Tuesday 22 October 2013

John LENNON: The John Lennon Collection

(#272:  4th December 1982, 6 weeks)

Track Listing:  Give Peace A Chance/Instant Karma/Power To The People/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/#9 Dream/Mind Games/Love/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Imagine/Jealous Guy/Stand By Me/(Just Like) Starting Over/Woman/I’m Losing You/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Watching The Wheels/Dear Yoko/Move Over Ms. L/Cold Turkey

Friday, 11th Well, my last words were prophetic! They did get nearer – and it is a miracle that I am here to write this diary tonight.  By the grace of God we have been spared this time.  Awful swishings filled the air, and fool-like I was just about to remark that they seemed further off, but restrained myself…when…something like an electric force tore through the air above the house.  The office, despite wooden shutters and thick curtains, was filled with an uncanny light…We expected the end.  I could see the bomb passing over the house – though there was a ceiling and several floors above me.  Then the tension passed.  We were not dead beneath the ruins.  It was a ghastly experience. 

Few Eggs And No Oranges:  The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45


I remember the night; or rather, the early evening, as I believe we must have heard about it around dinnertime – we customarily ate dinner while the tv news was on, which in retrospect doesn’t seem like the best thing to do, but it is what my family always did, and so we heard about it then.  I was dumbfounded, my father saddened – he was no great fan of The Beatles but John was the one he liked the most, perhaps because he sensed that there was something more there – something akin to his own veteran’s view of war, which led to his pacifist and agnostic stance on things.  And I know he identified with John’s feelings of being different, disliked – he actually bought “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” single as he liked it so much.  My father never talked about music or musicians very much, but he liked anyone who was subversive, against the usual grain, and, now that I think about it, open and unfussy about emotions and ideas. 

As for me?  I grew up hearing most of these songs on the radio, alongside everything else, including The Beatles’ own many songs, and had not much of an inkling in December 1980 as to how big and famous and world-changing Lennon as a person and figure was.  I didn’t see him as the father figure in The Beatles as I didn’t (and still don’t, though I understand the idea) think that way; nor as some prophet of peace and love and universal harmony, though it became quickly apparent, from news reports, that many did.  In New York people gathered in front of the Dakota and sang “Hey Jude” and mourned, and as Lester Bangs* says, “What do you think the real – cynical, sneeringly sarcastic, witheringly witty and iconoclastic  - John Lennon would have said about that?”  In Berkeley, where we lived, I heard that people were gathering to talk in record stores, there being (obviously) no other place to go.  I had no one to talk about it with at school, and in any case don’t remember if any teachers said anything (though being Berkeley I am sure if they had wanted to, they would have).  A few months later, I had a throat infection of some sort that meant I had to be in bed all day, and listened to the radio, to a station that played, in tribute to Lennon, every single Beatles song, every last one of them.  It got a bit dizzying after a while, and as they were played in order I began slowly to appreciate the band for the first time, and what Lennon contributed.  Note they were playing his old group, and not his own work; I get the sense, even now, that the toughness and frankness (look at the cover, taken by Annie Leibovitz on the day of his death – he doesn’t seem scared of anything) could only be handled in small doses, like a gust of fresh air from an opened window. 

This compilation was supposed to mark the first anniversary of his death; due to label wranglings, however, it had to wait until the second.  He is the ghost of Christmas ’82, appearing just as The Jam’s “Beat Surrender” was #1, just as “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren appeared, just as fellow Liverpudlian Pete Wylie’s “Story of the Blues” was becoming the latest New Pop anthem.  I would guess that all of these musicians would praise Lennon as having the guts to say things as they were, to be funny and direct and upfront – and I can only wonder what Lennon would have made of the last song, with its Situationist quote (“Those who talk about revolution and class struggle without explicitly referring to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth“ – Raoul Vaneigem) not to mention the unearthly, heroic voice of Billy Mackenzie, whose voice ascends to defy gravity itself at the end.  I could speculate all day on what Lennon would have made of New Pop, but then turn to this latest in the 20 Golden Greats series (well, 19 in this case) only to find he had helped to create it in the first place.

