Monday, December 6, 2010

Fighting through the deification of John Lennon

It is somehow ironic that as we approach the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death, we hear that Don Merideth has died.

Ironic because 30 years ago, as I was watching John Smith of the New England Patriots line up for a field goal that would have would have accomplished something very rare in those days -- beating the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl -- Howard Cosell informed me that John Lennon was gunned down in the foyer of the Dakota apartments in New York and was, and I can quote this practically, "dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.

It didn't matter that John Smith missed the chip shot field goal. It didn't matter that the Patriots lost the game in overtime. It didn't matter that the loss put a serious dent in their hopes to make the NFL playoffs (indeed, they missed). And it didn't matter that the last time the Patriots actually won a game in Miami Lyndon Johnson was president and Lennon himself was getting ready to play Private Gripweed in Richard Lester's "How I Won The War." (The year was 1966).

Nothing mattered because nothing penetrated. I sat in the dark, long after the game ended, with my mouth open ... and with all sorts of thoughts rushing in and out of my head like trains rushing through a tunnel. They came ... and went ... and I couldn't sustain any kind of intelligent thought for hours. This, I deduced, must be what being in shock is like.

Thirty years later, we all know what happened. John Lennon was practically cannonized as a man of peace and vision ... sort of like my generation's E.F. Hutton. When he spoke, we all quieted down and listened. And when he died, we sang songs, cried, gathered en masse in Central Park as if Jesus himself was scheduled to make an appearance. With his death went the Baby Boom generation's No. 1 guru ... the person who had all the answers when everybody else didn't even know the questions.

The problem with all that, of course, is that it wasn't entirely accurate. Never mind that ... it wasn't accurate all. There will always be debate as to what, exactly, John Lennon represented. And, indeed, there have been several well-written and thoughtful pieces over the last few days devoted to de-deifying him (not exactly sure that's a word, but for these purposes, it'll have to do).

But I can tell you what he represented to me. He represented fun. And that's basically it. Fun. At every critical part of my adolescence, there was John Lennon, either singing, acting up, spouting off, making news, making an idiot out of himself for public consumption ... and all of it was just a blast.

If you think back, there was probably little noble about a lot of the things John Lennon did. He left his wife for Yoko Ono (??), and humiliated her in the process. There's pretty good evidence that he was abusive toward women, both physically and mentally.

He was a bully, again both physically and emotionally. He was vicious when putting down people he didn't like (witness his constant public harrangues of Paul McCartney). He grew disinterested in one of the entertainment's most lucrative cash cows, and came damn close to destroying its legacy with all the petty bickering -- much of it generated by him -- that accompanied the breakup of the Beatles.

What saved him from being a total miscreant, however, was that he let us all in on it. At no point during his public career did he ever shy away from allowing us a good glimpse of what was going on in his life. In fact, he practically assaulted us with it. If that John Lennon POB album circa 1970 seemed like one long therapy sesson, it's because it was. He'd just finished a primal scream therapy session with Dr. Arthur Janov, and the recording was reflective of the rawness of those sessions. Suffice it to say, many of the songs weren't pleasant.

There were three distinct Lennons in his public life. Obviously, No. 1 was Beatle John; No. was Che John; and No. 3 was daddy John.

Each stage in his life was a natural progression to the next. In the early years of the Beatles, when image was everything, Lennon kept the rougher edges of his personality well hidden. He played the game. The only problem was the game ate him alive.

Lennon had a rough, tragic childhood and matriculated into adulthood angry and bitter about much of what life had dealt him. That anger fueled him, and it probably had a lot to do with his eye-of-the-tiger approach to the Beatles in their early years. While McCartney may have eventually emerged as his equal (and foil), it wasn't that way in the early years. This was John Lennon's group, and it went where he went; and did what he did.

But the game got too expensive ... not so much in terms of money, but in terms of what it cost him emotionally. Soon after the ridiculous, incomprehensible fame, came the drugs, and the erratic behavior. As early as 1965, when he wrote "Help," Lennon was looking to bust out.

It only took another year for him to do so. Perhaps the tipping point was the controveresy he created over an off-handed remark in an interview -- done montbs earlier -- that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The firestorm in the U.S. that resulted from it was insane, and the group got death threats. Around the same time, they encountered an extremely unpleasant situation in the Phillipines where they inadvertently stiffed Imelda Marcos by not attending one of her functions. They barely got out of their with their lives.

It was no surprise that the August 29 performance at the San Francisco Cow Palace was their last-ever live show. Beatlemania was out of control, and they were absolutely victims of their own success.

