by Avi Davis
The 75th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth – October 9, 1940 should be registered as both a day of celebration and a day of mourning.
Celebration because the 60s icon’s musical legacy is still very much in tact and his extraordinary contributions to Western culture are as valued – and as valuable – as ever. But mourning too, because the other side of Lennon, his darker, less tolerant side – his political activism, association with far left causes and his remaining influence on a spoiled generation which became focused on the undermining of the incomparable freedoms it had been handed, is a memory which deserves to be abandoned rather than cherished.
No one can now doubt the artistry and sheer breadth of talent of a man who penned such elegiac titles as Norwegian Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever and Across the Universe. The volume of the Beatles’ 60s output and the range of their writing from I Wanna Hold Your Hand in 1963 to the seamless musical tapestry of Abbey Road in 1969, was a musical journey of such maturation, that only Mozart can rival it over such a similarly short time span. Although this is an assessment which would be dismissed in the 1960s as pop culture infantilism, today it is incontestable: the Beatles provided a driving, propulsive force to the direction of both popular music and mass culture in the 1960s that is unequaled in the modern era.
Yet something happened to Lennon’s artistry in mid-1968, after his return from India and the rapid collapse of his marriage to his wife Cynthia. A deep cynicism began to populate his lyrics which surfaced in such songs as Yer Blues, Glass Onion, Sexy Sadie and Happiness is a Warm Gun – all of which appeared on the Beatles’ White Album in November of that year. Gone was the wistful, lyrical absurdist, who in his finest moments ( I am the Walrus and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,) could rival Lewis Caroll for sheer imaginative reach. In his place was now a social critic and angry, self-obsessed depressive who seemed to be casting about for targets to skewer.
His association and marriage to the Japanese performance artist Yoko Ono and his addiction to heroin in 1969-70, could be said to have contributed to this artistic inversion.
For after the release of the Beatles’ White Album, it is a very different Lennon who appears on record. His contributions to the Beatles’ Let it Be (mostly recorded in January, 1969 under extremely strained circumstances) were minimalist fluff and save for the mystical Across the Universe – a song which was actually written and recorded eighteen months earlier – he makes no notable contribution. Abbey Road, recorded seven months later, witnesses glimpses of the return of the impish humor and elevated wonder of the world ( see Because, Sun King and Polythene Pam) yet his contributions are outshone by McCartney and to an even greater extent by George Harrison, who by this point had matured ( with Something and Here Comes the Sun) into a clear equal of the others.
The trend continues into 1970 when the uber-confessional solo album Plastic Ono Band is released. Although a singer -songwriter album of searing penetration and extraordinary self- insight, it is quite obvious that the poet John Lennon of Beatledom- and its presiding genius, is gone. In his place is a world weary, jaded and thoroughly guilt-ridden introvert who has traded his lyricism and poetic inclination for sardonicism and public exposure.
Many say that this was the real Lennon, who had kept this true persona hidden during the years needed to maintain the Beatles’ commercial success and public appeal. But I don’t buy it. Lennon’s greatest gift was as an acute observer of the world which he filtered through humor and an exquisite irony. Jettisoning these gifts – or refusing to use them – was a tragic abandonment of his muse and his talent.
But seemingly determined to transform himself into an avant grade artist and social gadfly, he threw himself into his new wife’s artistic projects- both in the recording and film studios and even more garishly in the public eye.
This became clear in his accelerating penchant for exhibitionism. The recording of a series of unfocused experimental albums in the late 60s with Ono ( even appearing with his wife on the cover of one of them fully nude); media events such as the Amsterdam and Toronto honeymoon bed-ins, wherein the two held court in their pajamas for an overly fawning media; myriad independent film projects such as the recording of a fly climbing a woman’s naked torso – offered very little lasting artistic value and already exacerbated his steady artistic decline.
By the time, in 1971, when he came round to record what many regard as his opus, Imagine, Lennon was already an avant grade burn out and the new album was designed as a return to commercial form. And that it certainly was, reaching #1 in the charts soon after its release.