And it is a compilation (the one here is the 1989 version, by the way – the original ended with “Dear Yoko” but I feel Lennon would have approved of its tougher ending, so here it is) that forbids mourning, that stands sternly and warns instead.  Not that it doesn’t have its kindlier moments; indeed the two are balanced out so that the joyful songs (particularly “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” which brings Sgt. Pepper’s  “Getting Better” full circle – by now he has changed his scene completely) act as a kind of cushion to the ones that still have the power to move and pull and disquiet.  The album starts with the joyful Montreal hotel room exasperation of “Give Peace A Chance” (with Petula Clark clearly leading the impromptu choir) – more of a folk song than anything, a demand to try something that is by definition not like other things (“This-ism, That-ism, is-m, is-m”) – already he is preparing for a later song.  “Instant Karma” is the first unnerving song in retrospect (“You better get yourself together/Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead”) and sounds already ghostly, a cry from another world, in part to Phil Spector’s production, which reminds me of how distant Lennon sounds on “Tomorrow Never Knows” (and also how “Penny Lane” Billy Preston’s piano is).  Lennon saw his work as all of a piece; I don’t know how much of what he writes and sings is deliberately evocative, or how much is due to it just being him and what he does.  “We all shine on” also has a posthumus air to it, as if the karma has been dealt with, and “we” (not the Royal we, I take it) have evolved into greater beings, somehow.  Lennon the Libra is bringing enlightenment to the masses, but I wonder if that high bar he presents could ever be reached; he sings it as if he himself has just been converted and is in the throes of passion, possessed by the incredible light and heat of the song itself. 

“Power To The People” is a more down-to-earth anthem and one that deals with not just work (“Millions of workers working for nothing/You better give ‘em what they really own”) but also feminism (“How do you treat your woman back home/She got to be herself/So she can free herself”).  “Say we want a revolution” he quotes himself, clearly still counting himself in, not out, of take-it-to-the-street right-on politics.  It’s another anthem, though one that doesn’t get played much on the radio these days; such a clear and (for its time) forward demand now seems…too obvious?  Too difficult?  And yet in 1971 was a hit, resonating with the unrest and frustration of the time.

“Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” is a bell-ringing leap for joy of a song, a kind of desperate duet with Elton John that boogies and rolls into pacifist corners with ease (“Don’t need no sword to cut thru flowers” and  the second unnerving moment, “Don’t need a gun to blow your mind”).  Getting to the light is the main thing here, and the song feels like a big multi-coloured mirror ball that is beautiful and startlingly bright at the same time.  Its busy clamour meant it was a #1 hit in the US, and a more modest #36 hit in the UK (another reflection on this album is how Lennon was not as appreciated in his home country as his adopted one, and how the massive success of this album in ’82 was an act of delayed or blocked grief on the part of the UK public; a reconciliation, if you will).

Sadly, because this album has so many songs on it, the gorgeous and elegant “#9 Dream” is presented here in its single form.  It is a merging of the real and unreal, of the ineffable suddenly emerging out of nothing.  It is ultimately a song about music itself (“Music touching my soul, something warm, sudden cold”) and the union of spirits that comes out of this experience; a glimpse of a moment that is as close to ecstasy as Lennon got on record, swoony and hypnotic as a dream itself.  There is no demand here, no insistence; it is a full breath of a song, an appreciation of life.  So many who look up to Lennon now (and by this I mean musicians) could do well to remember that he had his spiritual side as well as his political one; that this song is a natural counterbalance to so much else.  (Liverpool bands like The Lotus Eaters and China Crisis tried their best to go along this line, though it is harder to channel something ineffable than it looks.) 

“Mind Games” is an infinite staircase of a song, the main riff being endlessly repeated (save for the chorus) and the effect is again hypnotic, the “mind guerrilla” playing, pushing, planting seeds, working onwards and forevermore towards the greater good;  it’s not just that love is the answer, but “yes” is too (and I think of 1966 and Yoko Ono’s exhibition and the word “YES” as viewed by John Lennon as an affirmation of what would be their love).  “Yes is surrender” he sings, “you got to let it go.”  It strikes me that Lennon is not just spreading the words about peace and making love not war here but encouraging a mental fight, and then suddenly I remember 1988 and how much would he have liked (and understood) The Fall’s version of “Jerusalem.”  (I doubt if Lennon himself knew about The Fall in 1980, alas – maybe if they were from Liverpool.)  

And now, as a belated answer to what love is – as questioned relentlessly on The Lexicon of Love – is “Love.”  It is the quietest song here, the most modest, Lennon nearly absenting himself because the subject is so big, so immediate.  “Love is wanting to be loved” he sings, “Love is asking to be loved” and finally the crowning “Love is needing to be loved.”  It is a tremendous moment – a kind of unmasking one – where love itself isn’t just being sung about, but somehow revealed and humbly shown, in as simple and quiet a way as possible.  It is the still point around which everything else moves, and shows a respect (if I can put it this way) for love that makes everything else here more genuine.  This is just as fearless as any of his more demanding songs – in fact, I think it’s even more so, as Lennon had to learn the hard way that he could express his feelings and not just be the tough guy.

And now…did someone say New Pop?

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is uncannily like what I’d imagine the Sesame Street Christmas song would be; it’s got real bells, a children’s choir, an audibly happy John and Yoko wishing us all, no matter who we are, a pleasant new year, but what are the children singing?  “War is over if you want it.”  And it is this juxtaposition of Christmas joy and the promise of a new year and kids cheerfully anc catchily singing about peace that still makes this a startling thing to hear, especially if you’re out in the stressful marketplace dashing around looking for gifts; peace is the real gift, one that cannot be bought.  It is an anti-capitalist throwdown of the mightiest sort, and it’s all done with great cheer, a kind of merry defiance. 

