The musical heirs to John Lennon. We’ll look at the Beatle's life and living legacy.
In another time of turmoil, there were The Beatles and at the heart of the Beatles, John Lennon. They came on with love songs, and went to the ramparts of society and psychology. Sang of revolution, sang of despair, sang of visions and dreams.
Lennon was the wire-rimmed sphinx and showman. The mind that pulled. What lasts from that? And who are the heirs to Lennon now?
This hour On Point: a new life of John Lennon, and his living legacy.
Tim Riley, music critic and assistant professor at Emerson College. He’s editor of the “Riley Rock Index” website. His new book is Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – the Definitive Life.
From Tom's Reading List
Christian Science Monitor "Beatles scholars tend to be the only people who know that Alfred Lennon, Lennon’s father, left behind a memoir called “Daddy Come Home.” "
Sunday Times "It's hard to get at the unvarnished truth about the Beatles. This exhaustively researched life of the band's chief cynic, John Lennon, aims to get beneath the surface gloss. "
Slate "There's not a full concert anywhere and no documentation of a song evolving over six or seven takes. This kind of stuff could have been included on the new set without adding any additional CDs. Why just cash in with pristine albums when you can add more heft to this most massive of legacies? "
Imagine by John Lennon
If I Fell by The Beatles
Think I’m in Love by Beck
Strawberry Fields Forever (Lennon Demo Tape) by The Beatles
Don’t Let Me Down by The Beatles
Instant Karma (We all shine on) by John Lennon
Cold Turkey by John Lennon
Strange Times by the Black Keys
Born This Way by Lady Gaga
I am the Walrus by The Beatles
Revolution by The Beatles
Beautiful Boy by John Lennon
Submarines of Stockholm by A.C. Newman
I Dig A Pony by St. Vincent
Power to the People by John Lennon
When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a saint . . .
PAUL MCCARTNEY, DEDICATION TO TWO VIRGINS, 1968
WHEN JOHN LENNON PRESENTED HIS FELLOW BEATLES WITH THE cover art for Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins in November of 1968, everybody recoiled. McCartney’s quote sat beneath Lennon and his lover, Yoko Ono, holding hands naked in their bedroom with postcoital grins. EMI’s lordly chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, refused to distribute the record, pronouncing John and Yoko “ugly.” In America, Capitol Records balked, and even when the album was shipped through an independent distributor, New Jersey authorities confiscated thirty thousand copies, declaring the cover “obscene.” Controversy subsumed the record’s experimental sounds. Nobody could understand why Lennon would deliberately extend the public-relations debacle he had already created by leaving his British wife and child for the Japanese-American “conceptual artist,” especially on the eve of the first Beatles album in eighteen months, the double White Album (originally The Beatles).
Time has papered over the photograph’s insolence: Lennon was pouring acid on the Beatle myth, demonstrating how shallow and ridiculous pop stardom seemed even as his band hit new creative peaks. This would be just the first of many media campaigns he waged to kick his way out of the Beatles.
That July of 1968, when this insouciant photograph was taken, the Beatles were slogging through the “poisonous” White Album sessions that prompted EMI engineer Geoff Emerick to quit in a huff. Drummer Ringo Starr walked out soon thereafter. The Lennon and McCartney songwriting collaboration had long since trailed off into independent work, even though the songs still bore the trademark Lennon-McCartney authorship. Increasingly, their partnership had graduated from aesthetic one-upmanship to outright conflict: in that same hectic period, the band vetoed Lennon’s first rendition of “Revolution” as too slow, and even the blazing remake sat on the flip side of McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” the band’s revitalizing summer single.
To the others, this widening rift coincided with Yoko Ono’s divisive presence. Lennon could not have chosen a more passive-aggressive way to disrupt the group’s chemistry. Yoko planted herself not only at recording sessions but at private group demos and Apple business meetings, offering comments as if she were a de facto member of the band. Not even the “Beatle wives” had ever been granted such access. She roamed the EMI studios unfettered, without so much as an introduction to George Martin, the band’s producer.
