Friday, September 21, 2012

Tempest Takes You There

Today is Friday, September 21. Lead stories, aside from the usual election buzz, include these. Since 1983 the number of breweries in the U.S. has risen more than 2400%. iPhone 5 sales are so fast that Apple computers can't keep up with the profit calculations. And legendary outlaw Butch Casssidy's "Amnesty" Colt .45 is up for auction.

But the top story on this last day of summer is... Dylan's Tempest has been on the market ten days and a lot of fans have listened to it nearly that many times since its 9/11 release. Oh yeah.

Yesterday I wrote about the album's rave reviews and shared my own thoughts on the first seven cuts. This morning I want to make a few comments on Tempest, the title track, and his tribute to John Lennon, Roll On John.


The title song in this collection is 45 verses long, rolling like the north seas where the Titanic disappeared in what must have been a most horrible experience for those who survived. And that’s what this song seems dedicated to conveying: the horror. The tune itself is far from horrorific. It's more like the rolling sea itself.

The Titanic story is told from some unusual perspectives. Instead of simply describing the actual event, the song seems to be about the movie version of the story, so we have dreams and metaphors and Leo DiCaprio the artist as a character in the song. Like many of the other songs on the album there are reflections here as well from earlier Dylan songs and themes. For example, the Joker and the Thief discuss fate in “All Along the Watchtower.” And in this song a similar discussion regarding the meaning of events takes place between the Watchman and the Reaper.

“The veil was torn asunder between the hours of twelve and one, 
No change, no sudden wonder, could undo what had been done.”

Here’s another oblique reference in some way to the crucifiction of Christ? Upon his death, the New Testament writers affirm, the curtain that veiled the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom. Further along Dylan sings, “He read the Book of Revelations and he filled his cup with tears.” It’s an apocalyptic book, and “they tried to understand but there is no understanding with the judgment of God’s hand.” 

In so many words Dylan transforms the sinking of the Titanic into an Apocalyptic event. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that bigger than life tragedy. The end of an age?

When the Reaper's task had ended 
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest 
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor 
The loveliest and the best 

Roll On John

Roll On John is the final cut on this album. (Dylan released it in vinyl as well as digitally, by the way.)  Five of the ten songs are over seven minutes, this being another. I didn't count how many have thematically touched on death or violence, but quite a few deal with it. Straight up, this tribute lament is very beautiful. And it drips with grieving.

I remember exactly where I was the day John's music died. Mexico City. Dylan, too, remembers that day, and in processing that grief has produced this pearl.

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.

Shine your light
Movin’ on
You burned so bright
Roll on, John

From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the quarrymen
Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats
Another day in the life on your way to your journey's end


Sailin' through the trade winds bound for the South
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth
Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave


I heard the news today, oh boy
They hauled your ship up on the shore
Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy
They tore the heart right out and cut him to the core


Put on your bags and get 'em packed
Leave right now, you won't be far from wrong
The sooner you go the quicker you'll be back
You've been cooped up on an island far too long


Slow down you're moving way too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be


Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow
Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam
They'll trap you in an ambush before you know
Too late now to sail back home


Tyger, tyger burning bright
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
In the forests of the night
Cover 'em over and let him sleep

If you buy the CD just to own this one song, it'll be worth it. Then again, with iTunes you can easily buy singles these days. Get the whole darn thing. Thanks for the memories, Bob.

On a related topic, there are volunteer work crews down at the Armory tomorrow and the following Saturday from 10:00 till 3:00. It's a big building and a lot of work to get it ready for the next phase in its renovation. Meet some of the Friends who served on the Bob Dylan Way committee and others involved in this historic preservation project.

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