By Allan Cheskes
Any fan of the Beatles will have no trouble finding in the second verse, connections with John Lennon and The Beatles:
“From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats Another day in the life on your way to your journey’s end”
Of course, almost everyone knows The Beatles had humble working-class origins in Liverpool and honed their musical performing skills in the rough red-light district of Hamburg.
The Quarrymen was a British skiffle and rock and roll group formed by John Lennon in Liverpool, in 1956. The Quarrymen evolved into the Beatles in 1960. The name, “The Quarrymen”, is sourced from a line in a school song of Quarry Bank High School, which Lennon attended.
Could “down in the quarry,” as De Graaf proposes, be a reference to John the Apostle who was forced to labour in the mines of Patmos?
A quarry could also be a cave and a sly reference by Dylan to The Cavern Club, where the Quarrymen and later, The Beatles performed.
The Beatles were discovered at The Cavern by Brian Epstein who famously went on to manage their rising popularity. After Epstein got his hands on The Beatles and arranged their successful tours through Europe and America, The Beatles were “playing to the big crowds.”
On February 9, 1964, The Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show to over 73 million viewers, about 40% of the total American population at the time! Beatlemania was underway.
“playing to the cheap seats” is a reference to the Royal Variety Performance of the Beatles in London on November 4, 1963, attended by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret.
Lennon famously quipped to the audience, “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” It was reported that Lennon’s “remark provoked warm laughter and applause.”
Brian Epstein was greatly relieved that Lennon did not make good on his threat to tell those in the richer seats to “rattle their f*cken jewelry.”
In the last line of the second verse, “A Day in the Life”, is a reference to what many consider to be the best song on what is also considered by many to be the greatest album of all time, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
How can we pass on what is arguably one of the greatest songs of all time:
Sadly, as the narrator in the song Roll On John says, this marks “another day in the life on your way to your journey’s end.”
(The same refrain is repeated after the second and every verse).
The third verse:
“Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South Rags on your back just like any other slave They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth Wasn’t no way out of that deep, dark cave”
This verse validates, according to De Graaf, that this song is not exclusively about Dylan but as much or even more, about John the Apostle. John the Apostle was living in the town of Ephesus, which was a port on the South-West coast of Minor Asia, which is in the present day, Turkey. He was taken as a prisoner here by the Romans and banished to the isolated island of Patmos, located just south of Ephesus. In this context, “sailing through the trade winds bound for the South”, makes sense.
De Graaf further explains that, “in this area there is a kind of a ‘trade wind’. It is called the ‘Khamsin’.
Besides, De Graaf continues, “Rags on your back “, “slave”, “tied your hands”, “clamped your mouth”, and there was “no way out of that deep, dark cave”, makes more sense when applied to John the Apostle than to John Lennon.
I don’t share De Graaf’s contentions about this song being as much or more about John the Apostle.
As De Graaf himself notes, “The following words ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave, ‘they tied your hands and they clamped your mouth ‘ ‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave’ and later on in the song also ‘You been cooped up on an island far too long’ , ‘they hauled your ship up on the shore’ and ‘they’ll trap you in an ambush ‘fore you know’ are all words taken more or less literally from Robert Fagles translation (1996) of Homer’s The Odyssey.
We know Dylan likes to launch of Homer’s The Odyssey, to repurpose and create his own story. Which means, we shouldn’t necessarily, take the words literally. Afterall, Lennon is “just like any other slave”, not literally a slave. Also, as De Graaf himself points out:
“They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth”, “is supposed to refer to the orders the Beatles received from their management not to publicly discuss hot political and social issues when they came to America; issues like the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties.”
De Graaf also adds:
“”You been cooped up on an island far too long” is interpreted by some as a reference to the island of Manhattan, where John Lennon had lived for more than 5 years- prior to his assassination in 1980 – in some sort of reclusion, “cooped up” in his apartment at the Dakota.”
In other words, Lennon lived his life like a slave being forced in his early life to “clamp his mouth” and in his later life, remain “cooped up.” Dylan himself can readily relate to this. Dylan, like Lennon, could not live a life of full liberty. Dylan, when not on tour, confines himself to his fortress of a home in Malibu. There was “no way out of that deep, dark cave.”
While De Graaf uses a line from another Dylan song to make his point that the song is more about John the Apostle than John Lennon, when put in the above context, the opposite maybe true.
Per De Graaf, “Dylan once wrote in the song: ‘Marching to the City’: ‘I’m chained to the earth like a silent slave, trying to break free out of death’s dark cave’.”
Once again, Dylan is using “like a slave” and a “dark cave,” and perhaps, this is not meant to be taken literally.
De Graaf even connects “Sailing through the trade winds bound for the South” “to the stormy 600-mile voyage Lennon made in June 1980, from Rhode Island to the Bermuda triangle in a 43-foot schooner called The Magan Jaye.”
Many Beatle historians considered this Bermuda trip one of the most important journeys in Lennon’s life as it helped jolt him out of his depression and spur him on to return to Yoko Ono and record his final album, Double Fantasy. Just like Odysseus, Lennon was also on his epic journey back home.
“Rags on your back” might even be a sardonic reference to the fact that Brian Epstein compelled the Beatles to wear suits and ties early on in their rise to fame. Lennon always resented this mode of dress which also “enslaved” him. When the Beatles stopped touring, they went back to a more informal dress code.
Rolling on to the fourth verse:
“I heard the news today, oh boy They hauled your ship up on the shore Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core”
Once again, the first line is a reference to the very famous line in A Day in the Life, “I read the news today, oh boy.” De Graaf astutely points out that Dylan substitutes “read” from The Beatle’s song, to “heard” in Roll On John.
This, De Graaf surmises :
“It was on Patmos that John the Apostle wrote down in a scroll The Book of Revelation, all that “he saw and heard”. John’s sworn testimony about how he received the messages is given in Revelations 22:8 “I, John, am the one who heard and saw all these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me”. It is as if the poet immediately wants us to shift our attention, away from John Lennon (The Beatles) to a deeper layer, to what happened to St John on Patmos. This is confirmed by what follows: “They hauled your ship up on the shore”.
Maybe, but on the other hand, this shift from “read” to “heard” is also Dylan’s shift in narrative to the first person. (Dylan shifts from first to second and to third person, in one song, often). Dylan may be effectively saying that he heard the shocking news about Lennon’s assassination. “They hauled your ship up on the shore” is once again, borrowed from the translation of the Odyssey and should not necessarily be taken literally. (De Graaf also acknowledges this “could be a metaphorical expression meaning that this is where John Lennon’s life finally ended up.”)
The last lines of the verse, “Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy/
They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core,” reminds me of the shock we all felt when we “heard” the news announcing John Lennon’s death.
There was no light or joy on that fateful day. There were rallies on December 8, 1980, at night, in most Western cities including New York City, to grieve and pay tribute to John Lennon. We still grieve his loss.
De Graaf also sourced this interesting observation:
“Dr. A.T. Bradford observes that: “They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core” has a clever double meaning, between the metaphor of Lennon’s passing and the actions of the pathologists performing the autopsy, where the heart is indeed removed and examined surgically”
(Sounds good or maybe we are giving Dylan too much credit here?)
De Graaf also offers that “city” in “Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy”, “may very well be the city of Jerusalem” which was destroyed by the Romans, 25 years before John the Apostle was banished to the island of Patmos. De Graaf arrives at this in line with the fact that Dylan makes many allusions to the times of the Roman Republic and Empire. He also makes the connection to John the Apostle who was made a slave and exiled by the Romans and proselytized in Jerusalem.
Personally, I think this is a stretch. In Dylan fashion, Dylan leaves “city” vague as to what city or cities he is referring to. Maybe to allow for our imagination to run. No way we will know for sure what Dylan intended.