Sunday, February 8, 2015

Imagine No John Lennon

     Everyone had their favorite Beatle. In fifth grade it was hard to figure out why all the girls in my class were (excuse the expression) gaga over the Fab Four mop heads. Paul was just so cute and congenial; it was hard not to pick him out of that lineup as loveable. He was my favorite. With his rebellious and iconoclastic demeanor, Lennon was more of a Rolling Stones "plant" but realize that there would eventually be a second John Lennon.

     One was a Beatle and the other was a manufactured offshoot propelled by Yoko Ono (Oh, no!). The Beatles were great because of wonderful melodies and memorable lyrics. When the writing team of Lennon and McCartney separated, both suffered musically. Paul with Wings had good melodies and forgettable lyrics and Lennon had weaker melodies with interesting and tortured lyrics. Of these two versions of John Lennon, I absolutely adored John the Beatle.

 Early John Lennon - a Fab Four member

     Behind many successful men are strong and nurturing women. Yoko would probably have to be classified as an exception, a corollary, or a "special case." If anyone needs to know where Lennon got his inspiration for those post-Beatle lyrics, they need only to play Yoko Ono masterpiece recording of "Don't Worry." 
The band was on their way to a breakup but she added to the pressures. She helped to strip John out of a very successful group atmosphere and set him up for an original career, the fruits of which she now ferociously guards, possibly keeping or delaying a lot of the music from reaching his fans. I think the damage she may have caused might be even more.

     Imagine if she never camped out on Lennon's doorstep each day eagerly awaiting the nightly return of the married couple so she could place her person directly in their way. She wedged her way into his home life, into the marriage, and then into the group. When he arrived one morning at the recording studio, Paul was quite surprised to find Yoko set up as a member of the band. There was a tacit agreement among the Beatles not to let girlfriends or wives into the recording studio.  That was the additional pressure they didn't need, another one that pushed the Beatles apart and eventually ended the fabled songwriting team and the group. However you explain the Beatles' reasons for breaking up, allowing Yoko artistic input into a Beatles song—doesn't that really explain it in a nutshell?

     I remember one friend remarking after the breakup that it was cool because now instead of getting one new album, you were getting four. (Okay, 3-1/2 for a while) I will admit that the breakup did allow George Harrison to blossom much quicker but that was too high a price to pay for wonderful music that would have probably emerged later rather than sooner.

     There are moments in history when you remember where you were when you heard the news. Kennedy's assassination, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (he was there way before Sting had a lyrical notion). In a separate musical category, I tend to remember performance nights— Judy Collins and Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Browne, James Taylor—all different nights in Central Park. I remember being in the Spectrum In Philadelphia and Bruce Springsteen coming out alone during the intermission of one of Bruce's typical 4-hour performances and solemnly intoning that John Lennon had been shot in front of his apartment. We all went numb.

     The problem I have with imagining John Lennon, the individual, is the difficulty I have imagining just how good the Beatles would have been if Yoko had not worked her special magic. Understandably, the seeds of John's premeditated murder (please don't call it an assassination) were sown by his inadvertent off-handed remarks that the press spun way out of his control. Maybe John gets murdered anyway by that deranged man (not mentioning his name in print is a way of lessening his literary and historical immortality) but the fact that he was the only Beatle living in a wide open, gun-happy New York City didn't help.  Admittedly, George Harrison was almost killed by a home invasion in England but the odds were far higher that John gets killed having been dragged to New York by Yoko.

     John as an individual was just another good rock and roller—that's what Yoko turned him into. Imagining that he didn't exist as an individual rocker is easy if I try.

     So remember, when you see Yoko appearing somewhere (dressed in black) and everyone revering her as John's widow, that she is the curator of the fabulous fortune that she wrangled away from its proper owner. But more than that, realize that she had a hand in dismembering, arguably, the most successful song writing team in the history of music. That is what her dark dress and black arm bands should stand for.

      And that is not hard to imagine. It's easy if you try.

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