Here, we segue into Che John. Oddly, this period of his life began with a retreat. He took the Gripweed role, cut his hair, and went off on his own. But while he was sitting in Spain on location, with nothing to do for long periods of time, he wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever," which jolted their music -- already having become experimental in some ways with "Revolver," past the point of no return. No more cuddly love songs for John Lennon.

The next time anyone saw John Lennon -- and all the Beatles -- they had facial hair and had a much harder look about them. And their songs were bizarre. Strawberry Fields slid into "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band," and according to those who knew at the time, it was "drenched in drugs."

I'm sure it was. And while the music, in retrospect, wasn't terribly different than what they'd done on "Revolver," once again, thanks to the Beatles, popular music lurched toward a period of being taken perhaps too seriously by the cognoscenti of the times.

After the Beatles had been properly annointed as spokesman for a generation, all bets were off as far as Lennon was concerned. He decided the world was his oyster, and he was going to be damn sure he took advantage of it.

Any similarities, by then, between Beatle John and Che John were coincidental. Where he may have submerged his personality in the group identify in the Beatle John years, there were no such efforts in the Che years. Anything went. He wore his infidelity toward his first wife -- and their ultimate separation and divorce -- like a badge of honor. He turned sexual relations into war protests. He and Yoko Ono thought it would be a wonderful idea to pose naked on an album cover ... frontal nudity on the cover; full moons in back.

All of this, of course, was documented for posterity in "The Ballad of John and Yoko." As I've mentioned earlier, the one thing that saved Lennon was his willingness to share his experiences with his fans, and his sense of humor about it all exactly at the point where he was in jeopardy of taking himself way too seriously.

He honestly seemed able to remember that -- at the end of the day -- he was still just a rock singer.

It was during the Che John years, of course, that he decided that the Beatles were beneath him. George Harrison had kind of reached this conclusion too, but was nowhere near as strident about it as John was. And he reached it for different reasons, too -- mainly because once he started writing prolifically, he couldn't get any of his songs recorded. That deluge of music on "All Things Must Pass" reflected years of frustration over the way Lennon, McCartney and George Martin stifled him.

Lennon being Lennon, he couldn't just leave. He had to stir up a hornet's nest on his way out the door. He engaged in a very public -- and extremely unpleasant -- feud with McCartney and turned him into the heavy.

Che John put out the Plastic Ono Band album, where he said "I Don't Believe in Beatles," and he put out an album "Imagine" that had -- on the same tracks -- one of the most universally loved anthems for peace and tolerance and one of the most vicious putdowns of anyone ever written ("How Do You Sleep,"). Compared to him, Bob Dylan and "Positivelty 4th Street" were pied pipers of love.

Che John was a paradox, of course. He was against the type of violence that war produced, but not against belting around Yoko Ono if he lost his temper. He couldn't make up his mind whether he was in favor of violent revolution or against it (there are so many different versions of "Revolution" that it's hard to keep track of them al).

But in the same way John Lennon couldn't handle the notority of theh Beatle years, he couldn't, in the end, deal with the buzz he created in the Che John years. He got louder, more abrasive, got himself in trouble with the U.S. government over the way he acted, drank too much, acted up in nightclubs in the most degrading of ways (unless you don't think walking around with a Kotex on your forehead is degrading) and separated from the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles.

Of course, after he and Ono split, he fell completely apart and it was a much-chastened Lennon who, after reuniting with her in 1975, entered Phase Three: Daddy John.

We don't know much about Daddy John. And it's quite possible the myth that was carefully crafted after he was shot to death is about as much of a fantasy story as Cinderella.

But he just shut down for five years. Nothing. Maybe the myth is true. Perhaps he just decided that after he denied his other son his presence, he wouldn't make the same mistakes with Sean. What we do know is that Mark David Chapman didn't just rob a generation of its spokesman when he shot Lennon to death on Dec. 8, 1980. He took a father away from a child who loved him very much.

We're left, of course, with memories. And thankfully, we're left with the music. Because whatever paradoxes Lennon presented as a person, there was no ambiguity about the music. Even the bad songs are good. The good ones are tremendous.

People who mourn Lennon today always bring up the line in "Beautiful Boy" that says "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." And of course there is chilling irony about those lines, written, as they were, so close to the night that his life was taken away from him.

Either that, or they remain enraptured over "Imagine."

I go back to two songs that Lennon wrote back when he was Beatle John. The first is "Strawberry Fields," when he write the couplet, "living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." I think there's much more irony in that, since people these days insist on misrepresenting John Lennon as some kind of modern-day Gandhi.

The second song is "I'm So Tired" and that's only because of the line "I'll give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind."

It's a plaintive plea, to be sure. But on the 30th occasion of his death, I'd like to rephrase it do say "I'd give you everything I've got to have had a little more of John."

As, I'm sure, would we all.