Book Excerpt: Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs

Written by July 16th, 2013 at 11:54 am

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Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs is out today via Written by American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia, this new book is loaded with the author’s typically insightful prose. It works as an excellent primer for new fans,  and is sure to stimulate the imagination of Dylan’s hardcore admirers.

This article excerpts #100-91 of the countdown, from Tempest’s ”Roll On John” to the Blood On The Tracks outtake “Up To Me.”

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100. “Roll on John” (from Tempest, 2012)

In the wake of John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, seemingly everyone in possession of a guitar or piano quickly recorded some kind of tribute to the founding Beatle. Some were quite fine, like the ones laid down by ex-bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison or old buddies Elton John and Paul Simon. Many more weren’t so good, but it was the thought that counted during that sad time.

Bob Dylan sat all of that out. In typically counter-intuitive Dylan fashion, it took him thirty-two years to get around to doing his own tribute, but when he did, it was worth the wait. Closing out Tempest, “Roll on John” doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details of Lennon’s murder (“They shot him in the back and down he went”), yet it still displays a sweetness not often associated with the man who wrote it.

Maybe it’s fitting that the song is a mixture of the darkness and light because the two music titans had a somewhat complicated relationship throughout the years. Dylan was impressed by the Beatles (as the Beatles were with him) before the two men met, and it was Dylan who introduced the Fab Four to marijuana. (This was ironic, too, inasmuch as the Beatles came to be known for their foray into drug-induced creativity while Bob’s music seemingly shied away from psychedelics.)

Each man sniped at the other through his music. Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde was widely viewed as a ribbing play on Lennon’s folk composition “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Shortly before his death, John recorded—although it wasn’t released ’til years later as an outtake—a pretty savage parody of Bob’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” entitled “Serve Yourself,” which viewed Dylan’s religious music with extreme skepticism.

A lot of this can be written off as a healthy sense of competition between two preeminent artists in their time. “Roll on John” makes it clear that no grudges were held; if anything, Dylan seems to project many of his own frustrations with fame and stardom through Lennon’s experience.

Notice, for example, how the song uses the pronoun “they” throughout when referring to Lennon’s antagonists, even when speaking of the murder, which was perpetrated by one man. By doing this, Dylan intimates that Lennon’s ultimate demise was not just the result of a senseless act. It instead was the culmination of a series of subtle persecutions, rendered in the song much more forcefully as ambushes and violent imprisonings.

Yet a songwriter always has the power to rewrite even the saddest of histories in a benevolent way, and Dylan takes that opportunity here. By addressing Lennon directly and advising him to keep moving to stay ahead of his would-be captors, it restores Lennon to us in a way. It also allows listeners to participate in the lovely vision of Lennon sailing and shining on, cleverly evading even his most ardent of pursuers.

Throughout the song, Dylan uses bits and pieces of Beatles songs as vehicles for speaking to his old buddy. “A Day in the Life,” “Come Together,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and “Slow Down” are among the classics referenced. There is also a generous sprinkling of Beatles history spread throughout, as well as a winking nod to Lennon’s famous publicity stunts for peace, which come when he tells John to “Put on your bags.”

In the final verse, Dylan turns to his poetic forebear, William Blake, and the words of his poem “The Tyger” to describe Lennon’s force-ofnature personality. (Lennon would have probably preferred something from Lewis Carroll, but it’s Dylan’s show here, after all.) The final plea to everyone to “let him sleep” intimates how now is the time to appreciate Lennon’s legacy without picking it apart, something Dylan wouldn’t mind applied to his own.

With “Roll on John,” John Lennon joins a rogue’s gallery of Dylan tribute subjects that includes the likes of gangster Joey Gallo and controversial comic Lenny Bruce. It’s likely that Lennon, wherever he might be rolling right now, feels right at home alongside those antiheroes.

“Roll on John,” among its many other accomplishments, also sets the relationship between Lennon and Dylan right for eternity. Better to remember them, both high as a kite (literally and figuratively), the world at their feet, joshing each other and everything around them in a long limo ride (as seen in D. A. Pennebaker’s unreleased documentary Eat the Document).

In many ways, Dylan’s still riding in that limo. With “Roll on John,” he just happens to bring his buddy along for one last ride.

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  • Randy Pratt

    THE best Dylan song period. I have over 600 Bob Dylan boots and amazingly this song has never been played live. There is just the one BotT outtake known to exist, sadly.

  • daverossignol

    You wrote that Rainy Day Women 12 & 35 doesn’t make sense but it does. Rainy Day Women is a term that is associated with a mariquana joint. 12 X 35 = 420 which is a term assocated with smoking pot.

  • daverossignol

    You wrote that “She Belongs To Me” was influenced by the Beatles “Norwegian Wood” but I’ve read just the opposite. Dylan recorded “She Belongs To Me” in early 65 and the Beatles recorded “Norwegian Wood” in late 65 so it seems logical that it was in fact Dylan that influenced the Beatles in the writing of “Norwegian Wood”.

