- Roll on John, Part 1: “Death is part of Life”
- Roll on John Part 2: The opening verses
- Roll on John Part 3: The third and fourth verses
By Allan Cheskes
Time to “move on” to the fifth verse:
“Put on your bags and get 'em packed Leave right now, you won't be far from wrong The sooner you go the quicker you'll be back You've been cooped up on an island far too long”
Once again, there is an opportunity for Dylan to borrow from one of his favorite sources, a translation of The Odyssey. Compare the lyrics in the fifth verse with Fagle’s translation of The Odyssey:
“Here you are, cooped up on an island far too long, with no way out of it, none that you can find, while all your shipmates’ spirit ebbs away’ and repeated further on: “Here I am, cooped up on an island far too long”.
In repurposing these words, Dylan maybe referring to John Lennon being cooped up in his home on the island of Manhattan.
The first three lines of the fifth verse is the narrator telling John Lennon to pack his bags and leave the coop as soon as possible. Lennon, just before his death, had in fact spoken about his desire to return to England and visit relatives and friends. De Graaf also indicates that Lennon “had some sort of feeling in his bones, a premonition, that something bad was about to happen.” (I can’t confirm this, but this certainly adds drama to the song. ‘Leave, John, leave, as quickly as possible, please’ because we know what is about to happen. If only we can turn the clock back.)
De Graaf also proposes that the song narrator is speaking to John the Apostle. Instead of a warning that John the Apostle should physically leave the island of Patmos as soon as possible, which, clearly, he cannot, given he is a prisoner there, De Graaf suggests it could be something else.
John the Apostle just received the vision for the Book of Revelation, and De Graaf puts forward this “may on a deeper level function as an incentive for John the Apostle to hurry up and to forget his troubles and woes and to leave the island, (figuratively speaking), as soon as possible and to have the Apocalypse revealed to the world.”
With no disrespect to De Graaf, who has given us a very interesting and plausible analysis, I believe this interpretation emphasizes the inclusion of John the Apostle as the main object of this song, is fitting square blocks in a round hole.
Now we can have lots of fun with verse 6:
“Slow down you're moving way too fast Come together right now over me Your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last Lord, you know how hard that it can be”
The Beatles recorded a song in 1964 written by Larry Williams in 1958. The lyrics include, “You’d better slow down…baby, now you’re moving way too fast.”
I would love to throw another Beatle song at you but when I hear the first line of this verse, my mind shifts to Simon and Garfunkel’s The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy).
This Paul Simon written song offers possibilities and connections to Roll On John. Paul Simon’s lyrics include “Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last.”
John Lennon had entered a stage in his life where he was slowing down and finding time to smell and appreciate the roses. Lennon was hunkering down, after leading a fast and loose life, to be with his family and be the father and husband he needed and wanted to be. Lennon appeared to be in a good place at this stage in his life.
De Graaf suggests another possible connection with Simon’s song when he points out that Lennon was transported to a hospital on 59th street and 10th Avenue, after he was shot on December 8, 1980. There is also a sense of sad irony when Simon and Garfunkel sing, “Life I love you/ All is groovy.”
I am sure you will make the connection right away with the line in verse six, “Come together right now over me” (and you know what is coming next). First, the story behind the related Beatle song is very interesting.
Did you know that John Lennon wrote the song during one of his and Yoko Ono’s bed-in sessions in Toronto in May 1969? Timothy Leary, who was an American psychologist and proponent for the use of psychedelic drugs to alter and improve our minds. Leary is known as the father of the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s. (Interestingly, I recently came across an article in Psychology Today that did recommend in certain dire mental health circumstances, the use of psychedelic drugs.)
When Leary appeared at the Toronto bed-sit-in, he informed Lennon and Ono that he was planning to run for political office and his campaign slogan would be “Come Together.”
Based on this campaign slogan, Leary asked Lennon to write a song for him to use during the upcoming slogan. Thus, that is how and why Lennon came to write the song.
Unfortunately for Leary, he was not able to use the song to promote his campaign because it never got off the ground when he was arrested and sent to jail. The Lennon song came together with a message of peace and calling for differences between nations and races to be put aside.
Thankfully, Lennon did not want to see a good song go to waste:
The Beatles – Come Together (I would have preferred the rooftop version, but the quality of the sound is not as good).
De Graaf examines the third line of the sixth verse, “Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last” and once again makes a case for the connection to John the Apostle:
“(This line) can hardly be attributed to Lennon but rather take us back to the times of John the Apostle on Patmos. When John was exiled to Patmos in 95 AD to do hard labor in the quarry mine, he was well over 90 years old.”
