Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nowhere Land (Part Three)

Here is today's third installment from Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:

"The Beatles had nothing to do with hope," John Lennon suddenly declared at a June 1970 press conference at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada, to announce plans for a peace-and-music festival in the city with his wife, Yoko Ono. "The Beatles made it, they stopped touring, and they had all the money they wanted, all the fame they wanted, and they found out they had nothing." Two months earlier, Paul McCartney had announced his split from The Beatles and released his first solo record, McCartney, a dramatic move that made clear that The Beatles were officially over. McCartney retreated to his Scottish farm to record a stripped-down collection of love songs written for his wife Linda, playing all the instruments, i.e. portraying all of The Beatles. But Lennon had abandoned the band privately before McCartney did publicly; having found that rock 'n' roll itself was no longer living up to its promise. "The idea of being a rock and roll musician suited my talents and mentality, and the freedom was great," Lennon recalled. "But then I found that I wasn't free. I'd got boxed in. It wasn't just because of my contract, but the contract was a physical manifestation of being in prison. And with that I might as well have gone to a nine-to-five job as carry on the way I as carrying on. Rock 'n' roll was not fun anymore."

By 1969, The Beatles were not much fun anymore either, nor did they inspire in each other much in the way of hope. Their manager Brian Epstein had died of an accidental drug overdose two years earlier, leaving them stranded. Managing their own affairs, starting their own company, Apple Corps, had only bitterly divided the band. After leaving the road in 1966, they had retreated into the studio to record their Summer of Love totem Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By 1968, their double-LP The Beatles, the contentious "White Album," had inadvertently ushered in a Summer of Hate. A psychopathic fan named Charles Manson heard the record as a call to murder. On August 9, 1969, with his cult followers, known as the Family, Manson murdered five people in Los Angeles including actress Sharon Tate, citing the album as a coded message inspiring him to bring on the apocalypse. On the walls of the murder scene, the title of two songs from The Beatles, "Helter Skelter" and "Piggies," were written in blood.

With the horror of the Manson murders simmering that summer, death hovered in the air. In October 1969, two months after The Beatles finished recording their last album, Abbey Road, a fan phoned a Detroit radio station to inform the DJ that Paul McCartney was dead and, in fact, had been for some time, having been killed in an accident in 1966. An imposter was now playing his role. Since The Beatles were no longer on the road, their clandestine lives in the studio were now clearly inspiring different kinds of dreams from the ones that dramatized Nowhere Land. Citing clues from a variety of Beatles songs and their record covers, the caller insisted that the man claiming to be McCartney was being used as a decoy to keep The Beatles myth alive. Within the month, the University of Michigan newspaper, The Michigan Daily, featured a mock article by Fred LaBour that was picked up by a number of international papers and immediately taken to heart by many Beatles fans who had abandoned all common sense. It became clear at that moment that the promising courtship of the early days of Beatlemania had deteriorated into violence, bitterness, and crackpot conspiracy theories. Within a year of Lennon's Toronto press conference, while the counter-culture was continuing to regress, The Beatles, citing the irreconcilable differences, broke up.

After the collapse, each member embarked on a solo career. George Harrison uncorked the triple-LP All Things Must Pass in 1970, featuring a number of songs he couldn't get on Beatles records. Ringo Starr put together an album of sentimental standards for his mother called simply Sentimental Journey. Lennon, the man who first dreamed up The Beatles, didn't want to quit the group quietly. After entering psychotherapy with Primal Scream therapist Arthur Janov, Lennon didn't just abandon the dream like the others; he decided it was time to end it. In December 1970, he gave a bluntly dismissive interview to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, in which he put down his former mates, asserting that The Beatles changed nothing in the world. South Africa still had apartheid, he ranted, people lived in poverty and corrupt governments had quelled positive change. By protesting -- quite rightly -- that The Beatles could never enact the social change many fans thought they would, he was now going on to deny that their vision had any worth.

