Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lennon in his own words

Twenty-five years since John Lennon was shot. I still remember turning on the TV in the morning and seeing the news. At that age, I didn't quite understand the magnitude of such things, but I was still stunned. The Beatles were the soundtrack of my early childhood, and all these years later, I feel some residual guilt that I was born the same month Paul McCartney released his solo album and everyone confirmed that the band was history. The Beatles for me? That's a poor trade.
The BBC, as you'd expect, is all over the anniversary, dragging some tapes out of the archives. The highlight, as far as I've heard, is a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner that captures Lennon at his extremes -- as a frank commentator on the history of his band, as an artistic genius, and as an ass.
The interview may not have been aired in this form, but it's nothing new to those of who've read books like Beatlesongs, a wonderfully comprehensive look at how each Beatles song was written and recorded. The compiled Lennon quotes make it clear than he respects McCartney's talents yet can't resist ripping him at every turn.
Lennon admits that his ego colors his opinions, and his willingness to be frank despite his disclaimer makes him a fascinating study even if you wouldn't want to be his bandmate.
His ego blinds him in one major aspect: He fails to recognize the brilliance of the Beatles' late work, simply because McCartney was driving all of it. Perhaps McCartney was like Roger Waters in Pink Floyd, gradually assuming control, but he was more generous and more justified than Waters in becoming the alpha male of the band. Lennon was adrift -- drugs, Yoko, Revolution 9, etc. -- and probably couldn't have produced much of anything without McCartney's help. And McCartney, overbearing though he might have been, gave Lennon plenty of room to contribute.
In retrospect, the band could've used a break. Look at the pace of the Beatles releases -- even as they were breaking up, they cranked out Let It Be and Abbey Road. Fair enough.
And yet, would you trade those two albums for any of Lennon's solo work? Probably not, though he was showing signs of emerging from a funk at the time of his death.
All of which, of course, makes his death that much more tragic. Imagine (sorry) a reunited Beatles at Live Aid, when McCartney was starting to lose steam as a solo artist.
(McCartney, by the way, got a couple of Grammy nominations this year. Anyone playing his album on the radio?)
So this interview, like much of what Lennon said in the decade between the band breakup and his death, is fascinating but ultimately sad. It's fascinating in the sense that many bands' creative processes are fascinating. Fleetwood Mac recorded its best work while the band members were breaking up and recombining in various ways.
Given that, maybe it's for the best that I didn't form a band in high school.

(P.S. The BBC piece on the "bigger than Jesus" controversy is an interesting study on fame, innuendo and the media.)

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