However, I do believe a case can be made for a connection of this line to John Lennon. John Lennon has been through so much in his epic Odysseus-like journey through life, you could say his “bones (were) weary” just before he is about to take his last breath.
This line is followed in Roll On John by the well-known line written by John Lennon, “Lord, you know how hard that it can be.” From The Ballad of John and Yoko, Lennon sings, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy/ You know how hard it can be/ the way things are going/ they’re gonna crucify me”.
“They” (again as Dylan also puts it, and not “he”), are going to crucify Lennon. Shockingly, Lennon got it right:
Over to the seventh verse:
“Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam They'll trap you in an ambush before you know Too late now to sail back home”
I take the overall message from this verse that there is no going back home. “where the buffalo roam” are lyrics from the traditional folk song, “Home on the Range”. There is a longing to go to some romantic place that doesn’t exist. Do buffalo freely roam anymore? Maybe the home is some mythological place, like Heaven.
The only road to “Heaven”, is a “right-hand road” or a narrow straight path. Is John Lennon going to Heaven? Has he been “ambushed” and will not ascend to heaven?
In the Odyssey, the gods also conspired to ambush Odysseus on his journey home.
In “Custer’s Last Stand”, in the plains where buffalo did roam, Sitting Bull and the Sioux Indians ambushed him. (This is what I associate with when I hear these song lines). Is there a connection here?
De Graaf thanks Dave Richards who makes a connection to another John with this seventh verse.
John Smith (1580-1631) was an Admiral of New England, a soldier, explorer, and author.
De Graaf continues:
“Smith is said to have played an important role in the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America. Apart from the Indian tribes, the local weather is said to have been the biggest threat for these early Jamestown settlers. That is why it says, ‘roll on John through the rain and snow’. Dave Richardson pointed out to me that ‘ Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian tribe, warned Smith about her tribe’s plot to ambush and kill John Smith in 1608, when this Powhatan tribe invited them to their land on supposedly friendly terms’. This may be the reason why it says: ‘they trap you in an ambush before you know’.”
I must admit, with verse seven, I am reaching for straws here to find explanations, which is no shame for most Dylan songs.
Hopefully, we will have better luck with the last verse:
“Tyger, tyger burning bright I pray the Lord my soul to keep In the forests of the night Cover 'em over and let him sleep”
Given the spelling of “tiger” as “tyger”, Dylan is not trying to hide the fact that he is borrowing lines in this final song verse from the English poet, William Blake. The words “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” and “In the forest of the night” are literally quoted from the famous poem The Tyger by William Blake, from his collection, “Songs of Experience” published in 1794. (Dylan admired and has borrowed lines from William Blake on other occasions).
Blake, in his poem, reminds us that the tiger is both beautiful and at the same time, capable of terrible violence. Once again, the album concept of evil coexisting with good comes up. The tiger, a creation of G-d, as is nature and the natural thing, personifies that good and evil coexist in this challenging world.
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep” is a classic children’s bedtime prayer from the 18th century, “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep”, which also fits with the last line of the song, before the refrain:
“Cover ’em over and let him sleep.”
I believe, the message, also delivered on other songs on this album, is that it is not for us to understand G-d and his uncanny ways. We must simply just accept his ways. Bad things happen.
John Lennon’s tragic and senseless death still leaves a hole in our hearts. Perhaps, Bob Dylan concludes the song by telling us that we cannot ever make sense of this world, and should take the wise words from John’s Lennon’s partner, Paul McCartney, and “let it be.”
May John Lennon’s soul rest in peace.
While it is not inconceivable that Bob Dylan intended “John” to be a tribute to various “Johns”, we will never be sure unless we hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, assuming we can believe him.
In Dylan’s 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan answered Gilmore’s questions about Lennon in relation to the song, and he does not let on that the song is about anyone else besides Lennon. If we can believe him.
Dylan is, deliberately vague with his words. In doing so, he is inviting us to go wild with our imaginations and fill in the blanks. (And we do!)
Often, as Dylan has said, we interpret meanings in his songs, that are not intended. We also often, believe what we want to believe and insert our desired meanings into the lyrics. We need to understand and accept this. We will never know for sure. The Dylan mysteries of his songs are like the G-d-given mysteries of the world.
In the meantime, finding relevance and meaning in Dylan songs, even when not intended by Dylan, is what makes his songs timeless. As Dylan would write and sing, “It’s all good.”
Roll On John, live version with footage and tribute to John Lennon (Sorry, sound quality not as good as the official audio version).