Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Re-Making Of John Lennon

Growing up, John Lennon was my favorite Beatle. It was always like that, I seemed to gravitate towards his material more than Paul or George's and his was the first of the solo Beatle catalogues that I began to collect.
Sometime within the past couple of years that began to change for me. I found myself listening to Ram more than Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass more that Sometime In New York City. Suddenly I seemed to have more books on my shelf about Paul rather than John. Tastes change I thought and I will always have a deep love for John and his work but around my thirtieth birthday I came to the conclusion that I was now a Paul man.
A friend made a joke to me that it was because I had mellowed, that same old idea that Paul was just the cute one still reverberates. An amazing book published a few years in Britain called The Unknown Paul McCartney shows clearly that Paul, much more than John, was the experimenter. As we get farther away from The Beatles, myths will become much more resonate than fact. This is happening in the worst and most extreme way with the legacy of John Lennon.
I realized that it wasn't me mellowing out in my love for Paul, it is the sad truth that in society's eyes that John is becoming the dreaded 'cute one'.
This isn't going to be a post bashing Yoko Ono. I have a deep respect for her as a woman and artist but one has to wonder who exactly is she marketing John Lennon to and why.
The last few years have seen McCartney make two of his finest albums, I would argue that there are moments on Chaos and Creation that are among his finest works. He has also been dragged across the coals by an incredibly messy divorce and by Beatles fans who seem to blame him for having the gall to keep living. Paul has become harder since Linda McCartney died, I don't mean personally but artistically it's given him a demon to fight. There is nothing cute about the sceaming Run Devil Run or the magnificent Rushes.
Something very different is happening with John Lennon. I was in a Starbucks recently and their cd of the month is a Lennon collection made exclusively for Starbucks. John Lennon's music wasn't made for a gigantic coffee chain, just like his image wasn't made for boxer shorts and fleece blankets. We are losing the main thing that distinguished John Lennon from the majority of his peers and the thing that was his biggest asset, his anger.
There is a moment on the amazing Who box set Maximum R and B where you here Pete Townshend kicking Abbie Hoffman off the stage. It's a raging definitive moment where Townshend is separating himself and The Who from the blossoming hippie movement. Lennon, even perhaps more that he realized shared a lot of Townshend's rage. For all of his activism and talk of peace John Lennon was always that angry young punk rocker who grew up worshiping Elvis and understood that a major element of Rock and Roll was personal exorcism.
One of the things that made Lennon so important was that he took the early energy of Elvis and Little Richard and he combined it with some of the most introspective songwriting that has ever been written. A damaged soul who never, at least in his music and I'm guessing in his life, got over the death of his mother. Listening to John Lennon at his rawest is like listening in on a confessional, an angry loud screaming testimony. This was a man who truly lived for Rock and Roll, if he hadn't had that it's hard to imagine what would have happened to John Lennon.
None of this is to discount the peace loving, humorous and ultimately tender aspect of Lennon and his work but those sides of him are being pushed so much onto people, especially younger people, I can imagine in a few years the nightmare of walking into a Wal-Mat and seeing something like 'John Sings Songs of Peace for Your Youngest' or designer baby cribs with partial lyrics to Imagine scrolled down the side.
I remember I first started to notice this new Lennon being pushed onto the public in the late 90's during the Come Together tribute. A sickening sweet candy coated concert that would have made you think that John Lennon was the most one dimensional cartoon character that ever lived. Only Lou Reed seemed to remember who he was saluting with a pulverising Jealous Guy. The memory of Kevin Spacey breaking out into Mind Games towards the end of that show still causes me nightmares.
Even the legendary lost weekend is becoming glossed over to the point of being erased. This dark period, away from Yoko, which had an at times ferocious child like Lennon getting arrested for assault and making some of the best and worst music of his life is becoming just a 'cute' footnote.
The quick mythologizing of Lennons final album, Double Fantasy, predicted the directions things were going to go. A critical and commercial disappointment upon released, soon after his death these bad reviews and poor sales were forgotten and people now view the album as being a triumphant comeback. Ironically it's that rose colored view that has made one of his most interesting works one of the least discussed. Songs like the brutal I'm Losing You and Milk and Honey's Stepping Out are among the best he ever wrote, but they also call into question the supposed perfect life in the Dakota that his last few years are currently being portrayed as. These songs, among others that question the marital bliss and perfect father, call into question everything that is more and more being accepted about the 'truth' of John Lennon.
In an odd way I am almost grateful for this shameful commercialization and softening of Lennon. It's made me go back and re-acquaint myself with his work and life. I didn't realize how much I missed that power and anger. I had forgotten how much a song like Isolation or I've Found Out could speak to me. Ironically, the forces in power that have attempted to change Lennon have brought his true spirit back to me. I worry about younger fans though and people who aren't intested in the truth that Lennon famously said he wanted. I worry about those people who might get there introduction to one of our greatest angry young men through a Starbuck's exclusive.
I have no idea what the future will hold for John Lennon's legacy. This sugaring might continue fo generations but I can only hope that the music will win out. That's the one thing that can't be sanitized, they can wrap the spirit of Lennon up in an American Flag and send it across the globe but they won't be able to change his words and music. For everyone that chooses the 'edited for content' version I can only hope there will be just as many that fall in love with one of our most primal and necessary screams.

