As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have been a Beatles devotee since the day (probably around 1967) I lowered a phonograph needle onto a borrowed copy of Meet The Beatles and listened to “Please Please Me” for the first of hundreds, maybe thousands of times. My misspent youth wasn’t frittered away in front of a television set or in a videogame parlor; it was mostly spent in front of a dilapidated hi-fi set in suburban Detroit listening to Beatle records. I can still remember the afternoon I spent (after discovering an amazing new invention called “headphones”) listening to the Magical Mystery Tour album (not even one of their best ones) over and over again and wondering, with a genuine sense of awe, if I, too, would ever be chosen to do something great. (I’m still waiting). Without ever intending to do so I find I have committed virtually the entire Beatles’s catalogue, as well as much of their solo works, to memory. Now a decade could pass without me listening to a single Beatles’s song and still their words, their images, and their artistry would remain inextricably woven into whatever it was I happened to be. On our wedding day when my bride-to-be asked me what song we should dance to first as husband and wife I suggested Side Three of the White Album (which isn’t really named “The White Album”–the correct name of that particular recording is actually “the beatles”–OH NO I’M DOING IT AGAIN. BEATLE GEEK ALERT. BEATLE GEEK ALERT. WARNING. WARNING.) I have made the pilgrimage to Liverpool and count the cold, rainy afternoon I trudged from one Beatle birthplace to another among the most enchanting I have ever spent. In other words, I’ve come to accept the fact that Beatle-ology is one of my life’s passions, the other two being my wife Michelle and my lifelong campaign to make talking inside a movie theater punishable by hanging.
People living with obsessive Beatle disorders (or P.L.W.O.B.D.s) like me don’t have a favorite Beatle any more than a parent could have a favorite child or Hugh Hefner could have a favorite phony concubine; there’s simply no such thing. But of all the artists–singers, painters, writers, actors, mimes, comedians, ventriloquists, illusionists, practitioners of “the dance,” theme-ark celebrity impersonators, and whatever it is Blue Man Group is–I’ve been exposed to so far in life, none has had a greater impact on me than the founder of the Beatles, John Lennon.
With today’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his passing some retrospectives will focus on Lennon’s gifts as a composer, as if he didn’t also have one of rock’s richest, most expressive singing voices. If there was ever a better in-studio rock’n'roll vocal performance than his rendition of “Twist And Shout,” it has certainly escaped my attention. And Lennon’s plaintive, four-syllable “ooh“‘s in “I Feel Fine” (before the guitar solo, during the fade-out; you have to listen closely) are surely among the clearest expressions of pure desire ever recorded. Others will try to pigeonhole Lennon as simply a foot-stomping Hamburg rocker, as if he didn’t also write and perform some of the most poignant, heartbreaking melodies of the twentieth century. None of these perspectives tells the whole story.
Like most great artists, John Lennon knew no fear: not of the critics, nor of his peers, nor of failure, nor of biting the hand that so lavishly fed him, nor even of revealing his darkest fears and impulses. But above all John Lennon was a man of contradictions: sometimes cutting to the point of cruelty, at other times tender. Insightful, yet almost childishly naïve. Defiant, as a rule, and yet at other times almost desperate for love and acceptance. Finally, like all truly enduring artists John Lennon’s greatest work was his life itself. He seemed to know from an early age that virtually everything he said, or wrote, or painted or sketched or sang would be of interest to someone, somewhere, and for a long time to come. Luckily he helpfully devoted most of his life to the dissemination of this rich oeuvre.
Free As a Bird
But what of that series of contradictions known as John Lennon’s personal politics? Would Lennon today be considered a conservative, a liberal, or more of an Arnold Schwarzenegger type? The answer might surprise you, especially given John’s place on the (almost certainly mythical) Nixon’s Enemies List.
For instance, the John Lennon who once threatened to tell his audience to “rattle your f***ing jewelry” instead of clapping during a Royal Command Performance before the Queen was also a multibillionaire who drove a Rolls Royce with a custom psychedelic paint job. John once appeared on The Tonight Show with Paul McCartney to promote their new record label, describing it as an attempt at Western-style Communism. But when it came to managing his own career and holdings John showed a clear preference for Western-style capitalism. With the same selective class identification practiced by Jack London (who lived like a sultan while promoting socialism), Lennon described himself as working class. But (unlike his band mates) the only actual job John ever held was the decidedly white-collar position of world-renowned pop star. John called himself as a man of peace, belying his early years as a brawler who fists put at least one adversary in the hospital. Lennon explained this by saying only someone who’d grown up amidst violence could truly appreciate the importance of peace.
