So how does one write about John Lennon, anyway?
Well, as the old joke goes–very carefully.
Because the fact is, Lennon’s a little scary. You’re not imagining it. The guy’s kinda frightening.
Growing up in the aftermath of his death and cultural canonization, it was impossible to avoid macabre associations. Not only owing to the lurid nature of his murder, but to the images that attached themselves to an impressionable young mind: his unnerving thousand-yard stare and gaunt, haggard visage; the whole Jesus vibe that seemed to anticipate martyrdom. And I’m not even accounting for the way adults talked about Yoko. No last name needed. Those two syllables alone synonymous with treachery. With unforgivable transgression.
But how about his music?
Melodic and ear-wormy as all hell, that’s for sure, but…also…a little spooky. There’s an edge to it. A pugnacity. An acidity. That sometimes masks, but more often makes room for, a deep, deep sorrow. McCartney gives you the sweet confectionery, Lennon is the razor blade that cuts it into palatable pieces.
Never mind the tone deafness (literal and figurative), the awkwardness, the cringe. It was never going to work because there was a fundamental, if commonplace, misunderstanding of the source material:
“Imagine,” though beautiful, is not a particularly happy song. Detractors might call it maudlin, while the more sanguine among us will at least concede it can be a bit of a challenging listen. Its beauty is oblique. Like all of Lennon’s greatest work, it’s fucking lonely sounding.
No surprise, though. Lennon was a famously lonely boy, beset by loss and dysfunction from an early age. Death–should one wish to be melodramatic about it–seemed to follow him.
But then again, death follows us all, ultimately. This reckoning– and the de-melodramatizing of it–is a necessary component of successful middle age. Which is why the middle-aged ear inevitably bends toward Lennon.
No other Beatle made such a study of getting older, of coming to understand personal growth and responsibility. The Beatles’ solo work fascinates us for reasons musical and artistic, but also because of its metaphorical quality. The solo canon is the struggle of everyone who is lucky enough to make it to middle age writ large: what do you do when the passions of youth subside? When life forces you to step out of one phase and into the next?
McCartney will comfort you, but I think Lennon will talk to you. Paul, God bless him, will make you feel that the world is okay. John, if you listen right, might make you feel that you are okay. There is always a sardonic, bitter element to the conversation though, because you are bitter and sardonic, too. You are just a human, after all. A victim of the insane. And hey, whatever gets you through the night.
We know the story. It starts with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and ends with Double Fantasy. On one side, a ragged, wounded deconstruction of self and of lingering ’60s idealism, and on the other, what Stephen Bard of the wonderful Fabcast podcast calls “a handbook for adulthood.”
Along the way, he drops what becomes the closest thing the Western world has to a secular hymn, makes some kind of okay, kind of annoying protest music, loses the girl, sticks a tampon on his head, sees some aliens, gets the girl back, sobers up and drops an under-appreciated gem in Walls and Bridges.
And the plaintive quality is never far off. Even at his most ebullient, dude is never quite able to convince me he’s really happy. Consider “Oh Yoko” (melancholic, yearning, more than a tad codependent, beautiful) versus “Dear Yoko” (peppy, effusive, upbeat, mediocre).
In fact, it’s only in his later songs, the ones that deal explicitly with growing older (“Watching The Wheels,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Cleanup Time”) that he evinces true contentment. Which, by the way, is not the same thing as happiness. Part of middle age is the recognition that you don’t have to go around feeling good all the time. To wish this is, in fact, juvenile. And to accept it is itself a higher form of happiness.
It’s no secret that I often wish I could have grown up in the ’60s. I think it’s endemic to many of us ’90s kids. It was the generation being exhumed and rehashed during our youth; possibly what the ’90s are to today’s youngsters.
(Anybody under 30 reading this thing? Do you think the ’90s were cool? Spoiler alert: they were).
I would have liked to see the career of a John Lennon the right way round. Because from this vantage point it’s looking through a glass onion, everything jumbled up, reversed, out of focus.
Here’s what I can tell you:
Number one, don’t compare Lennon and McCartney’s solo catalogues. You know this. You do it anyway. You draw deep conspiratorial connections between their ’70s output. Every song was a coded missive aimed at the other. They were each other’s only true subject matter. You know this is silly. You believe it anyway.
Regardless, know this: John was his most John when coming right out and saying it: “I don’t believe in Beatles.” “The dream is over.” My God, what artist alive today would be capable of such clear, definitive self-rebuke?! And more importantly, what artist today has a career worthy of such rebuke? Kanye West? Fuck right off. (See, this is where I start with the whole wishing I’d grown up in the ’60s thing).
Number two, if you are, like me, attempting to construct a second or third generation Beatles fan’s understanding of Lennon’s catalogue, know what you are getting into before you get started with Plastic Ono Band. Read up on Janov and Primal Scream. Consider, if you like, a young Kurt Cobain listening to the record. Extrapolate from there.
Number three, Mind Games is, yeah, kinda mediocre, although the title track is still killer, Walls and Bridges rules–scintillating production, sleek sonics, new, exciting creative territory explored via horns and funk influences–and finally, it’s okay to skip the Yoko tracks on Double Fantasy. I give you permission. John’s seven tracks constitute a beautiful record made by a mature artist. Still the restless poet, still the cynic, ever the weirdo, but just a little more put together, a little more okay. What more can you ask from the years you’re given?
A major pitfall of later-generation Beatle fandom is the belief that they sound like children’s music. I mean, they do sometimes, but it’s not kid’s stuff. Not juvenile. Certainly not puerile. It’s dirty and life-giving, like soil, all mixed in together–young, old, grown-up, child-like.
My favorite John solo stuff is the most sepulchral. The stuff that seems to be looking at life from both ends of eternity–the child and the already dead. The stuff that sounds like the creepy little-kids-singing-in-the background effect from all horror films somehow turned into beautiful, yearning, still hook-y songs.
“Love” comes to mind, not to mention “Look At Me” (not to mention Strawberry Fields Forever, Julia, Cry Baby Cry if we want to dip into The Beatles’ catalogue).
I was messing around with one of those songs during the pandemic, trying to learn it on my acoustic guitar: “Real Love,” the demo turned one of two “new” Beatles tunes in conjunction with the Anthology release in 1996. Stripped of Jeff Lynne’s production (which is great, by the way!), it’s a beautiful little song, delicate and affirming.
Fumbling around with my guitar mid-quarantine, I suddenly heard its lyric in a different way. Not, “It’s real love” as in “this is authentic love,” but “it’s real, love.” There’s a comma there. John left it for us.
“It’s real, love. This word you’ve heard so many times. The one me and my mates sung about so frequently it nearly lost its meaning. This most elusive, most sacred, and yet somehow most empty of concepts? It’s real. So go out and find it. Get it. Make it. Be it. Because it’s real.”
That’s what I learned in the pandemic.
It’s real, love.
But don’t take my word for it.