“Imagine” is for many people Lennon’s crowning song; calm and unruffled as any easy listening song, not sweet necessarily but not sour either; it lulls the listener into a suggestive state (or at least I think it does) and then the demands begin to ever so subtly pile up; at first the simple demand for no hell or heaven (easy enough) and then suddenly no countries, no religion, no possessions…”you may say I’m a dreamer” he sings, light as the breeze, “but I’m not the only one.”  He is clearly addressing you the listener, wondering how far you can go with him, and telling you that he wants you to join him; it is a velvet invitation masking the revolution he’s been going on about, making the near-impossible sound actually reasonable and attractive…and thus “communism with sugar coating” makes it to the (capitalist) pop charts.

“Jealous Guy” was a song Lennon wrote that could have been a Beatles song, but for whatever reason didn’t make it to Abbey Road.  It is a song about emotion, internal emotion, exposed feelings and vulnerability; caught up in past events, he fears for the present and future ones.  Love here is desperately wanted and needed and jealousy blinds him (along with that need) to what is actually happening – it is a warning as much as the other songs about what bad things can happen when jealousy, not love, takes over.  It is as humble in its way as “Love” and his warnings to “watch out” and “look out baby” at the end are as much to himself as they are to her.  It is a song that seems to turn itself inside out, to break down, to soar with longing and regret.  It is totally appropriate that Roxy Music covered it and made it their tribute to Lennon, as it has an open ending – an infinite ending, if you will…

As an obligation, Lennon had to record an album quickly in 1975, and decided to do some standards from his youth – songs he had known since the days of The Silver Beatles, if not before then.  “Stand By Me” is an absolute request of a song, the musical riff repeated endlessly – the rock upon which the song/relationship is built.  (It is so clearly an influence on Lennon that it had to be included here.)  I don’t sense much nostalgia here – Lennon isn’t so much doing a tribute but bringing the song into his own life, his life of himself and Yoko versus, say, the US government.  (Which makes me wonder if he’d gotten his green card a lot earlier what effect, if any, that would have had on his music; as it was he’d stopped by the time he got one in 1976, when he wasn’t interested in performing or working at all, instead he and Yoko travelled and he was a househusband.)

Which brings us to the next few songs, all facets of that time, as recorded in 1980 on Double Fantasy; songs he wrote as continuations, evolutions of previous songs (“It’s a ‘we’ or it ain’t anything. “Woman” is the grown-up version of “Girl.”)  “(Just Like) Starting Over” is modern 50s pop in 80s production, and what always sounds to me like Cheap Trick doing backing vocals, even though I know it’s not them.  (How much would Lennon have loved their Live At The Budokan version of “Ain’t That A Shame.” A lot, I’m guessing.)  It feels like a cliché to note the whole 40-is-the-new-30-ness of the song, but it’s equally rare in pop to hear about married love, about the struggles and triumphs and rejoicings of it, about a renewal of love. “Woman” is a bit drippy, if I may say so, but its heart is in the right place (since this is a song that is sung not just to Yoko but to all women, I take it as a feminist song) and that’s what counts. 

“I’m Losing You,” however, is a damn disturbing song.  Something raw is being scratched at, old wounds are bleeding, old hurts are being brought back, all the peace and love band aids in the world are not going to get this patched up.  Loss – as if something is figuratively yanked out of him, or rather dragged out, “slipping away” as he haplessly watches – is the third moment on this album when agony and pain are alluded to, lived out.  It is an angry song, a song where his apology has done no good, with Derek Bailey-prickly guitar at the end, nerves being grated and pulled, the karma that was supposed to be so instant and shiny being turned to its shadow side of long-simmering resentment.

“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” is a gentle and sweet song; it is his update of “Good Night” from The White Album, and while I have avoided the poignant it cannot be avoided here.  The tone of the song changes from lullaby-gentle to a bit tougher when he talks about how he wants to see Sean come of age, but that is “a long way to go/A hard row to hoe.”  Lennon looked after Sean as he didn’t want to make the same mistakes as he’d made raising Julian, which lead to many things, including this song, a loving song from a father to a son, a son the same age as Julian was when “Hey Jude” was recorded…

…and now the crux of the album; the point where it is (perhaps?) the most radical.  “Watching The Wheels” is about letting go – letting go of situations, people, pressure, expectations…about wanting to be John Lennon, husband/father/NYC resident, period.  About wanting to come down from that status as “icon”** and just be himself.  Does he have any answers?  Sure he does, but people think he’s crazy for wanting to be so…retiring.  He’s not playing the game, he’s simply watching it, content to observe and not get caught up in things.  (Once again he’s accused of “dreaming my life away” and being “lazy” – as if rock ‘n’ roll was now a fulltime business and he’s some proto-slacker who doesn’t see the point of all the hype and hustle.)  For Lennon to be like Bartleby the Scrivener (who famously said “I prefer not to”) is just as anti-capitalist in its way as “Happy Xmas” and questions again the meaning of success, of prestige, of importance – what is really meaningful?  How can people remain people in the music industry?  How much do musicians need to do to remain, God help me, relevant?  Lennon is looking at all this askance, rambling along in the song in a countryish way, as if plain old common sense isn’t good enough for these sophisticated folks, the fans and critics alike, who he was wary of, in equal measure.  What did they want from him?  