John’s creative output as a lyricist was equally ambiguous. For example, his “All You Need Is Love” is surprisingly pacifistic coming from someone born in Liverpool during a brief lull in the Luftwaffe’s fairly thorough bombing of that city in 1940. The song makes reasonably profound observations on the commonality of the human experience (“there’s nothing you can make that can’t be made/no one you can save who can’t be saved). And its exhortations to “learn how to play the game”, to “learn how to be in time,” and to “be where you’re meant to be” have an almost Franciscan grace. But that refrain (“love, love, love…love is all you need”), however soothing, is pretty hard to reconcile with the sound of Hitler’s bombs falling around his mother as she gave birth to the future Beatle. Love’s all well and good, John, you almost wanted to tell him, but there’s really no substitute for a few 50 MM anti-aircraft guns and some R.A.F. support when the Germans are raining death on your city.
Then there’s “Imagine,” a song whose simplicity was both its strength (melodically), and its weakness (lyrically). The sparse, elegant melody, along with John’s self-accompanying piano and Phil Specter’s understated (for once) string arrangement made “Imagine” a creative high point of Lennon’s solo career. The song’s lyrics, on the other hand, represent what a conservative might consider a low point. With “Imagine” John asks us to imagine a world in which there is no thought of Heaven, no national borders, no private property, and no religion. For those of you having trouble doing so, try imagining present-day Cuba and you’re just about there. Like others before him John wishfully imagined that a borderless place unworthy of being defended and free of moral codes and material possessions could somehow offer peace and prosperity to all of its inhabitants. Out of respect for John’s memory we should note that “Imagine” was written before the horrors of most of the world’s atheistic, possession-less, borderless worker’s paradises had been fully documented.
At considerable distance from “Imagine” on the ideological spectrum is a Lennon composition entitled, oddly enough, “Revolution.” (And if you’re only familiar with the electric version from the sneaker ad, get out your headphones and listen to “Revolution I” on the…uh…the album with the double white cover. It’s pure bliss.) This is a song in which the older, wiser John Lennon gently upbraids his zealous followers for expecting him to take up arms against whomever “The Man” happened to be that particular week. There, there, John seems to be telling them, it’s going to be alright. We all want to change the world. We all want to see the plan (and boy, does that sound familiar. Even back then people were mindlessly bleeting, “What’s the plan?”). We all want to change your head. But, he adds, if you’re talking about destruction you can count me out. If you want money for people with minds that hate, you’ll have to wait. And if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow– three points on which John Lennon and the Republican National Committee were, and remain, in complete agreement.
We also know that John Lennon had a great love for this country–and not just because after being granted legal residency he said, “I have a love for this country!” We know he loved America because he fought to stay here even after our government spent years trying to deport him due to a minor drug arrest. How many genuine leftists would make such a public declaration of allegiance to this country? It’s also worth noting, in light of our current attitude towards the undocumented, that the last illegal alien we made a serious effort to kick out of this country was a Beatle.
Throughout his public life John Lennon had a reputation for making sacrilegious remarks about God and organized religion. Yet during his final interview, given just hours before his death 25 years ago today, John was anything but profane. Speaking of the Watergate and Vietnam eras from which his new home country had just emerged, John said, “You have to thank God, or whatever it is up there, the fact that we all survived.” Suddenly God was no longer merely a concept by which we measure our pain, as Lennon had so cryptically sung ten years previously. Suddenly God (or, actually, Jesus) was no longer simply a runner-up to the Beatles in popularity, as John said in 1966 (and which, at least in terms of ticket sales, was perfectly true at the time). During the last hours of his life John Lennon acknowledged that God was someone Up There, not to mention Someone to Whom he felt we should give thanks.
So while it could be argued that John Lennon’s rejection of Maoism and violent revolution, his embrace of capitalism and American citizenship, and his deep-seated spirituality might not have made him a conservative, he was a far cry from the garden variety Sixties’ leftist he’s so often thought to be. So rest in peace, John, and thanks for all of the great moments both musically and otherwise. There’ll never be another one like you.
And one more thing: No offense, but since you passed away I’ve found it increasingly difficult to imagine there’s no Heaven.
–Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Rice is also an NRO contributor.