Such a beautiful song! Musically and lyrically it’s sublime.
Surprisingly perhaps, after ‘Tempest’, much of the beauty is due to the variety and richness of the numerous interpolations. Here their inclusion is seamless. They make part of an integrated whole, their words often being key to the themes explored in the song. Some of this beauty is created by the use of words penned by Lennon himself, as in:
‘I heard the news today, oh boy’.
The beauty is in the poignancy. The line’s long vowels and alternating unstressed and stressed syllables recreate in us the same sense of helplessness and grief once suffered by Lennon. But here the line is also the precursor to an onslaught of other emotion. A languid sense of helplessness is immediately displaced in the next line by an incipient anger, indicated by five consecutive stressed syllables:
‘They haul’d your ship up on the shore’.*
However the vowels are still long; if there’s anger it’s under control. But it’s controlled only until the fourth line, where the words become full of bitterness:
‘They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’.
The long vowels have been abandoned and the resulting staccato effect tells us the narrator’s blood is boiling – until the line tails away after the incisive ‘cut it’.
Beauty also results from the variety of the roles given to the narrator who is variously critic, devotee, adviser, biographer, and mourner. As adviser it’s not clear that he’s not Lennon himself. The advice is contradictory, however:
‘Leave right now, you won’t be far from wrong’
is soon followed by
‘Slow down, you’re moving way too fast’.
The beauty is again in the poignancy. These exhortations are suggestive of a man in conflict with himself and therefore at least in part the author of his own demise.
The Lennon Character
While a number of commentators have speculated that there may be allusions to other Johns (ranging from the John Smith of Pocahontas fame to St John the Divine) as far as I can see there’s no need to look further for the identity of the protagonist than to a slightly fictionalised John Lennon. That’s not to say the song is just about Lennon, though. It’s may be more about him than ‘Tempest’ is about the sinking of the Titanic, but it is also a vehicle for the exploration of themes which appear throughout the album. Nevertheless Lennon is pretty central.
His character is presented as one of extremes. He ranges from appearing a rather unsavoury whoring drunk, in the early lines:
‘Another bottle empty, another penny spent’
‘From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets’,
to being presented as Christ-like in much of the rest of the song. We see this straight away when his reaction to an implied threat is unconfrontational:
‘He turned around and he slowly walked away’.
That however is the only obviously ‘Christian’ act that’s attributed to him. There is, though, a possible reference to the real Lennon’s political activism, when we’re told a faceless ‘they’ tied his hands and clamped his mouth. And there’s perhaps a hint at his social concern in details like ‘playing to the cheap seats’. His virtues are not being trumpeted as exceptional, though. That they’re presented in a context of moral failing marks him as ordinary, barely different from the rest of us. It’s elsewhere, then, that comparisons with Christ are to be found.
To a great extent it’s in the song’s imagery that Lennon comes across as Christ-like. There are several such ways that the identification is made.
To begin with, the inclusion of the detail about being shot in the back, though historically accurate, perhaps presents Lennon, like Christ, as a victim of a betrayal.
Another way in which Lennon is implicitly identified with Christ is as occupant of a cave. In one way the cave can be seen as the underworld, a non-existence from which there is no escape:
‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep, dark cave’.
That Lennon is in the underworld is supported by the earlier phrase describing his death,’and down he went’.
However, the cave can also be seen as Christ’s burial chamber, so given that the cave’s occupant is Lennon, then Lennon is implicitly being identified with Christ.
A third identification of Lennon with Christ is suggested by the line:
‘The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back’.
On the surface this would seem to refer to Lennon’s journey by ship from the island he’s on, but there are perhaps overtones of Christ’s ascension and second-coming.
Fourthly, in verse six we’re told:
‘Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last.*
Lord, you know how hard that it can be’
The reason Lennon knows how hard breathing your last breath can be, must be because in some sense he’s done it before. The gospel account of Christ’s death tells us:
‘Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last’ (Mark 15,37).
The wording is too similar to the song’s ‘breathed your last’ for Lennon’s death and Christ’s death not to be being treated there as one and the same.
Finally, Lennon also seems to be being identified with Christ by way of the interpolation of the opening line of Blake’s most famous poem in the final verse:
‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’
The word ‘tyger’ is likely to recall T.S.Eliot’s:
‘… In the juvenescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger’,
so if it’s Lennon who is being addressed as ‘Tyger’, the implication is that he is Christ.
That it is Lennon who is being addressed as ‘Tyger’ is apparent from the use of Blake’s description ‘burning bright’ to echo the chorus’s depiction of Lennon, ‘You burned (or burn) so bright’. To associate him with the ‘tyger’ might also seem apposite in that the tyger itself is presented by Blake as the product of a god whose creations are, in a sense like Lennon, both good and evil.
The identification of Lennon with Christ is just one of many unities which pervade the song. Perhaps the most important is alluded to in the interpolated:
‘Come together now right over me’
in which the ideal of a unified humanity is extolled.