For, after all, that is why this album exists – not just as an update on Shaved Fish, his previous greatest hits compilation, but because he was shot and killed by a fan, a man so demented that he thought he was more John Lennon than Lennon himself was; a man who had that J. D. Salinger book with him as some kind of justification of how real he was as opposed to the “phony” John Lennon.  (Eventually I read Catcher In The Rye in high school and felt some unease; we were too young for The Bell Jar, I suppose.  Cough.)   This is the first Then Play Long entry shrouded by violent death; and who knows what internal dialogues listeners had with this album when it came out.  Hunter Davies (in The Beatles) says there were two John Lennons, one for each side of the Atlantic, and that the UK version was that he was a “harmless eccentric, an oddball who had gone off with that funny woman” to the US where in turn he was seen as “a symbol of a new generation’s struggles and hopes.”  It is tempting to think Lennon would have lived if he had moved back to the UK in ’79, but by then he and Yoko were (again Hunter Davies, in The John Lennon Letters) “observing the stars, listening to soothsayers, reading tarot cards as if searching for confirmation that all would be propitious” for whatever they wanted to do.  And if the signs were for them to stay, well, they stayed.  Did they even ask the question about where they should live?  I doubt it…

The last song from Double Fantasy is “Dear Yoko” and it is a loving and funny song (“Even when I watch T.V./There’s a hole where you’re supposed to be” is downright homely) , about his missing her while out in the summer of 1980, after reaching Bermuda – he had an unexpectedly rough trip down the Atlantic that made him appreciate everything he had even more than he already did, and this song is the fruit of that time – a fitting ending, but not how this album ends…

“Move Over Ms. L.” is the only outright rocker on the album, a kind of loose throwback that shows that Lennon, for all his concerns about progress, was at heart a 50s boy and this mixed up tale of rebellion, politics and so on was the b-side of “Stand By Me”; it is good amidst all the solemnity here to be reminded of what made Lennon want to get onstage with a guitar in the first place – Jerry Lee and Buddy Holly and Elvis, vivid rock ‘n’ roll…

…which led, years later, to more and more rebellion, until that rebellion itself had to cease.  “Cold Turkey” is a disarming way to end a tribute, but then what is worth remembering?  Why is Lennon such a divisive figure, even now?  When people laud him, is it due to this song, amongst others?  Hardly.  This is a tough subject – physical pain – and Lennon brings it to you, groans and gasps and moans, a primal scream session that is the diametric opposite of “#9 Dream.”  And here we are all coming down after Lennon’s death – talk about cold turkey – from the collective dream of the 60s, though that is an assumptive “we.”  For 13-year-old me, I had no idea about the 60s first hand, but with this song it’s the loss – again, loss – that fills the song with pain and a desperate need to escape it.  Only there is no escape, just the way through; and it is awful.   It is hard to hear this and not think about Lennon’s death, in the abstract about how he was born between two air raids (the quote at the top is from 1940) and how this album pays tribute but does so in a way that the ghost of Lennon is as close to how he actually was as possible.  Not as an icon, but as a guy, a man, who was tired of those looking for “an illusion that (you) create of me, then (you) get upset because (you) can’t find it.”  

With time Lennon will be understood for who and what he was, neither worshipped nor denigrated, but for now the New Pop moment seemed to be slipping away, and Lennon’s ghost is here to remind us of where it came from in the first place and how difficult it is to keep going, how hard it is to be truly subversive, and yet also how in the rockist world of pop, how speaking your mind is still a radical, necessary thing.  Manilow reminded us earlier this year about the power of one voice in the darkness; Lennon's was a voice born in the darkness of war, and stands for me as an example of how voices that stand for war's opposite - peace and love - can emerge from such terrible times.  And here he is, facing the listener, a ghost to show how things once were, and how they could be, in part, again...

*Lennon respected Bangs as a writer, mainly because Bangs was willing to perform onstage himself.  And of course he could be as witheringly witty as Lennon as well.

**I think Lennon would’ve hated the overuse of this word and its variants had he lived, the stultifying implications of the word being more than obvious.  “I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero” he told Rolling Stone, days before his death.