Why does Dylan's new album have a moving song about someone who never really influenced him?
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Though The Beatles stayed fairly up to date on popular music in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan wasn't on their radar until the spring of 1964, a full year after The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan established the young songwriter as American folk music's premier voice. Once the band heard that record, during a tour of France, it had an immediate impact on them. "For three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it," Lennon would later say. "We all went potty about Dylan." The band's early hits, though deceptively complex, were clearly intended for a teenybopper audience more interested in dancing to backbeats than listening to poetry and acoustic guitars. After hearing Freewheelin', The Beatles—and especially John Lennon—were inspired to write more mature, narrative-driven folk songs in the manner of their new hero.
It's easy to see why Lennon would be so infatuated by the folk singer. Dylan came from a world of New York coffee houses and Old Left socialists who demanded some level of intellectual weight from their artists. People listened to his music sitting down, quietly taking it all in. It was a far cry from both the beer halls of Hamburg, where Lennon cut his musical teeth, and the stadiums he was then playing. His artistic output after hearing Dylan suggests he was challenged and inspired by the New York troubadour's seriousness. Almost immediately, Lennon began to write more introspective and acoustic songs, first in "I'm a Loser," which was recorded in August of 1964. He finally mastered the folk form with the fully Dylan-esque "Norwegian Wood," released on 1965's Rubber Soul, in which the singer takes a detached, and somewhat stoned, look at an elusive female figure.
It's no wonder Lennon sounds stoned: In August of 1964, in New York City, Dylan introduced The Beatles to cannabis. Pot would turn out to be arguably the only bigger influence than Dylan on Lennon in 1964 and 1965. Having run for years on a steady stream of booze and amphetamines, Lennon and the rest of The Beatles began "smoking pot for breakfast," in Ringo Starr's words. The switch coincided—and perhaps provoked—a change in recording habits: By the mid-'60s, the Beatles were taking days to record songs that would once take hours, or even minutes, and, in the process, revolutionizing studio recording.
It was a nearly parallel development with the mercurial Dylan who, always a step ahead of the times, was focusing on more hallucinatory and experimental output like "Mr. Tambourine Man," by the time he met Lennon.
The two would meet again in May of 1966, during Dylan's legendary first electric tour of England. An awkward limo ride that he shared with Lennon during that tour was captured by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker shows the strange tension between the two men. In 1970 Lennon spoke to Rolling Stone about the uncomfortable encounter: "I just remember we were both in shades and both on fucking junk. ... I was nervous as shit. I was on his territory, that's why I was so nervous."
Despite the tension, in 1966 John Lennon and Bob Dylan were more similar than they had ever been before—or ever would be again. Dylan had achieved his first major chart success with "Like a Rolling Stone" in America but was also being ridiculed by a large contingency of his former fan base who were chafed by his new electric and "commercial" sound. Lennon, himself more than a little familiar with controversy, was, in the midst the revolutionary experimentation that would become the high point of his career. Up to that point, Dylan and Lennon were on opposite ends—one a playful pop star, the other a serious social commentor—but for once they were both in the same place, experiencing the surreal trappings of fame while creating some of the best music of the 20th century. The motorcycle accident that forced Dylan to retire to Woodstock in 1966 severed that connection. The two are believed to have met only once more, in 1969.
Before his murder in 1980, Lennon remained fixated on his former hero and mentioned him in several of his songs, like "Give Peace A Chance," as well as a number of interviews. Though Lennon would claim to have "stopped listening to Dylan with both ears" and malign him to the press in the 1970s, even his derision was a mark of a continued interest.
The relationship between Bob Dylan and John Lennon seemed to be particularly one-sided. Lennon wrote a handful of Dylan-esque songs; Dylan never wrote a Lennon-esque one. Not only that, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a trace of Lennon's influence in any Bob Dylan record. So why does Dylan celebrate an artist whose influence on himself and his art was negligible? Why did he write such a moving song about someone he barely knew?
Because Dylan deals in myth. It informs his output as much, if not more, than the actual people in his life. Dylan uses motifs like floods and trains in order to wrestle universalities down and trap them in his verses. He, like Lennon, will always be associated with the 1960s, but more than any other major artist from that period he has always written songs that are designed to transcend the context in which they were created. Even when Dylan's topical material had an activist agenda—"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Hurricane" being two notable examples—his subjects have always been selected for their historical resonance. Lennon had to already be mythic in order for Dylan to write a song about him.
"Roll On John" is certainly mythic. Dylan detaches Lennon's journey from the Liverpool docks, "bound for the sun," from literal meaning, avoiding straight biographical detail in favor of a collage of quoted Lennon lyrics and images rooted in the American folk tradition—"Roll on John, roll through the rain and snow /Take the righthand road and go where the buffalo roam." In fact, the song shares the title of a traditional ballad, which Dylan himself recorded in 1961. The new "Roll on, John" only really makes sense seen as a sad lament in the tradition of tragic ballads about larger-than-life folk figures such as Stagger Lee or John Henry. "Roll On John" isn't a sad song about a friend that died. And it's not a sonic fist-bump from one icon to another. It's Dylan acknowledging that Lennon has become legend—another mythic character to populate his songs.