Monday, November 29, 2010

All Things Must Pass

It was 70 years ago today.... All his troubles seemed so far away.... Isn't it a pity? *

Amid the incredible outpouring of Lennoniana, boomer tears, and general hagiography that is being unleashed on the culture these past few months, as we all celebrate and solemnize both what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday, and, more creepily, the 30th anniversary of his shooting, I thought I would point out what is, to me, the very essence of John Lennon -- what makes him so interesting a figure, culturally and personally, not to mention psychologically.

It is, in my mind, an edit as powerful as David Lean's cut from Peter O'Toole blowing out the match ("the trick is in not minding it hurts") to the sunrise over the desert in Lawrence of Arabia.  And one of the things that's interesting about the cut is that, unlike finicky Paul, John never seemed to take that much of an interest in things like song sequences or album concepts.  But the juxtaposition here is stunning - and what does it mean?

It's on Imagine, Lennon's second solo album - and the album named after one of the great inspirational and anthemic songs in Lennon's (or anyone's) canon, the transcendently loving hymn to universal brotherhood.  The seventh song I hapen to like even more than "Imagine" -- "Oh My Love," as simple and as sweet and honest a love song as you're gonna hear from anyone, any time.  The voice is gentle, and again, the spirit is open - open to the world - 'my eyes are wide open' - and profoundly accepting of the world.  'My eyes can see.'

Cut To...?

The cruelest, most vicious personal attack song you can, well, imagine: "How Do You Sleep?"  I don't care what he told Dick Cavett, that is NOT a song about himself.  Or, to the extent that it is, it is also, quite obviously and painfully, an eviscerating attack on Paul.

How can the same man not only have written these two songs, so wildly different in nature, but decided to place them back to back on the album he recorded and released just as he was hitting his stride as a solo artist? And why have we, who have canonized the man practically out of all recognition, forgotten this edit?  It's as if John were telling the world, "Oho!  Oh, no!  Ono!  Don't make too much of the Imagine-all-the-people-living-for-today stuff.  Don't forget I'm a right bastard."  It's as if Obama had ended his campaign speeches by saying, "Yes - We - Can!" and then added, "You fucking assholes."  It's the kind of thing that if it were done today, if someone put together an anthology of great John songs and ordered them that way, we would all have a serious 21st Century cow about it.

Yet he did it himself.  He lulled us into this loving mood, then kicked us in the balls.

Thanks, John.  Thanks a lot.

As must be clear, I am a bit of a Beatle nerd - I came by it very naturally and somewhat late in the game - it wasn't till my twenties that I started inhaling the stuff - and I've noticed something about John, and that song in particular.

You kinda have to be in a certain mood.

A year or so ago, at the crest of some Beatle wave, I made a playlist called "After Beatles" (Volume 1, if you want to be specific about it), which consisted of songs written by the Ex-Beatles after the breakup.  It's a nice little 'what if' kind of thing, and has proved for some reason to be the perfect music to wash dishes to.  And though I wasn't really conscious of it as I made the playlist, it tells a bit of a story and a pretty interesting one.  It starts with Ringo's "I'm the Greatest," written by John, of course, a  hilarious and fun song, with lovely comments on the whole Beatles thing - "I was in the greatest show on Earth/for what it was worth," then segues into John's "Imagine" before hitting two songs which seem to comment directly on the fate of our beloved group: Paul's 'Man We Was Lonely' and George's "Isn't it a Pity?"  At that point, Paul comes back with his joyous if somewhat silly recent song, "Dance Tonight," an infectious litte ditty that grates on you the first time you hear it, even as you know you'll never get it out of your head.

And then, as if to reassert his dominance, John roars back with his big 'fuck you' to Paul.  (Of course, I am not a crazy man - I am aware of the fact that it was I, not John, who, consciously or not, decided to have John roar back -- but the effect is of John himself storming back, almost as violently as he did on Imagine.)  And guess what?

I skip it about 99% of the time.

Paul famously sang that John 'took [his] lucky break and broke it in two,' and the poor guy (richest man in show business, but poor Paul all the same) has taken a lot of heat for forcing the break-up, for not being nicer to Yoko, for being light and shallow, for being too easy on himself, for settling for entertaining when artistic and soulful were so close to his grasp -- but every once in a while, you kind of have to think: Jesus, Paul was lucky to get away from the guy.  Let him spread his - you guessed it - Wings, and see how he could do on his own.  And Paul did just fine.

In the end, of course, they were like brothers - in competition, always, but loving and bound together to the very end.  What the two of them had - the four of them, really - none of us can ever really know.  We can all just be grateful that they had it as long as they did.  And whoever your favorite Beatle is, whatever you think of John's assholicness, or Paul's annoyingnes, or George's Georgeness, or Ringo's just plain Starkeyishness, or even if you've accepted that it was the four of them - greater than the sum of their parts - that made the music that shook the world - you do have to know a very simple truth:

We wouldn't have had it, not any of it, if not for John.

Rest in Peace.

* to anticipate an obvious comment: as with the title, these are all adaptations or lyrics from songs written by the other Beatles


Diedra said...

I too, have had quite an affinity for the Beatles over the years; although I haven't closely followed them or their lives as you have. Your post made me think -- about the assumptions I might have made about John, and his life, and even about life in general. It made me question, and ponder, which is good. Your example regarding Obama was great. It It caught me off guard, yet it was exactly right, and made me laugh out loud. On this significant, yet somewhat eerie anniversary, someone needed to acknowledge. You did it in an insightful, sensitive, yet witty way -- well done.

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

I think this is the best thing I've ever read about John Lennon, and the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Beyond and beneath all the myth-making, there were two blokes from Liverpool who achieved greatness, together as well as apart.

They provided the soundtrack for a generation.

I'm talkin' about my generation.

Gregory said...

I'm going to skip 99% of my reaction to this and just say: listen to Ringo's recent (2008) song "Liverpool 8"

It's quite beautiful.

No doubt it will appear on the blogger's "After Beatles, Vol. 5" CD.