever he might be rolling right now, feels right at home alongside those antiheroes.
“Roll on John,” among its many other accomplishments, also sets the relationship between Lennon and Dylan right for eternity. Better to remember them, both high as a kite (literally and figuratively), the world at their feet, joshing each other and everything around them in a long limo ride (as seen in D. A. Pennebaker’s unreleased documentary Eat the Document).
In many ways, Dylan’s still riding in that limo. With “Roll on John,” he just happens to bring his buddy along for one last ride.