Remembering John Lennon
By Stuart Mitchner
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
John Lennon’s first solo album was released 50 years ago this week. No name appears on the cover image of a man and a woman stretched out under a massive tree, his head in her lap. The entire back cover consists of an enlarged photograph of a little boy’s face. The absence of information creates an impression of timelessness: the tree could be any tree anywhere, the couple any couple, and this most personal of recordings by one of the most famous people in the world could be by, for, or about anyone and everyone.
A few days ago when I played the half-century-old record for the first time in decades, the first sound I heard after the crackle and hiss and pop of the surface was of a bell tolling, four deeply resonant strokes. Big Ben, history, London, the Blitz, wartime, no narrator needed, the sound speaks for itself. As the fourth stroke fades, John Lennon belts out the primal word, “Mother,” and goes on to deliver a performance that does to this listener what poetry does to Emily Dickinson.
That said, the top of my head was never at risk the first time I heard John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in mid-December 1970. As impressed I was by the power of Lennon’s long-awaited, much-hyped solo album, it wasn’t easy to hear it through the chaotic static of the Paul-and-Linda, John-and-Yoko Primal Therapy fall-out of the Great Beatles Break-Up. By the time I was listening to “God,” the track everyone was talking about, with its off-puttingly prosy opening line (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and the statement it was leading up to (“I don’t believe in Beatles”), I’d begun to back out of it, especially after the line “I just believe in Yoko and me.”
But then came the message of the tender, beautifully sung farewell coda: “I was the dream weaver … but now I’m John … and so, dear friends, you just have to carry on …” because “the dream is over,” — except that something deeper than a dream was in play when he sang “but now I’m John,” sealing a personal first-name connection that was still alive ten years later in the grieving crowds that gathered worldwide after his death.
Listening now, I think John was already saying goodbye to us in the third verse of “Mother.” after the wrenching goodbyes to his parents:
“Mother, you had me but I didn’t have you! I wanted you, but you didn’t want me…”
“Father, you left me but I didn’t leave you! I needed you, you didn’t need me…”
In the third verse, he’s calling out loud and clear to generations of listeners, brothers, sisters, anyone and everyone: “Children, don’t do what I have done. / I couldn’t walk and I tried to run. / So I just gotta tell you / Goodbye, goodbye.”
How small those same words look in print, such is the world of caring urgency John puts into the word children. And what he does with goodbye sounds as resonant and evocative as the tolling of bells at the beginning. In 1970 I was unmoved by the turn the song took to directly address the rest of us, the anyones and everyones, nobodies and somebodies. But not after December 8, 1980.
“Mother” ends with multiple agonized cries of “Mama, come home … Daddy don’t go,” the closest he comes to “primal screaming” until “Well, Well, Well,” where he wails Yoko-style on the word well. When Jann Wenner tries to connect the song to primal therapy in the December 1980 two-part Rolling Stone interview accompanying the record’s release, John tells him, “Don’t get the therapy confused with the music,” claiming that he’s always been a screamer (“Listen to ‘Twist and Shout’ — I couldn’t sing the damn thing, I was just screaming”). The “scream” is deep in the heart of rock excitement, whether it’s Little Richard or Paul McCartney’s virtuoso screaming in “Hey Jude.” In the Beatles-break-up element of 1970, however, John’s agony sounded less than exciting and, if anything, embarrassingly close to a grown-up tantrum.
Heard in December 2020, with the pandemic death toll rising daily, anyone and everyone at risk, the world in perpetual mourning, John’s unguarded expression of personal pain is all too timely. Shaken and stunned after relistening and reliving the album all the way through, I needed something better than “feeling at a loss for words” to do justice to the record’s impact on me. I found the quote at the top of this column in A Book of Days for the Literary Year, where the first entry for the tenth of December belongs to Emily Dickinson, born that day in 1830, 190 years ago this week.
A Relatively Elegant Reading
Robert Christgau gives John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band a relatively elegant reading in his June 1999 Rolling Stone retrospective. Almost three decades after declaring it the album of the year in the Village Voice, Christgau observes how “the historic scale and analytic detail of ‘Working Class Hero,’ ‘I Found Out,’ and ‘Isolation’ have always been rare virtues in political pop,” and how “the existential anxieties of ‘Hold On’ and ‘God’” are “more harrowing than the usual adolescent angst-mongering.” His most useful insight is in noting the way Phil Spector’s production makes Lennon’s performance “grand in its spareness. Every note reverberates. The drums Ringo Starr pounds seem funereal, just as the piano Lennon pounds seems orchestral. And left out in the open, without protective harmonies or racket, Lennon’s singing takes on an expressive specificity that anyone in search of the century’s great vocal performances would be foolish to overlook.”
In other words, it takes the top of your head off.
Lennon’s pounding on the “orchestral piano” makes “Remember,” the opening track on side two, the strongest piece on the album (it’s also said to be David Bowie’s favorite Lennon song). “The piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest,” John says in the Wenner interview. “Any musician will tell you, just play a note on a piano, it’s got harmonics in it.”
In “Remember” the piano delivers relentless movement, an incantation in rhythm to match every beat of the vocal, “Re-mem-ber when you were young, how the hero was never hung, always got away.”
The near-demonic intensity of Lennon’s singing and playing takes one of the key words in the American songbook to another level. Performed with the same inspirational passion as the call to children in the third verse of “Mother,” John’s mantra of loss has tremendous resonance in the second week of December 2020.
“Free As a Bird”
I’ve been listening to the first volume of the Beatles Anthology, in which Paul, George, and Ringo create a Beatles reunion with help from Yoko, who provided a tape of John singing “Free as a Bird.” The result was released in 1995, 15 years after Lennon’s death, 25 years after the break up.
“Free As a Bird” was actually begun in 1977 in the Dakota Hotel, where John made the demo, and completed in 1994 when Paul composed and sang a moving middle eight (“Whatever happened to the life that we once knew? Can we really live without each other? Where did we lose the touch that seemed to mean so much?”). Ringo began the song with knocking-on-the-gate authority and George ended it with what could be the most inspired playing of his life. He died only seven years later, and like John in the passages in “Mother” and “Remember” and “God,” he seems to be reaching beyond the moment, mourning everyone while mourning his old mate.
The dreamlike imagery of Vincent Joliet and Joe Pytka’s accompanying video, viewed as if by a bird in flight, evokes the wartime mood of the tolling bells at the opening of John’s album: it’s a dark tour, at once touching, gloomy, whimsical, and portentous, with Lennon’s voice wailing from beyond the grave, and the emergency imagery of police lines and wreckage recalling “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper. Although it alludes to a multitude of Beatles sights, songs, and sounds, the video especially resonates with the period between A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the White Album (1968) when everything the Beatles touched seemed to fall magically into place.