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Bob Dylan's Near Perfect Storm
The master songwriter's new record is called Tempest – and it includes both a tribute to John Lennon and an epic chantey on the sinking of the Titanic. A world exclusive preview by Anne Margaret Daniel.
Anne Margaret Daniel, 17 Aug 2012
After the flood, there’s only one more song to listen to. 'Roll On John' will be the most talked-about track on Tempest, and with good reason. There’s so much going on in it, and it’s truly beautiful. In a first listening I’ve gotten so little of it, but am still very moved by it. The simple, clean refrain, intimated in the title, is reminiscent of the refrain of John Lennon’s own 'Instant Karma'. The use of other Beatles lines, and above all those from William Blake, are magical tributes. 'Roll On John' is an elegy. When you write an elegy paying tribute to one who has died, you use forms and models and all the elegies that have come before. When Milton wrote an elegy for his drowned friend Edward King, he used Greek models and translated lines from odes. When Shelley wrote 'Adonais' for Keats, he used Milton; when Yeats elegized Robert Gregory, he used Shelley; when Auden elegized Yeats, he used Yeats.
The title of this song is taken from an old folk tune Dylan recorded 50 years ago, a song of abandoned love and sunsets and what’s lonesome. The plaint of the refrain of that old tune is that John rolls on so slow. What breaks the heart, here, is the fact that John Lennon shone brightly for such a short time on this earth. Only months older than Dylan, Lennon was just 40 when he was killed. The images in this song go through Lennon’s musical life as a young man, from the Liverpool docks to the Hamburg streets, to the Quarrymen in the cellar – but there are also powerful images of silencing and captivity, things John never, ever put up with. A stanza about slave ships sailing the Atlantic, focusing on a man’s mouth clamped shut, is stunning, as is the companion verse about a modern-day move – both from England to America, and beyond. Lennon has bags to unpack, but he hasn’t, yet; the singer gently reassures him, and us, that “the sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll be back.” This line makes of England, and Manhattan, islands from which Lennon’s gone, and oh, does it make us want him back. The possibilities of life in America are fraught with old-style Western ambush, Indian attack, being shot in the back: painful listening, as you remember that morning in December when most of us heard of Lennon’s death. The final stanza is a gorgeous surprise, tying together the song’s refrain of Lennon’s having burned so bright in a perfect circle of the personal and the poetic: