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Dylan’s Lennon Yizkor

A look at Bob Dylan’s new album, which drops today

September 11, 2012
Dylan and Lennon(Fotolog)
Dylan and Lennon(Fotolog)

Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest, is out today. Dylan is 71, this is his 35th studio album, and it is a raw and profound masterpiece. The Elder Dylanologists have already begun extolling the album’s virtues, but if you’re unconvinced that Dylan is still acutely relevant and hugely important, consider “Roll On John.”

The album’s last song, it is a tribute to John Lennon, assassinated 32 years ago by a deranged fan. It is also a haunting revision of a 1962 Dylan song by the same name, and a thoroughly Jewish meditation on life, death, good, evil, and other themes Dylan is, by this point in his life and career, fully qualified to address.

Here’s how the song begins:

Doctor, doctor, tell me the time of day
Another bottle’s empty, another penny spent
He turned around and he slowly walked away
They shot him in the back and down he went

Then come a host of references to Lennon’s life and allusions to his lyrics. It’s exactly what you’d expect a syrupy tribute to be—“I heard the news today, oh boy,” Dylan croaks—but then, just when you think he’s delivering nothing but hokum, Dylan is ready to bring it all back home. Echoing the song’s first verse, he borrows from Blake its last one:

Tyger, tyger buring bright
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
In the forest of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep

It’s a subtle and stunning twist. Dylan’s isn’t just interested in paying homage to a friend—when Nixon toyed with the idea of deporting the radical Beatle, Dylan intervened on Lennon’s behalf—but mainly in contemplating the dark and destructive forces that brought about Lennon’s demise. Just as Blake wondered if the same God who had made the lamb also made the deadly tiger, Dylan is contemplating God’s
choice to infuse the same person with so much darkness and so much light.

Rather than see Lennon as the saintly victim of a madman, the song insists that it was the singer’s own nature—“bound for the sun,” “moving too fast”—that was ultimately responsible for his downfall, a fact that any serious Lennon biography affirms. The fearful symmetry in the song, in other words, isn’t between Lennon and his killer, Mark David Chapman, but between the man who wrote “Imagine” and the man who spent much of his post-Beatles years ingesting drugs, watching TV, and raging at the world.

From a mere memorial, then, the song turns into Dylan’s take on the book of Job. Why do bad things happen to good rock stars? Well, argues Dylan, they happen to remind us that even if we head the most accomplished rock band in history, we are still obliged to slow down, examine ourselves and our behavior, and correct it whenever necessary. Otherwise, only God can help us find our way through the jungle. Amen to that, rabbi.