But whatever resentments among the band, the bond between Lennon and Ono was already immune to protest.
BY NOW, SOME FORTY YEARS AFTER the group’s breakup, the Lennon legend has graduated into myth of an entirely different order than the one that turned him into an international rock star, the one he retired from for the last five years of his life to raise his son Sean. On the radio, he sings to us from some idealized Tower of Song, frozen in time and memory like Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran, those creative martyrs who haunted his own impressionable adolescence.
The remaining three Beatles reunited in the mid-1990s to tell their own version of their story with the Anthology video and book, the band’s story tunneled into nostalgia. In 2000, the greatest-hits album 1 became the fastest-selling CD in history, reached number one in twenty-eight countries, and went on to sell more than thirty-one million copies worldwide, the best-selling album of the decade in the United States. At decade’s end, the Beatles became the best-selling band of the new millennium. (This would be the last release guitarist George Harrison oversaw directly; he died in November of 2001.) In 2006, the Cirque du Soleil’s Love began selling out six shows a week in a Las Vegas theater with a customized sound system by producer George Martin and his son, Giles. Its remashed sound track became still another huge hit.
Lennon’s own story, of course, had passed through rock’s looking glass long before. He hovered over every frame of the Anthology, and his familiar quotes heaved with subtext: it was hard to imagine Lennon participating in such a whitewashed, sentimental project devoted to enshrining a myth he had done so much to puncture during his lifetime. His post-Beatle revolts linked the personal with the aesthetic: he first ran off with Yoko Ono, then married her the week after McCartney married Linda Eastman, then howled at the demise of the Beatles (on 1970’s blistering Plastic Ono Band) even as he subtly helped to engineer it. He rebuilt his peacenik/politico façade while ridiculing his former partner McCartney (in “How Do You Sleep?”), before careening into a hackneyed drunken-celebrity “lost weekend” in the early 1970s. Finally, after winning a long immigration battle with the Nixon administration, he washed up onto the shores of storybook “monogamy” and parenthood during a five-year sabbatical. His assassination in 1980 quelled Beatle reunion rumors, but only temporarily.
In the fall of 2009, the Beatles’ entire sixties recording catalog was remastered in luminous digital audio, updating the flat CD mixes that had circulated since the late 1980s. These joint releases sent both Lennon’s myth and his Beatle legacy into yet another orbit, reigniting stalwart fans and breeding a vast young listenership. Scholars who had studied these recordings for decades suddenly heard previously unnoticed details, alongside a new vocal and instrumental physicality. New ideas came to the fore, and lingering contradictions commanded fresh attention. The finely blended close harmonies on “This Boy” and “Nowhere Man” took on new immediacy; McCartney’s guitar solos on “Taxman” and “Good Morning Good Morning” suddenly seemed richer, grittier, and downright contemporary. Alongside elaborately detailed sessionographies like The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn (1992) and Recording the Beatles by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew (2006), these remasters confirmed how profoundly the Lennon-McCartney recording catalog transcended its era.
Britons have come to rank the Beatles just after Shakespeare as a core element of their national identity, but few feel challenged to explain how a rock career, once culture’s most defiled profession, now sits comfortably next to one of Western culture’s highest achievements. Lennon’s childhood is generally known to be “traumatic,” but even some of the better biographers give his primal separation scene (between his father, Alfred Lennon, and his mother, Julia Stanley Lennon, in an uncle’s Blackpool home in June of 1946) a paragraph at most. This black hole of emotional loss swallows up all his intimacies. He spent his life adopting father figures and mourning his mother, who died in an accident when he was seventeen. “I lost my mother twice,” he once said; and like a lot of his lyrics, these words are truer than many fans appreciate.
