By Allan Cheskes (taken from a prepared session)
Was Roll On John a song exclusively written about John Lennon? Many do not think so. Let’s roll through the song and come to terms with it.
For my analyses, and this other perspective, I got lots of help from a 10,000-word review of Roll On John, by Kees de Graaf.
The first verse and refrain from Roll On John:
“Doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day Another bottle’s empty, another penny spent He turned around and he slowly walked away They shot him in the back and down he went”
The refrain which follows the first verse:
“Shine your light Move it on You burned so bright Roll on, John”
In the first line, Kees de Graaf sourced the first line, “Doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day” to a Lonnie Johnson song called Oh! Doctor The Blues (1926).
The opening lines of the Lonnie Johnson song are:
“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”
If we put Roll on John, in context with Lonnie Johnson’s song, the rest of Dylan’s verse might begin to make some sense.
As de Graaf puts it:
“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…”
From the same opening verse, “Another bottle’s empty” which is narrated in the first person, could easily mean the consumption of bottles of alcohol. This could easily be a reference to John Lennon, who had significant drug and alcohol issues.
Following “Another bottle’s empty”, is, “another penny spent” which according to de Graaf, is an expression which means to use a public lavatory. (Especially in the UK, it was common practice to use a coin to open locks on public toilet doors).
This adds up. If you are drinking excessive alcohol, you will be using many coins to operate the locks on the public toilet doors.
Maybe the drinking alcohol also relates to Dylan as he needed a crutch to numb his senses and help ease his mind with his own fears and paranoia about the public. If “they” can murder Lennon, they can get to him too.
De Graaf also offers up another possibility as to why Dylan opens the song with a drinking scene. The narrator is not in an alert state of mind, almost like in a dream, and he can’t even tell the time of day. (Not unlike other Dylan songs which have dream-like patterns).
The third and fourth lines of the first verse are now narrated in the third person:
“He turned around and he slowly walked away/ They shot him in the back and down he went” can very easily be connected to December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot four times in the back by Mark David Chapman. (Lennon was shot at the entrance of the Dakota building in New York City, where he lived. He was returning from the recording studio with his wife, Yoko Ono).
After being shot, Lennon staggered up five steps to the reception area, where he was heard to say, “I’m shot, I’m shot.”
Which fits with the last line of the opening verse, “They shot him in the back and down he went.”
We can only speculate why Dylan used “they” as opposed to “he.” Could Dylan be referring generically, to other tragic assassinations and deaths, including that of John Lennon’s?
Chapman could be just a pawn in “their” game and Dylan could also be concerned, broadly speaking, about his fan base and public. If “they” can do it to Lennon, then “they” can do it to him too.
Dylan or DYLAN, the song narrator, is presumably addressing John Lennon in the refrain.
Shine your light/ Move it on/ You burned so bright
Lennon’s music was so illuminating and will burn forever, so his legacy will move on forever.
This is where some, including De Graaf, connect the song to another John, St. John the Apostle.
“Shine your light” is to Illuminate the world and reveal the truth. The “truth”, in Christian tradition is the light of Jesus or the gospel. St John, the last surviving apostle of Jesus, was also known as the Apostle of Light. Certainly, Dylan was once immersed in the Christian faith. Dylan, even more so, was and still is obsessed with the Book of Revelation. St John is said to have written the Book of Revelation.
Dylan makes specific reference to the Book of Revelation, in the previous album track, Tempest. The captain of the Titanic, in Dylan’s song, contemplates the Book of Revelation, just before he dies. The tempest itself may be symbolic of the apocalypse to come.
It is therefore not a stretch to believe that Dylan is also thinking about St. John the Apostle in addition to John Lennon, in Roll On John.
On the other hand, “Shine your light” is very commonly used in songs, especially in many traditional gospel songs, which Dylan admired so much. Dylan’s buddy, Robbie Robertson, former member of The Band, also wrote a song, Shine Your Light. Dylan himself used the phrase in his gospel period song, Precious Angel.
Let’s review a little history or legend about St. John the Apostle.
In Christian tradition, St John is the author of the Gospel of John, the Three Johannine epistles and the Book of Revelation.
Quite an accomplishment of works, except that most contemporary biblical scholars do not believe that St. John the Apostle wrote any of these works. John the Apostle was also identified as John the Evangelist, John the Elder, and John of Patmos.
Mainstream Bible scholars assert that all four gospels from the New Testament are fundamentally anonymous and most of the mainstream scholars agree that these gospels have not been written by eyewitnesses.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible (2018) puts it this way: “Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus.”
Persecuted by the Romans, John the Apostle in Christian tradition was said to have been exiled to the Greek island, Patmos, where he received visions and the inspiration to write the Book of Revelation. Many political and religious prisoners and slaves were banished to Patmos to do hard labour in the quarry mines. Legend has it that John the Apostle did hard labour here until he died in his nineties.