Another unity involves Christ and the world. We’re told in the fourth verse:
‘The city gone dark, there is no more joy’.
If the city represents the world, then the idea would seem to be that Christ’s death and the spiritual death of the world are one and the same. This is because the cave, associated now with the death of Christ, had previously been described as ‘dark’. Since ‘dark’ is also being used to describe the city, we’re led to associate the two. Furthermore, since Christ is being identified with the world, there is the implication that the resurrection of Christ will amount to the resurrection, in the form of the redemption, of the world too.
A further unity, this time between Lennon and the world, is implied by his relinquishing an isolated existence. Initially Lennon is described as having been:
‘… cooped up on an island far too long’*.
There’s the suggestion that he’s been too inward looking. ‘Island’ here is reminiscent of John Donne’s ‘No man is an island‘. In arguing for the unity of mankind, Donne asserts that:
‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’.
Similarly the above quotation suggests not only that Lennon was too cut off from mankind in life, but that mankind is diminished both by this and by his death.
Time and space are also treated as a unity. This occurs when the word ‘right’ in verse five’s exhortation to:
‘Leave right now’
appears again two verses later in the expression:
‘Take the right hand road’.
The temporal is being associated with the spatial – ‘right now’ with ‘right hand road’ – so that they become unified as part of an eternal one.
Finally, there’s also perhaps the suggestion that good and bad are ultimately one. The lights Lennon is associated with are both those of the ‘red light Hamburg streets’ and the light referred to in the chorus which he’s urged to shine. These can be taken as representing respectively his positive and negative qualities. But in being urged to ‘Shine your light’, since he’s not being urged to give reign to his negative qualities, the implication seems to be that these have been subsumed by the positive ones. Qualities which when viewed separately can be seen as good and bad, when viewed together appear as just good.
All these, then are presented as unities – humanity, Christ and the world, Lennon and the world, time and space, good and bad. It will be necessary to consider another unity, however, before the significance of these will become apparent. Meanwhile we need to be aware of the further importance of time, and its relationship with the eternal.
For much of the song Lennon is presented as bound by time. In the opening line he asks for ‘the time of day’ – the first of several occurrences of ‘day’. And in the third verse we’re told he has:
‘Rags on your back just like any other slave’*
While on one level the line implies a Christ-like poverty, on another it seems to represent him as a mere temporal being. ‘Rags on your back’ seems to be a compression of phrases from Donne and Shakespeare.
In Donne’s ‘The Sunne Rising’ there’s the line:
‘Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time’.
And in King Lear the Duke of Kent announces:
‘Years on my back I have forty-eight’
By compressing and slightly altering the expressions ‘rags of time’ and ‘Years on my back’ the song is able to refer to ‘Rags on your back’. The effect is to portray Lennon as someone for whom time is a burden which he’d be better off relinquishing. In similar vein, he is ‘like any other slave’ in that, like the rest of us, he is a slave of time.
In the light of this use of the back as a bearer of the burden time, the fact that we’re told:
‘They shot him in the back‘
in part emphasises that by being shot he was released from time – leaving his eternal existence unaffected.
The word ‘back’ again provides a reminder of Lennon’s temporal existence in the lines:
‘The sooner you go, the quicker you’ll be back‘
‘Too late now to sail back home’.
The first of these, by way of the possible allusion to Christ’s second coming, suggests that what can be expressed in temporal terms has an eternal significance.
Eternal v. Temporal
That temporal events have a greater, eternal significance is suggested throughout the song. The events of the song seem to occur in an ‘eternal present’ in that the eight verses cover the events of Lennon’s life, among other things, in a temporally bizarre order:
His death, his early career, a retrospective on his life and death, the effect of his death, advice to him in life, the time at which his death is imminent, the moments after his death.
Since the present of each verse is not always before the present of the succeeding verse, the impression is given that the various exhortations, the advice, the implied regret and the events alluded to do not occur in actual time. Since there’s no past and future, they’re all part an eternal present.
That the events of the song can be seen as taking place in an eternal present also becomes apparent from the fact that the expression ‘right now’ is used both in the exhortation:
‘Leave right now‘
in verse five and in:
‘Come together right now‘
in verse six’. From a temporal perspective there are two different ‘right nows’. But the dual occurrence of the expression ‘right now’ leads one to associate, and so identify, the two ‘nows’.
The transcendence of the temporal by the eternal is also reflected in the description of Lennon’s light. The chorus line ‘You burn (or burned) so bright’ is regretful in tone, reflecting the fact that Lennon is dead. This tone of regret is enhanced if the past tense is being used. Yet the the complementary ‘burning bright’ suggests the opposite. Can his existence transcend his death? It can if in some sense he has an eternal, or timeless existence which goes beyond the temporal.
There’s a similar implication in the first line of the chorus:
‘Shine your light,
If the exhortation makes sense now that Lennon is dead, there’s again a sense in which his existence transcends his death.
