Last weekend I happened to be in the centre of town near Oxford Street. (One of my grandsons has a birthday coming up – you can probably guess where I was.) I knew that at some time in the not too distant past Bob Dylan had released a new record, but knew nothing about it; so I decided to buy it, then went home and listened to it. The record turned out to be remarkably recent: I got it less than a month after its release. I am not usually so up-to-the-minute!
The song that caught my attention was the last track “Roll on John”, a tribute to John Lennon, thirty-two years after his death. I listened to it several times, quite moved. Sometimes you need time to take in a person’s life and come to a reaction to their death. Perhaps so it was with Bob Dylan.
There were a lot of things I recognised in the song: references to the Quarrymen, Hamburg, the Cavern, John’s gibe about “cheap seats” at the Beatles’ Royal Command Performance, lines from “A Day in the Life”, “Slow Down”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, and “Come Together”.
But there were also a lot of things that sounded similarly familiar, which I just didn’t recognise. I didn’t follow John’s career so closely after the Beatles broke up, so I imagined I had simply missed a lot of the references.
Amazingly enough it seems that internet commentators have not come up with credible explanations. (The best I found was that the chorus “shine your light” may be connected with “we all shine on” from “Instant Karma” – they share precisely one word.) So I did a small amount of research. Why, to take one example, does Dylan say
Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam
So I googled “John Lennon buffalo”. I found quite a remarkable number of connections, plenty to build a conspiracy theory on, but nothing to explain why Dylan would actually have included this line. Here are a few:
- John Lennon’s killer moved to a prison near Buffalo, NY [That’s got to be significant, right? But the range where the buffalo roam is in Kansas, I believe.]
- A record for sale on eBay including Bob Dylan/Neil Young/John Lennon/Buffalo Springfield/Tom Rush
- Flights from Liverpool John Lennon airport to Buffalo Niagara Falls airport
- A comment by John about the song “Bungalow Bill”: “There used to be a character called Jungle Jim, and I combined him with Buffalo Bill”
- The John Lennon song, “One day at a time”; and a film “One Day on Earth”, co-produced by Buffalo native and Los Angeles resident Daniel Lichtblau
- “Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy” by Ken Sharp, at Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
Is there a reason? Or did Bob Dylan just feel it was the right thing to say at that point in the song?