  • Dan Bennett

    All Along the Watchtower…Sorry, secular humanists….

  • Dan Bennett

    here’s the passage… check it out for yourself…

  • Dan Bennett

    420 only became a term for pot about 5 years ago…

  • daverossignol

    HA HA. I read that somewhere. I doubt it’s a coincidence as it is not exactly known when and where the saying “420″ came from.

  • Dan Bennett

    but it is…a bunch of stoners in a marin county high school used to get together after school…and since I was around when bob wrote the song, I can tell you personally, 420 was not pot slang through the 60s 70s 80s 90s or the 00s

  • Jim Beviglia

    Actually, I wrote that “4th Time Around” was a parody of “Norwegian Wood.” Since “4tth Time Around” was on Blonde On Blonde in ’66, the timing works.

  • tattered tender

    RDW is not about pot or stoners at all… It’s about being metaphorically “stoned” by all the naysayers, criticizes, haters and of course the media. Though I suppose “the press” is a more apt term given the time, before the media became the all encompassing monolith it seems to be today.

    When heard with that reference in mind the song makes complete sense.

    In an interview I read recently Bob was asked about all the interpretation and misinterpretation of his lyrics. RDW was mentioned as a specific example. In typical Dylan fashion a straight answer was not given, if I am remembering correctly.

    “But I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned.” (Or booed, criticized, mocked, hated, misunderstood at one time or another throughout their lives.)

    No one gets out alive and intact.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    I learned from my older sister way back in the 60s that Rainy Day Women 12 & 35 is about advertising. “They’ll stone you when you’re walking through a door” those little signs when you push the door to enter or exit a business. “They’ll stone you at the breakfast table” And certainly advertising rules the modern world and the lengths and forms keep getting more and more intrusive.

  • Dan Bennett

    I read that interview. He said something like…”the people that think RDW is about drugs are not familiar with The Book of Acts”

  • tattered tender

    I forget about that… Everybody does get stoned in Acts if I remember correctly. How embarrassing- I spent several years in Seminary and have no idea what is where in the Bible.

    Gotta go get the good book off the shelf and read Acts again. And Isaiah. And the Gospel of John while I’m at it… Can’t hurt.

  • tattered tender

    Hi Jim,

    With all the going back and forth no one told you they are looking forward to your book! Well I am and thank you for providing this great excerpt.

  • summerteeth

    Enjoyed this. Look forward to the book.
    A couple of thoughts:

    I have read others who claim that the verses of “All Along the Watchtower” are interchangeable. In fact, one could easily start by placing the last verse first and still maintain the mysterious narrative but from a different perspective.

    Anyone who dismisses “Tight Connection to My Heart” should listen to the Supper Club version that one day MUST be released as a part of the Bootleg Series. This is one of Bob’s most impassioned vocals and it is topped off with a harmonica solo for the ages.

  • Dan Bennett

    And if you’re listening to “There was a Wicked Messenger”, try 1 Samuel 2:22…ok now I’m just showing off…Ever hear of Bert Cartwright’s book “The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan”?

  • Dan Bennett

    I’ll bite…what’s the reference to John’s Gospel?

  • Stephen Jones

    “Everybody” does NOT get stoned in Acts. One of the pivotal moments in Church history is recorded in Acts when St. Stephen is stoned, thus becoming the first martyr.

    Paul is also stoned (and lives) in the 14th chapter, as well.

    But that’s about it. It is a far stretch to associate Dylan’s “Everybody must get stoned” to the book of Acts, or anything but the most general Biblical reference.

  • disqus_81HRseBXgj

    chronic pot smokers are a superstitious bunch. OBVIOUSLY this is not a reference to marijuana. i mean, really? sheesh.

  • Dan Bennett

    It was Dylan who said it……”the people that think RDW is about drugs are not familiar with The Book of Acts

  • Stephen Jones

    As a long time Dylan fan from the 60s, I can assure you that Dylan says a lot of things with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Especially when it comes to people interpreting his songs. He frequently says things to be funny or to make fun of the question. I would not take it too seriously.

    But, as I said, there are only a couple of references in Acts to anyone getting stoned, and certainly none to “everybody” getting stoned.

    I suspect Dylan was using this as a double entendre, knowing that it would be interpreted to imply drug use, but still using it to talk about being criticized.

  • Dan Bennett

    Not sure who you’re responding to…it was tatteredtender who thought Acts was a Tarantino production…as for tenure as a Dylan fan, I’m on the same track you are, and my guess is, he was using the comment, as he does all the time these days, to point back to the Bible…he’s not ranting anymore, but he’s a believer and likes to please himself with little Abrahamic koans tossed to the gullible press

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