In many of his key intimate relationships—with songwriting partner Paul McCartney, manager Brian Epstein, drummer Ringo Starr, and first wife Cynthia Powell—Lennon balanced alliances with fragile affections; he seemed to spend almost two-thirds of his Beatle tenure surrounded by people he wished to avoid. As his first marriage fell apart, Lennon’s reliance on McCartney also began to fall away, even as McCartney’s support for his eccentricities strengthened. (One intriguing subtext of “Hey Jude” involves McCartney’s affection for Cynthia and his fatherly sympathy toward Julian.) Their showbiz feud over control of their publishing catalog belies their friendship. And Lennon’s influence on McCartney is far more pronounced, and remarked upon, than McCartney’s subtler influence on Lennon. As they entered their epic feud, Lennon made sure Ringo Starr drummed on his 1970 “divorce” album, Plastic Ono Band; but Lennon never appeared on a single McCartney solo album, or vice versa.
These relationships inflect Lennon’s music in chimerical ways: he does some of his best writing while strung out on drugs as his first marriage collapses throughout 1966 (“She Said She Said,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”). Alternatively, the late period (1975–80), where he commits himself to fathering and private life, sees a lull in musical craft. How best to understand Lennon’s music in regard to his life? Where does the music illuminate the life, and where does it veer off into myth?
Beyond his music, Lennon’s talent as a cartoonist, illustrator, lithographer, and collage artist influenced every aspect of his work. His songs carve out richly textured spaces of sound, which spring from a lifelong interest in pop and modern art. With his art-school classmate Stu Sutcliffe, Lennon roamed Hamburg’s museums in 1960, talking about how rock ’n’ roll seemed poised to fulfill modern art’s promise. One night, Sutcliffe recognized the artist Eduardo Paolozzi at a nightclub with students, and approached him about his work, long before Paolozzi became a touchstone for Andy Warhol. This visual arc runs from Sutcliffe on through the classic Beatle pop art of Peter Blake (the Sgt. Pepper cover) and Richard Hamilton (the White Album package) and the Magritte-inspired Apple logo, and gives Lennon’s second marriage, to New York City–based conceptual artist Ono, hints of fate.
In chasing down all these threads of Lennon’s story, several important sources have fallen out of print and general notice. Pete Shotton, Lennon’s childhood friend from Woolton, wrote a memoir back in 1982 called In My Life, which details many fascinating scrapes and insights into Julia Stanley’s sister, Aunt Mimi, the prim hypocrite who wound up raising John. Alfred Lennon’s 1991 memoir, Daddy Come Home, relates his side of the child’s story, the Blackpool episode, and the brief skirmishes between father and son as adults.
Beyond the music, many journalists dismiss the counterculture Lennon helped inspire, or how his songs snared key youth movement tensions (from “You Can’t Do That” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” on through “Revolution,” “Imagine,” “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and “Beautiful Boy”). This would be like covering Muhammad Ali without referencing his immense civil rights status. The new era of scholarship ushered in by EMI’s 2009 remasters, compressed onto a single green USB flash drive, earned comparison of Beatle recordings to popular work by Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. Surely Lennon would chuckle at how “respectable” the rock world has become since his death, which might be the price of his music’s resilience.
With his Beatles and beyond, Lennon remains a defining legend for our time: we return to it to tell ourselves our most cherished stories about how we grew up, came of age, and became adults. The music, of course, remains enchanting enough to revisit Lennon and the Beatles as a source of meaning in the modern era. But how much can it really tell us about Lennon’s intellectual and emotional life? Where does his life align with his art, and where does his songwriting balloon into grandiose self-mythology? Can the music begin to tell us how it felt to be Lennon, or just how he wanted us to experience him? Can the British “John Lennon” be reconciled with his American persona? What do the overlaps and contradictions tell us about his accomplishment? These biographical questions beguile a music critic, and exploring these tensions has only made Lennon’s songs seem richer, more demanding, less encumbered by the tensions of his era.
2011From LENNON by Tim Riley. Copyright ©2011 Tim Riley. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.
This program aired on October 4, 2011.