Sunday, December 08, 2013

John Lennon’s Final Tour de Force

After 40 years of listening to their music I can say I am not a mere fan of The Beatles, but a student. I understand them better now as four distinct individuals who were bigger than the sum of their parts, but in the earliest years I was a John partisan. 

John Lennon was the difficult one. The hard-drinking, sharp-tongued, not-so-cute one. The older boy Paul and George had to impress to get into what started out as his band. The bomb-thrower who dared note that his band was bigger than Jesus on a broadcast interview. That gifted-mad composer who gave the world “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Revolution 9.” John was the natural choice for a budding young iconoclast like myself.

Christ! You know it ain’t easy....
Even that curious business with Yoko Ono—how, by all the natural laws in the universe, does a wealthy, famous Man With Options become such an abject emotional slave to a woman who is so far from conventionally beautiful? The man even defied rock-star logic. 

I considered it the rankest injustice that John never was as popular than Paul—and it did not escape my notice that most people didn’t give a fuck for John until after he was shot in December 1980. Over the years, however, it’s become easier for me to understand and accept that there are good, very reasonable reasons John never cracked the top of the charts with the ease Paul did. 

John’s solo career had its moments, but it was never entirely about the music. It was about exorcising demons (“Mother”), and making Grand Statements (“I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier,” “Imagine,” “Power to the People,” “Working Class Hero,” etc.) when it wasn’t about professing his love for Yoko. By name, God help him!

John wrote some fine anthems for the ages after 1969. But it’s not summer-fun sunshine, hangin’ by the pool, throwin’ the Frisbee, drivin’ down the boulevard, makin’ out with your girlfriend music like Paul’s was. 

That’s not to say Lennon wrote bad music. It was different music. It seems to me that there were a lot of air bubbles in his creative line as the years went by, however, and I can’t help wondering if Lennon wasn’t running out of creative mojo early on. It’s been noted that, late in The Beatles’ life as a band, that John had complained to Paul that he couldn’t keep up with Paul’s output. (To be fair, I think Paul was finished as of 1979. Once Wings was done, so was his songwriting.) 

Released 29 October 1973, though I mostly
associate it with the Christmas season that year.
John had one last burst of Beatles-worthy brilliance, though, and that was the title track/lead single from his 1973 album Mind Games. It sounded at once bombastic and dreamlike through a single speaker on the AM radio when it first came out. The 2010 remaster is a revelation on the headphones. Beneath the three-note octave-spanning riff on the strings that anchors the song are a reggae guitar, a very McCartney-esque bass, and any number of odd things going on. 

John drops everything and the kitchen sink into this and, by God, it works. If nothing else, I’m reminded that John Lennon, even if he had never formed The Beatles, would still have been one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time. He blew us all away in 1963 with “Twist and Shout.” Ten years later he sings “Mind Games” and takes it to another level entirely. Listen to what John does with the word “love” near the end of the coda. Don’t try this at home, kids. Musically, creatively, and artistically, John Lennon never got any better after this.