Yet listening to Imagine today, you can still hear the absence, despite the dreamy title song, of that wistful poet observing the world with ironic and childlike wonder. Perhaps songs such as How? and Jealous Guy provide a glimpse of the former, but the songs in general were either romantic twaddle or purposeless political cant.
Certainly when the airy and superficial title song Imagine is lined up against the acerbic How Do you Sleep? – (a thinly disguised but brutal attack on his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney) on the same album – one had to wonder whether Lennon had meant any of his wishes for peace, love and harmony for all mankind. If he couldn’t manage it in his own life – even in the course of the song progression on one album, how likely was the world to maintain it into the future?
The early 1970s witnessed a steady decline in the quality of Lennon’s artistic output commencing with the politically naked and often disastrous Sometime in New York City (1972) and ending with the tired and overwrought Walls and Bridges (1975). During this time he and his wife underwent a trying attempt to become American citizens (prevented for years because of a 1968 drug bust), participated in numerous talk shows, interviews and media events and gave support to too many radical left wing militant groups, all of which served to tarnish their credibility as serious artists. In mid-1973, the couple split with Ono remaining in New York City and Lennon relocating to Los Angeles. The drunken eighteen month spree that Lennon would undergo on the West Coast (referred by him – and now by most of his biographers, as his ‘Lost Weekend’) would result in more demonstrations of bad behavior and increasingly weak songwriting. When they reunited in 1975 the couple decided to have a child and Sean Ono Lennon was born in October, 1975 on his father’s 35th birthday.
Thereafter Lennon would become a house husband and his wife a businesswoman and they retreated almost completely from public view. It is said that during these years Lennon did not pick up a guitar, although there is much recorded evidence to indicate that this was not the case.
When he emerged from his self- imposed exile with a new album, it was a ghastly mess. Double Fantasy (1980), his final album, is a cloying, over produced dud – full of the kind of cutesy domesticity for which he used to savage Paul McCartney and thoroughly ruined by Ono’s contributions which sound like recordings made at a drunken sorority party.
Like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, cultural figures who also died relatively young, Lennon’s popular image is frozen in time. After he was murdered in December, 1980, at the age of 40, the execrable Double Fantasy became a smash hit and his final coda. Frozen with it however was not the image of a middle aged man who, by reports from some of his aides, was undergoing a re-evaluation of his radical past and becoming increasingly conservative in his outlook, but the rebel and radical of his Beatle deconstruction days.
And so the memory that has come down to us is of John Lennon the iconoclast, John Lennon the hippie dissident, John Lennon the American Che Guevara in affecting beret, – the John Lennon who rejected materialism, capitalism, religion and all forms of violent conflict – a cynosure for societal self loathing and the patron saint of a culture of complaint.
This form of worship – lets call it Lennonism – has its adherents today amongst atheists, environmentalists, the moribund Occupy movement, militant black separatists and global governance advocates. They have successfully appropriated the image, the voice and the music of John Lennon for the propagation of their own ideologies.
The Sixties are often referred to as a time of awakening and rebellion – a rejection by youth of the materialism and the encrusted dogmas of the previous generation. But the vast majority of the music of the era is in fact celebratory – full of sunny, hopeful melodies – anticipating a life of bountiful opportunities and progress. This was not yet a generation possessed of the deep cynicism and self hatred we see among youth today. Rather, it was a generation celebrating personal freedom and the enormous achievements of the West in securing such for millions of its citizens.
John Lennon’s own music in the 1960s, while often introspective, was nevertheless in the very vanguard of this celebration. He lead the Beatles, for at least the first part of their domination of the 60s music industry, with a wry appreciation of the fact that a boy from a lower middle class background in impoverished Liverpool, had been given the opportunity to rise to unparalleled heights of success and fame. Western freedom made this possible and Lennon was smart enough to know it even if he never publicly acknowledged its truth. It clearly shone through his lyrics and his melodies.
The great sadness is that he let his wonder of living in the age of freedom to slip from his consciousness and to be replaced with attitudes that would transform him into a cynic. And the great shame is that rather than being known today as the Beatle who celebrated freedom, he is known as the Beatle who spat upon it.
And that certainly is a cause for mourning on this auspicious day.