Roll on John, Part 1: “Death is part of Life”


By Allan Cheskes (taken from a prepared session)

Roll On John is the final track on Tempest, but it is not the first time Dylan recorded a song by this name, except previously, “On,” was followed by a comma. On March 11, 1962, Dylan appeared on a radio show with Cynthia Gooding called Folksingers Choice. On the show, Dylan explained to Gooding that the song was a traditional ballad with one or two verses included that are his own.

Dylan’s first borrowing used on the Tempest version, is therefore a nod to the traditional song he once performed on radio.

On first listen to Roll On John (from the Tempest album), there can be no doubt that the song is a tribute to John Lennon.

Dylan clearly influenced John Lennon and the Beatles (as the Beatles influenced Bob Dylan). Each Beatle member marvelled over Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. John Lennon, especially, after hearing this landmark album, began to write more introspectively and play more acoustic songs.

I’m a Loser, recorded in August 1964, is a good early example of that:

Another track that Lennon mentioned was inspired by his then hero, Dylan, was You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away on the album, Help!:

“That’s me in my Dylan period again.” Lennon said, “I am like a chameleon, influenced by whatever is going on. If Elvis can do it, I can do it.”

Paul McCartney even took the term inspiration a step further in 1984 and claimed it was rather a direct imitation, stating:

“That was John doing a Dylan… heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.”

Lennon went whole-hog Dylan with Norwegian Wood on the 1965 Rubber Soul album:

Norwegian Wood did not go unnoticed by Dylan. Dylan responded to Norwegian Wood with 4th Time Around, (which we previously covered). 4th Time Around was a playful homage to John Lennon, also letting Lennon know that he is aware of where Lennon’s song came from.

Hey, Dylan borrows melodies, styles and even lyrics, much of the time, so he couldn’t in good conscience have been upset with Lennon.

Lennon and Dylan crossed paths in 1964, twice in 1966 and once in 1969. D.A. Pennebaker captured one of those encounters in 1966, in Don’t Look Back.

Recall from an earlier session, John Lennon criticized Dylan after he released Gotta Serve Somebody. Lennon jokingly called it ‘Everybody’s Gotta Get Served’. “He wants to be a waiter for Christ,” Lennon adds laughingly.

Lennon’s critique became a bit more vicious when he said, “The backing is mediocre […] the singing’s really pathetic and the words were just embarrassing.”

The icing on the cake came with Lennon’s response song, Serve Yourself, which mocked Gotta serve Somebody.

With that scathing attack by John Lennon, could Dylan really like John? Yet there are indications that Dylan liked and admired Lennon. Let bygones be bygones. Dylan was after all beyond his Christian proselytizing phase which was what offended Lennon.

Here is what Dylan had to say in his September 27, 2012 Rolling Stone Interview with Mikal Gilmore, about John Lennon:

“John came from the northern regions of Britain. The hinterlands. Just like I did in America, so we had some kind of environmental things in common. Both places were pretty isolated. Everything is stacked up against you when you come from that. You have to have the talent to overcome everything. That was something I had in common with him. We were all about the same age and heard the same exact things growing up. Our paths crossed at a certain time, and we both faced a lot of adversity. We even had that in common. I wish that he was still here because we could talk about a lot of things now.”

In the same interview, Dylan mentioned that while he was on tour in England in 2009, he joined a minibus tour of John Lennon’s childhood home behind Strawberry Field in Liverpool, (with 13 tourists who never appeared to recognize him). By all accounts, Dylan loved the tour and was totally immersed in it.

The idea for a tribute song was probably percolating in his head after that visit. He pretty much says this in the above-mentioned Rolling Stone interview, and that he began practising it during soundchecks, well before its recording in 2012:

“I wasn’t even sure that song fit on this record. I just took a chance and stuck it in there. I think I might’ve finished it to include it. It’s not like it was written yesterday. I started practising it late last year on some stages.”

It is said that Dylan only performed Roll On John, twice in concert, both times in 2013. Dylan performed it on November 24 at the Opera House Theatre in Blackpool, England and on November 26 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. John Lennon had ties to both locations.

Stu Kimball, guitarist during that tour said about the performance of Roll On John, the first night:

“That was the night that the boss called Roll On John, which was the first time we ever played it, and it was amazing. The whole place went crazy and then silent, listening…More than one tear was shed.”

Margotin and Guesdon, in their book, Bob Dylan, All the Songs, say this about Roll On John:

“(The song) retraces the fabulous evolution of the former Beatle ‘from the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets’ (and that Dylan) gives a friendly nod to some of Lennon’s great Beatles and post-Beatles compositions (A Day in the Life, Come Together, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Instant Karma)…and his commitment to the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Also, tellingly, they noted, “Dylan chooses to play piano, with a Lennon-like delay in his voice. The interpretation is moving, the harmonies reminiscent of John’s first solo album in which he confessed not to believe, neither in the Beatles nor in a certain…Zimmerman. (God on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970).”

From all of this, it is likely Dylan thought of and admired Lennon. At the very least, Dylan wanted to write another song among many that he and others have written, as he put it, in the tradition of tragic deaths and sometimes about larger-than-life folk heroes.

In the interview with Rolling Stone with Mikal Gilmore, Dylan had this to say about Roll On John:

“There’s a fair amount of mortality, certainly in the last three songs – Tin Angel, Tempest, and Roll On John. People come to hard endings… I can name you a hundred where everything ends in tragedy. It’s called tradition, and that’s what I deal in. There’s plenty of death songs. Everybody sings them. Death is a part of life.”


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