1 comment:

Katja said...

Hi Jeremy

More than a year after you posted this comment, I come across it on the internet. I was looking for the lyrics to Stepping Out (I just can't make out whether he actually DOES say sesame street at the beginning or not .... ;)) and up pops your piece on Lennon.
I am happy to report the 34-year-old me have never and will never be pursuaded that John Lennon was a saint in his ivory Dakota Tower. And here is the great thing: I didn't discover Lennon until last year when I was packed away on materinity leave and Danish television decided to have a Beatles week in celebration of Paul McCartney's 65th.
Ironically, I was always the Paul girl. Growing up in the 80s listening to pop music, Paul seemed to tie in a hell of a lot better than John with Wham and George Michael - my big obsession. Yes, I'm not afraid to say it - I was one of those little girls with Wham-posters all over my room, and songs like "No more lonely nights" meant more to me than odd peace protests from the 70s. Lennon was "that weird long-haired guy that this little even weirder yoko-woman keeps going on about".

Anyway, I too evolved! And as I got to 15, I had a run-in with the Beatles. I was still a Paul-girl... little did I know that the songs I liked the most were actually written by Lennon. I never really liked stuff like Yesterday, but enjoyed "Across the universe", "Nowhere man" and "Come together" oh-so-much more.
Anyway, I digress. Danish tv's big celeb on Paul turned out to be a Lennon week. And as I sat there on my couch with my little baby boy I was mesmerized. I listened to all of Lennon's old stuff, all the raw material from Plastic Ono Band aswell as all the songs from the end of his life. I was hit right in the face by songs like Stepping Out - it just described perfectly where I was in my life. Beautiful boy had me crying and Mother floored me.I too have great affinity for Losing you.

After 5 days of tv, I went on the net and bought all the albums. I searched and searched on the net and bought books about this amazing man.

And NEVER once did Lennon strike me as Mr Sugar-coated. Yes, he has been commercialised, but his rage came right at me. Or maybe it was the startling combination of rage and softness that struck something within me.

The Lennon I know and listen to now was a terrible dad and husband in many ways, he was a lost little child who struggled right till the end with his demons. However - I think he did find some measure of peace towards the end and maybe that was his biggest personal achievement. I don't think all was bliss - it never could be with acid lennon - but he stuck with something and maybe that mattered more than we know. I see for me a restless guy, who managed to stay in a marriage and work with himself.

I was only 6 years old when John Lennon was gunned down, but 27 years later I discovered him and I can honestly tell you that this messed up man and musician will stay with me for a very long time. Not as saint John, but as someone who knew how to write down his feelings in the rawest and most honest way I know.

Funnily enough I have lost track of Paul... maybe it's time to reaquaint myself with him.

best wishes
Katja, Denmark