The idea of the eternal transcending the temporal is also apparent in the references to a quarry and a cave. Not only is a quarry a type of cave anyway, but that the quarry here is the cave is also suggested by the words ‘down’ and ‘deep’ respectively in:
‘Down in the quarry with the Quarrymen’
‘Wasn’t no way out of that deep, dark cave’.
Since the quarry seems to represent life (the activity of Lennon’s early band the Quarrymen), and the cave represents death, the identity of the two suggests that life and death – so easily differentiated at the temporal level – eternally are no more to be distinguished than good from bad**.
This subjugation of the temporal to the eternal is further reinforced by the way the order of events gets reversed in the lines:
‘Tore the heart right out and cut it to the core’
‘Put on your bags and get ’em packed’
It’s only once something has been cut to the core that the heart can be torn out. And if bags are ‘put on’, it’s literally absurd to only then pack them. These reversals would appear to emphasise that the ordering in time of events in the world is of no ultimate importance.
A hint of the transcendence of the eternal may also be present in the line:
‘They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know’.
Spoken by the narrator, who already knows about Lennon’s death, it’s absurd as a warning. And because Lennon doesn’t ‘know’ about the trap, he’s not in a position to warn himself. The only way the warning makes sense is if it’s timelessly, eternally, true.
Finally there’s a lack of certainty about what Lennon’s life amounts to whose solution might be resolved in terms of the eternal. Presented as a sea journey, it begins in the Liverpool docks rather than just Liverpool where he was born. But the journey seems to end nowhere in particular. As in real life it takes in Hamburg, but then becomes a ‘road’ journey to ‘where the buffalo roam’. This could be anywhere. All we can say is that the description is vaguely romantic, cowboyish perhaps, in keeping with the murder’s exaggeratedly being described as an ambush. The journey ends with the foundering of his ship – ‘on the shore’. Which shore? Again it doesn’t seem to matter. But, in part by association with ‘sure’, ‘shore’ suggests stability, or lack of change, which in turn suggests eternity.
The final unity, which allows us to piece together all the foregoing considerations concerns the song’s use of ‘they’. Who are ‘they’? Here too the song seems deliberately unspecific. In addition to its use in ‘They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know’, there are three more instances of acts being attributed to an unnamed ‘they’:
‘They shot him in the back…’
‘They tied your hands and clamped your mouth’*
‘They hauled your ship up on the shore’*.
On one level of interpretation the first ‘they’ refers to Lennon’s murderers, the second perhaps to those who stifled his political activism, and the third to either of these. However, from the fact that in each case the identity of the ‘they’ is left open, it remains possible to identify all three with each other. Tying his hands and clamping his mouth could accordingly, like hauling his ship up on the shore, be the same action as shooting him. Lennon’s murder would be being presented in terms of its political consequences.
But still the question ‘Who are ‘they’?’ remains unresolved. The only candidates from within the song are those implored to ‘Come together right now, over me’, or those who, like Lennon, are ‘slaves’ of time. In other words us. We are the killers of Lennon. And given that Lennon, the ordinary man, also represents us, we are not only his killers but their victim.
So ultimately the song is about us. We are the ‘they’ who killed Lennon, an act co-extensive with our own spiritual death. This final unity needs to be taken in conjunction with those unities previously noticed to enable us to complete the picture. Of particular importance are the unities of Lennon and Christ, Christ and the world, and Lennon and the world.
Since Lennon is identified with Christ, our being the killers of Lennon amounts to the same as our being the killers of Christ. And since Christ is identified with the world, our killing of Christ makes us responsible for our own spiritual destruction.
Despite this the song is far from negative. Unity can again be appealed to, this time as a source of hope. Because Lennon is identified with Christ, we too by way of our identity with Lennon, are Christ. That is, although we’ve brought about our spiritual death, we’re also capable of our own redemption. Temporally this is by ‘coming together’. But from an eternal stance, the killers and the redeemers are already timelessly one.
* Single asterisked lines have their origin in, or are directly quoted from, Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey,Viking Penguin 1996. Thanks to Paul Sutcliffe for pointing this out. See Scott Warmuth’s Pinterest page ‘A Tempest Commonplace’ for these and other quotations found on ‘Tempest’. I doubt whether the fact that phrases, and indeed whole lines, are ‘borrowed’ affects the meanings I’ve attributed to them because the contexts are so different. Nevertheless, it clearly affects my suggestion that ‘Rags on your back just like any other slave’ has its origins in Shakespeare and Donne. A crucial difference, with respect to meaning, is Dylan’s inclusion of ‘other’ before ‘slave’. In the ‘Odyssey’ Odysseus is being described simply as wearing rags like a slave. In the song Lennon is being described as a slave.
**One effect of this is to identify both Christ’s death and Lennon’s with hope. ‘Wasn’t no way out’ can either be interpreted as an ungrammatically informal way of saying there can be no escape from death or, taken literally, as implying the possibility of resurrection. And if Christ’s death is not final after all, then neither, given his identity with Christ, is Lennon’s.