Liking Roll On John

by J. R. Stokes


Dylan opens the final song on ‘Tempest’ with a plea to a doctor: ‘Doctor, doctor tell me the time of day’. Is that the same doctor do you think to whom Dylan pleaded on the song ‘Shot of Love’ for some kind of remedy: ‘ Doctor can you hear me? I need some Medicaid’. You would have thought that, with his advancing years, Dylan would be more in need of a doctor now rather than 31 years ago, but, back then, things were pretty bad: Dylan had ‘seen the kingdoms of the world and it’s makin’ me feel afraid – what I got ain’t painful, it’s just bound to kill me dead’, he said.

‘Shot of Love’ may probably have been the first song Dylan wrote after a bullet from the back of a building took John Lennon’s blood and a finger fired the trigger to his name. A few weeks after Lennon’s violent death the press published a photograph of Dylan being stalked by Mark Chapman, Lennon’s assassin. This didn’t help Dylan's state of mind at the time and he laid bare his fears in the lines of the song ‘Shot of Love’: ‘There’s a man that hates me and he’s swift smooth and near, Am I supposed to sit back and wait until he’s near?’ Fears that kept him isolated and indoors: ‘Don’t wanna be with nobody tonight … Don’t even feel like crossing the street and my car ain’t acting right’. Fears that sensed an episode of terror ‘You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife, Tattooed my babies with a poison pen’. There was certainly violence in the eyes and the likely assassin would be no precious angel.

This perception of violence is mentioned again, but in a completely different context, in the hymnal ‘Every Grain of Sand’, the final song on the ‘Shot Of Love’ album. Dylan brings the subject a little more into focus and considers that it may have all been a dream that he encountered in the sorrow of the night: ‘In the violence of a summers dream, in the chill of a wintry light’ he muses. Thus having dealt with the violent stalker on the basis that the expected violence was just a dream, Dylan is comforted by the vision of the Master’s hand in every leaf that trembles and in every sparrow falling and in every grain of sand. It is a ‘creation’ philosophy that he learned from William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, where Blake imagined: ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour’.

The Blake quote was a consoling way to end such a troublesome album but now Dylan has taken a giant leap from the final song on the ‘Shot of Love’ album, to the final verse on ‘Roll On John’ where he quotes Blake again, this time taking the opening line from ‘The Tyger’ , one of Blake’s ‘Songs Of Innocence and Experience’: Tyger, Tyger burning bright’ Dylan repeats. The Tyger is another ‘creation’ poem and one in which Blake himself senses an element of violence both in the act of creation and in the being created: ‘What the hammer?’ he asks ‘What the chain? In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? What dead grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp?’

There is always more than first meets the eye when considering the works of William Blake for his imagination was immense and, I wold venture to suggest, this is also true when considering the works of Bob Dylan. Take this business of ‘doctors’ in Roll On John (clearly a song written concerning John Lennon) and in ‘Shot Of Love’ (clearly a song written shortly after Lennon’s murder), for instance. It may have been a subtle riposte or perhaps the perpetration of an ‘in joke’ between the two artists but in the early summer of 1966, about the time that Dylan and Lennon shared that infamous taxi ride together, Lennon wrote a song with the title ‘Doctor Robert’. The song was included on The Beatles album ‘Revolver’ (an unfortunately ironic name for an album considering the way that the prime Beatle died) which was released in August 1966. In another life time I wrote an article linking this song to Dylan’s use of the word ‘Doctor’ and after quoting a verse from the song, this is what I said:

          ‘Doctor Robert
          If you’re down he’ll pick you up
          Doctor Robert
          Take a drink from his special cup
          Doctor Robert
          You’re a new and better man
          He helps you to understand
          He’ll do everything he can
          Doctor Robert

Forget about drugs. Forget about Yoko and the dream gallery. Forget about Timothy Leary. His name wasn’t Robert. It was Timothy. There was only one Robert, and he was Bob, the one with the special cup. And the magic from that special cup gave John Lennon the inspiration to write songs with a social conscience’.

So we have a parade of rambling Doctors; many circumstances which are not without ideas of violence; John and Bob; ‘Roll on John’ and ‘Shot Of Love’; William Blake and his creation philosophy; Tygers and grains of sand and a one way taxi ride that has taken almost 50 years to reach its destination. In my view, all these things are connected for Dylan uses words like brushstrokes in a mighty never ending canvas. Each group of words represents an image that is carefully placed against adjoining images before the whole is presented.

Dylan is now quite rightly lauded and applauded as a visual artist of some considerable merit and his original works achieve fantastic prices. If there is a visual precedent to the canvas that he has presented with ‘Tempest’, the album, then I would suggest that the picture is Warholian in concept and design. There seems to be fundamental themes of sex, violence and death (in particular violent death) in the songs of ‘Tempest’ and these elements also occupied the mind of Andy Warhol in the presentation of his art: examples of violent death for instance in Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series; the obsession with the assassination of John Kennedy, the images of the electric chair, car crashes and of Elvis with the revolver (there are so many guns on ‘Tempest’!). Warhol was also obsessed with the 50’s sex Goddess Marilyn Monroe as evidenced by the multiple silk screen prints of the fragile Hollywood actress and his inclination for voyeuristic sexual situations in his films made him famous for far longer than fifteen minutes. Dylan’s canvas explores these themes and presents them in a new and unique way by sound rather than sight.

In a recent review programme on BBC2 the critic Paul Morley exclaimed that ‘Tempest’ the album ‘is a work of art!’ No, Mr Morley, more, much more than that: when you hear this album everything becomes smooth like a rhapsody – for Dylan has painted his masterpiece.


Signs on the windows

If you wish to e-mail me about this article you can contact me at: