Vulpes Libris

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The raw and the personal. John Lennon’s Solo Songs: Part of Beatles’ Week on Vulpes Libris

workingclass heroHow do you write about music?

Some people manage to write reams and reams – particularly on a subject like the Beatles. People pour over every aspect and detail of their lives, sifting through every tiny piece of paraphernalia like holy relics as though this will somehow bring them closer to their idols.

I seem to have managed to avoid the whole Beatles thing. I like some of the songs but I can’t say any are amongst my favourite songs.  Is it generational? Did I just manage to avoid Beatles’ songs popping up at seminal moments in my life? Is it simply because I wasn’t a teenager at the time? It’s a strange thing that whilst I know or am acquainted with far more women who spent their teenage years camped out in tents trying to meet the Fab Four, it more often seems to be men who are really fanatical about their actual musical output – painstakingly picking apart every note and phrase – analysing every “oooh” or “yeah” – mining it all for hidden significance.

The Beatles, for me, are just that bit too happy and clappy and sunshiney and sweet. They have some great moments, but they are moments amidst a more straightforward sound. It wasn’t until I discovered John Lennon’s solo stuff that I realised where some of those more cynical moments come from.

I find it extremely hard to explain what is good about John Lennon, when it is good (and it often isn’t). He provides the edge, the punch, the cynical take on what could otherwise might be over-cheerful and over-sweet – something that Paul McCartney’s solo stuff can be guilty of.

And it is his really pared down stuff that I find the best of all.

Just as I didn’t really encounter the Beatles very much as a teenager – John Lennon’s songs I did, on a tape that my sister made of a radio programme which I stole and played over and over in my room. Amongst the stranger offerings, like Cold Turkey (more like Jimi Hendrix  than the Beatles) I was really struck by his very simple, pared down songs.

The first to hit home was Mother.

This aching and vicious song is deceptively simple and apparently influenced by some primal screaming therapy Lennon was undertaking in the states. As with the best of Lennon, the lyrics are simple: “Mother you had me but I never had you”.

Having watched the film on Lennon’s young life “Nowhere Boy”, you could interpret this as simply achingly heartfelt. However, the song is not quite so straightforward. It is bitter, unforgiving, angry and raw and ends with the unrepentant “Goodbye”.

It’s a devastating song – it says things without elegance, or conceit. It is (at some points literally) a primal scream and it hits upon a universal truth. Along with the agony of being left and the lost mother is the feeling of love and hate, the dependence and need and anger.  That Lennon felt able to be so uncompromising is perhaps testament to an arrogance and selfishness, but the fact that one of his most aching, bitter and ambiguous songs is not about a lover, but a mother, is something that marks him out as something quite different and special in pop terms.

Along with this song, another favourite is God. Whilst, as usual with Lennon, you can accuse him of being somewhat self-aggrandising, in fact the song is a savage rejection of the worship and frenzy that the Beatles themselves attracted. The Beatles, for Lennon, becomes as much a despised trap that steals his identity and traps him in an idolatry that he obviously had such a complex relationship with. In light of the tragic manner of his death, this song – like Mother –  shows the simple, coupled with the cynical and bitter. Quite a combination.

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain” he sings.

It’s an extraordinarily self-centred and solipsistic kind of song, reeling through a long list of things including God, Hitler…and finally the Beatles – saying he doesn’t believe in them all and then saying that all he believes in is “Me, Yoko and me. That’s reality”. It is so wonderfully self-centred, so ridiculous in its juxtaposition of the huge and important with the trivial that is reminds me of the worst kind of teenage poetry. On the other hand, this is exactly what is so wonderful about it. Lennon has an ability to remain unencumbered by rational distance and self-consciousness. It is a solipsistic howl and statement of “Fuck off, world” – and it’s a brilliant, brilliant song.

It is not just the words and music, but it is the way these songs are performed that give them their power. The pared down simplicity of the music and the lyrics and the way Lennon’s voice – not the greatest voice in the world – is so close to the mic. It is the sheer force of this contradictory character speaking directly into our ear that both appeals to the grandiose dreamers in us all, whilst simultaneously forcing our feet firmly on the ground.

There are plenty of other great Lennon songs – Working Class Hero and Watching the Wheels are both very moving and about themes that are a bit more interesting than most pop songs.

There are some lovely upbeat songs: Starting Over (when he got back together with Yoko Ono) – even Oh Yoko! is a song that expresses simple joy at being with his eccentric artist soulmate wife. Lennon’s songs are often deceptively simple and about simple things – being a normal human being, his wife, his son, his past, who he is.

You get the impression that trying to attain these ordinary things is both a struggle and yet very important for him. Perhaps it’s impossible to listen to these intimate songs without them being layered with a profound sadness – due to the way he died. A man who was trying to get back to some sort of normality despite his  public, and exalted, celebrity status, ends up struck down because of that very status he was trying to find distance from/some accommodation with. It is cruel in its irony as well as just being a terrible tragedy for Lennon and his family.

Despite his own grandiose tendencies in some of the songs, Lennon is trying to share his discovery that celebrity is meaningless and being a normal human being is what is important – yet couldn’t, ultimately, escape the cage created by his extraordinary fame.

So, perhaps this is a bit of a downbeat post for Beatles Week. And a note of caution. Do we need to exult those who happen to create something we like? Should we worship and adore people just because they seem to speak to us through a book, a song, a painting, or whatever art-form? Do we – as a society – have the same relationship with celebrities that Lennon nailed so well in his song, Mother? The dependence, the adoration, the love and the hate that we see day after day in magazines , online, tabloids, gossip magazines. If we love what people do, do we have a duty to stand back and engage with that, rather than a fantasy of the person themself? Should we be picking over every bit of detritus that surrounded them, searching for clues in the debris of their lives? What affect does this adoration have on the person – the actual human being behind the celebrity? What affect does it have on us?

Let it go, Lennon says. And as a culture, as a society, as individuals – we really should.

Lennon’s solo songs are often underrated, perhaps because they are not dazzling and ambitious. But that is why – in my view – they are something special, containing, as they do, moments of real connection in an otherwise fake and status-obsessed world.

2 comments on “The raw and the personal. John Lennon’s Solo Songs: Part of Beatles’ Week on Vulpes Libris

  1. Jackie
    February 5, 2014

    So much food for thought here. I agree that there is an intimacy in Lennon’s solo work(and some of his Beatle songs too) that is quite raw and uninhibited, that almost feels too private to listen to. “Mother” perfectly captured what he must have felt as a child losing her, yet he was writing as an adult. It always amazes me when people are able to channel something from such a distance, in time, even if not a resolved issue, as it was for him.
    I understand what you are saying about celebrity and George Harrison also expressed many of the same things as Lennon did. But certain artists are above mere celebrity, they’ve created something special and it enriches our mundane little lives. Maybe when we get so involved with the minutiae, it’s harking back to a pagan wish to sprinkle magic dust to effect change in our own surroundings.
    Thanks for your usual in-depth post on the subject, I always enjoy following along as you peel back layers and shine light into corners we may have not looked into, no matter the topic.

  2. Pingback: Introducing A Lyrical Alphabet (Missing the Z) | Rose B Fischer

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2014 by in Entries by Rosy.



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