Flipping back through the Beatles discography, I’m trying to glean a general message central to all of Lennon’s early, formative work, but it’s mostly songs about the opposite sex. And certainly, that’s what we’ve fallen back upon big time in pop music today, with The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Adele et. al.
Somewhere, then, along the lines of the Beatles’ development, they gained not further popularity (as they were already starting from a dizzying height), but a different TINGE of popularity, with the more eclectic instrumental exploration by way of sitar and tape loops — they gained critical acclaim, specifically, and exhaustive critical acclaim, the approval of everyone from squares, to hippies, to certainly the British themselves. John Lennon was set up classically as a quintessential assassination case, a messianic, sometimes-infallible figure within the most powerful cultural movement in the history of the world — rock and roll.
How well did we actually all imbibe of his messages? Probably too well, given the outcome of the whole thing. So what’s the implication of someone hating a song like “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” for basically no reason? Is this actually a step back in the right direction, given the inevitability of visionary leaders being gunned down by jealous hands? What caused this girl I know, who happens to be a huge Beatles and Lennon fan, to show such disgust with this unassuming, boisterous 1969 single?
One thing is for sure, the song made an impression on her. Likely playing brutishly with its contemporary full-band brethren which would go on to albums like Let it Be and Abbey Road, “John and Yoko” is not “conceptual,” or “arty” — it’s an astonishingly formulaic statement of coy, and fun rock and roll, a simple catharsis before the absurdity of his situation, his level of power, and most importantly, his level of happiness. Bulwarked by a carefree, roots-rock-and-roll swagger manifest as supreme confidence, it plugs its own gap as Caucasian mischief to Chuck Berry’s rebellion — similarly poking fun at the system and at tradition, but with an even darker, more humorous set of diction (“The way things are going / They’re gonna crucify me”). There it is, right before us, in this song: the greater you become, the more impeccably you master your craft and inspire and harmonize others, the more hate you get pummeled your way. Not only can people not handle the truth, people cannot handle joy, either.
So what people got, in the ’80’s, was uniformity, and a factory hit-making mentality: new wave took over the mainstream, and people dressed in plaid and shot videos in rooms resembling the inside of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The concept of possibility morphed from free love and peace on earth, to this simple aesthetic “coolness.” All the visionary leaders of the previous two decades were slain, but the music was to live on in immortality, and one of my closest friends names “Imagine” as his favorite song of all time.
Even beyond “Imagine,” the solo, post-Beatles work of John Lennon flourishes ebulliently as the seminal craft of an original artist. There’s a dark, mystifying timbre to the music, laced with a sense of urgency, amidst the poignant key changes of “Mind Games” which pleas “Love is the Answer,” and the world-suspending opus, the final rejection of corporeal actuality on Earth, “#9 Dream.” If anything is proven by the de facto subversiveness of these pastoral messages, and the eventual demise of John Lennon the man, it’s that nothing on earth is more powerful than love and harmony.
Along with the girl I mentioned earlier, who chose to express an inexplicable disgust for “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” I have witnessed the Eels lead singer refer to him as a “wife beater,” and have read Lester Bangs rag on him in ornery diatribes for hanging out in bars too much and not continuing to create relevant music. Well, sort of like Bowie following Lou Reed, Lester Bangs died very soon after John Lennon did, and inhabiting the same Big Apple, for that matter. Throughout history, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have another musician whose impact on the world creates such a stir, and/or registers so much scrutiny. But undergirding the entire situation is the undeniable fact that Lennon became who he was by following his own muse, and not culture: he didn’t go out and buy seven synthesizers like his art rock cohorts, he didn’t don a mohawk and a scowl in the spirit of punk. He used simple, understandable rudiments, resting on the utilities of the past while forging a simple message of love, peace and happiness for the future. In the end, maybe the Big Apple just wasn’t as friendly to such things as David Crosby’s and Grace Slick’s California was — or maybe it’s that a rose growing out of the cement shines the brightest.