You can't argue with success: Bob's last 3 growly albums of swamp rock and Delta blues, have been hits, and one of 'em was his first to ever debut at #1 on both the USA and UK charts. This one's similar, full of long blues songs, but some of the lyrics are among his weakest.
Bob's ditty on John Lennon ("Hold On John")? A kid in songwriting class would get a C+ on it, and told to study how the masters do it, like John Lennon or Bob Dylan (pre-"Tempest"). It opens with a
"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."
"They?" Next, a pointless stanza on John's early days with The Beatles in Hamburg (coming before The Quarrymen in Dylan's time frame):
"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"
Pretty dark, calling John's debut years the beginning of the (journey's) end. But it's still not good writing. Next, Bob lurches forward to John's battle with USA immigration, "like any other slave…no way out of that deep dark cave."
Bob, exciting on the flawed bios of "Hurricane" and "Lenny Bruce," is dull here, going through the motions like he's using a rhyming dictionary. Once again recalling Lennon's death: "I heard the news today, oh boy...Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy."
Another easy reference to a Beatles line turns to doggerel: "Slow down you're moving way too fast...Your bones are weary, you're about to breathe your last." What? John was working on a comeback album that night, that's "moving way too fast?" He was 40 years old, his bones weren't weary. Mark Chapman could've spoken those lines: "You're moving way too fast…you're about to breathe your last."
From here, Bob goes far afield ("Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam…") and then starts quoting William Blake. This impresses the vast army of illiterate Dylan fans who think dropping a dead poet's line into a song isn't lazy, but a sign of scholarship: "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."
The title track, "Tempest," is a terribly tedious Dylanization of "The Titanic" legend, with easy rhymes, references to "Leo" DeCaprio, and these silly lines invented about the ship having its own whorehouse on board:
"Davey the brothel-keeper, came out dismissed his girls
Saw the water getting deeper. Saw the changing of his world."
There have been better songs about Lennon, and, at least in an entertaining way, worse ones about The Titanic. Harry Chapin's "Dance Band on the Titanic" took a light and splashy approach to the obvious ironies about man's failings and the certainty of death. And below? A track you can't find on iTunes, "Danger on the Titanic," a catchy if ridiculous pop tune by Sailor. Who?
Sailor was a foursome: a married couple and what looks like two gay guys. In the late 70's, many tried to copy Abba pop or Queen pretentiousness. This quartet has more than a dab of Abba, and there's a dragging Queen break, a shift into a No-themian rhapsody that makes the Titanic's winter horror quite summer campy.
The lyrics by Philip Pickett pluck all the gamey strings of wordplay that anyone would want: "I'm drowning in my salty tears…Don't leave me drowning with tears in my wine. Just when I found you we hit an iceberg. It's man overboard!" Predictably, "Titanic" rhymes with "panic."
Was it a dream? Is a ghost doing the singing? Maybe the latter. Ghosts have hollow heads, and in life, this guy may not have been too bright either:
"We danced the tango as the waves crashed down upon the dance floor.
We carried on, 'cause this was our favorite song."
Then they began to do "The Swim."
At the risk of getting the "Bob can do no wrong" Dylan fans into a Tempest tantrum, I think he took a wrong turn with his Titanic song. He has a dark sense of humor and could've used it more, taking the tune into the direction he used on another long song, "High Water." In that one, he sang, "It's tough out there, High water everywhere," and shouted to a lady, "throw your panties overboard…" In other words, gal, if the ship's going down, you should, too.
Sapristi! It's Titanic disco cheese! Sailor sings... Danger on the Titanic