That same month, he released his own autobiographical record, named after his new group, Plastic Ono Band, which began as a stark recollection of his traumatic childhood. And one listen to the album's intensely austere songs made it clear that the world of possibility Lennon once heard in "Heartbreak Hotel," the inclusive spirit he once proclaimed on "There's a Place," he was now refuting, denying its quixotic power, for the purpose of discovering the naked truth about himself. "Mother" opened the album with the peeling of funeral bells, as Lennon ranted angrily at the father who abandoned him as a boy, and at the mother who was killed soon after. "I Found Out" expressed his angry contempt for religion and the pop culture The Beatles helped inspire. "Working Class Hero," a mournful old-fashioned folk ballad, despaired of an authoritarian society that stripped its citizens of their souls. Culture critic Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography The Lives of John Lennon, aptly compared the theme of Plastic Ono Band to The Who's rock opera Tommy. "For what is the famous rock opera about," Goldman asks. "A boy traumatized by his mother's cheating loses all his senses but the most primitive, the sense of touch. He employs this mute yet passionate faculty to become a pinball hero -- a symbol of rock 'n' roll. Acclaimed by the world's youth as a pop star, he continues to evolve, becoming first a guru and ultimately a saint. There is the legend of John Lennon to a T."

On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to reveal himself as a new man. The music was different from The Beatles, as well, their colorful sound turned into monochromatic black and white. Besides Lennon, the record featured only Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman, an old friend from The Beatles' Hamburg days, on bass, and an immensely talented young pianist who had played on the Let it Be sessions named Billy Preston. On Plastic Ono Band, Lennon set out to tear away what he perceived to be the illusory symbols of being a Beatle -- but that wasn't going to be easy. "The Beatles not only incorporated all the elements of John Lennon's fragmented personality but they harmonized these elements perfectly, which enabled them to achieve total self-sufficiency," Goldman also wrote, explaining the difficulty of Lennon's task. Since the self-sufficiency of The Beatles was partially inspired by the image of John Lennon, in order to destroy The Beatles, Lennon had to find a means to destroy their image. He did so in a song he called "God."

For the man who once claimed in 1966 that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and had himself claimed to his mates to be Christ at a business meeting while tripping on acid, addressing God directly in a song wasn't far-fetched. But "God" wasn't simply a Lennon riposte. He used the song to tear away not only the illusions of religion, but also the illusions of pop deities who, Lennon felt, paraded like gods. "God" begins with Preston's stately piano introducing a gospel dirge. Lennon's voice speaks over the melody, suppressing the appealing melismas that once drew such affection for his Beatle songs. He tells us that God is nothing more than a concept we use to measure our pain. As if we were too shocked to take in the idea, he repeats the phrase, seizing bitterly on the final words "our pain." At this point, the sermon begins. "God" presents the inverse of a gospel song's affirmations. Reading from a laundry list of injustices, Lennon begins to tell us what he doesn't believe in anymore: Magic, I Ching, Jesus, Hitler, mantras, yogis and kings all make the cut. After kings, he mentions Elvis, obviously no longer worthy of being considered royalty. When Lennon denounces Bob Dylan, another key figure in The Beatles' musical and cultural evolution, he calls him by his true name of Zimmerman. (His ploy becomes confusing here since the name Dylan is the artist's disguise that Lennon means to strip away.) Then he comes to the key line in the song: "I don't believe in Beatles," he states, his voice rising in the mix over the piano, which stops cold on "Beatles." After this deathly silence, Lennon returns to tell us what he does believe in now: himself -- and Yoko.

Throughout the song, Lennon bites hard on the lyrics, careful not to allow the lyrical beauty of his voice to come through. He saves his best singing for a single wistful moment toward the end when, announcing that The Beatles' dream is over, he insists that he's no longer the dream weaver, but a man reborn. He proclaims that he isn't the walrus, alluding to the character he playfully portrayed in one of his best songs, but John. Lennon's voice rises beautifully here, and then lightly falls like a leaf caught in a quick breeze, as he divulges the simple truth that we have to carry on. In what sounds like an irrepressible sob, a final somber glimpse back at an era of great promise, Lennon softly cries out once again that the dream is over, and his brittle voice breaks into tiny fragments swallowed up by the song's silent decay.

The sound of Elvis Presley's voice once altered John Lennon's life. And despite all his intentions in "God," at the end we can still hear Lennon's voice accumulate the power that Presley's had for him. When he recovers the radiance in his voice, when he's letting it all go, he thinks he's ending The Beatles' utopian vision, closing the book on Nowhere Land. But what he fails to see is that the dream is still there -- and it's no longer his alone.

Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).

1 comment:

  1. Those of us ensconced in our alpine sanitorum request that you write another book!

    Hans Castorp