Now That We Can’t Be Beatles Fans Anymore
September 30, 1971
In early 1970, Tom Paxton released a single called “Crazy John.” Paxton is one of those ex-purist folksingers whose major talent is persistence: when Dylan went electric, he commented, “Where it’s at is a synonym for rich,” but a few years later he was riding the heretic’s tail at Isle of Wight. “Crazy John” was evidence of Paxton’s new vocation, offering that wonderful nut, the John Lennon of bed-ins and peace billboards, some sage folk advice: “They never can hear you, John/So how can you reach them?/They never come near you, John/So how can you reach them?” It’s appropriate for a folksinger to offer such a sterling example of that contemporary usage, the paranoid they, because the very idea of the folk connotes an integral audience, us, separated by time and/or values from the shapeless mass, them. Paxton thinks John is crazy because he does not recognize this dichotomy, and in an ass-backwards way he is right, for if John were capable of such easy formulas he might be almost as boring as Paxton himself. But John is a media artist, and like any media artist he continually confronts a maddening question: Where is my audience? More than any other pop star (except perhaps Dylan) he enjoys a creative relationship with his own celebrity, plying it not merely out of ambition or self-protection but because the process piques him aesthetically. John Lennon in public is like a filmmaker at the Movieola or Yoko Ono at a happening in 1963.
New York artists used to look at the six o’clock news or, perhaps, some wonderful new rock and roll group from England, and think, “Huh, what a weird thing to reach so many people at once.” They perceived masscult outreach as a basically formal quality, irrespective of content, and experimented with it by devising art events which if they were very clever might make Howard Smith’s column, once Howard Smith had devised a column to deal with such phenomena. In this context, the Lennon/Ono marriage was the most successful multi-media move of the decade. Yet the taint of the avant-garde has stayed with Yoko, for after all, the cover of Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy just ain’t the cover of Life, and if Ono/Lennon appear on Cavett you can expect McCartney/McCartney to show up on Carson any time now. Ex-groupie or no, Linda Eastman McCartney has class, and banker’s daughter or no, Yoko Ono doesn’t. John married genius and Paul married power, and in the world of public media it’s hard to be sure which is more important.
None of this is to imply that Paul, or John, married for convenience. Like all artists, great popular artists believe their own myths, and for popular songwriters of the pre-Beatle era — which is exactly how Lennon and McCartney began — there was only one of those: romantic love. Repeat: they were popular songwriters. Even though the staple of rock and roll in the ’50s was teen schmaltz of wondrous innocence and vapidity, and even though the popularization of black music meant romanticizing the hard-assed realism of rhythm and blues, the sheer physicality or rock and roll — its sexual underpinnings, always implied a negation of such escapist rhapsodies. But the Beatles, unlike blues-influence fellow geniuses Jagger and Dylan, never showed much interest in this negation. Instead of projecting sexuality, they evoked it and made fun of it simultaneously, just one more example of the insistent popness that always tempted the cynical to suspect they were finks. After turning out enchanting variations on the permissible themes of union and parting for three or four years, their version of the myth gradually became more acerbic (“Girl,” “If I Needed Someone,” etc.) but their formal commitment to pop remained unchanged — those later songs are reminiscent of the down Smokey Robinson, especially on the all-important pop surface.
It was only during their mature period — including Sgt. Pepper, their best album, and The Beatles, their most inconsistent and probably their worst — that they abandoned the subject altogether. Great popular artists believe their own myths, but like all artists they do so from a distance. As his relationship with Jane Asher became more problematic, Paul’s romantic experiments became more outre. He never quite gave up on romance, but it is significant, that “Hey Jude,” one of his truest and most forthright love songs, was omitted from the white album, while “I Will,” a piece of fluff that seems designed to fit unobtrusively into that pastiche of musical exercises, was included. When Paul took up with Linda, however, he also took up the love theme with fresh enthusiasm. Typically, John’s withdrawal and return were more extreme. He discovered Yoko well before the white album, but not until “I Want You,” on Abbey Road, did he signal his renewed embrace of the myth. For both moderate Paul and manic John, romance was a lot of what getting back was about. After desperate years, each decided love is all you need, because each found his one-and-only, doo-wah doo-wah.
But the revitalization of the myth of romantic love almost inevitably contributed to the disintegration of another myth, the myth of the Beatles, and it is significant that it was the group’s songwriters and resident movers who swung so precipitously from one myth to the other. In Hunter Davies’s official biography, Cynthia Lennon chides her husband for preferring the group to his family. “They seem to need you less than you need them,” the quote goes, and John admits it: “I did try to go my own way after we stopped touring, but it didn’t work. I didn’t meet anyone else I liked.” At that time, according to John, Paul had just about taken over leadership of the group. Engaged to Jane Asher, Paul regretted that he was still so much a bachelor, but he wasn’t — he was married to the Beatles: “We’re all really the same person. We’re just four parts of the one.” At that time, Pattie Harrison was thought of as the independent Beatle wife because she still did some modeling. Now Ringo describes her as “a long-legged lady in the garden pickin’ daisies for his suit,” and the marriage seems ornamental, the sort of show-business union that might just end some time. This impression may not be factual, of course, but there’s no doubting the accuracy of Davies’s description of Ringo as something of an Andy Capp, albeit solider and more devoted — Ringo is a common man in ways that don’t inspire our ready identification as well as ways that do. In any case, we realize in the context of more recent history that George and Ringo did not separate themselves from the group by marrying, although each gained a margin of autonomy. That margin proved necessary, because when John and Paul married they married hard, replacing the Four Mates with “Man We Was Lonely” and “Love is you/You and me.” It was as if their ambivalent relationship to the sexuality of rock and roll finally caught up with them. Men in groups gave way to couples.
John started it, of course. His mates mated with suitably mod types — an actress, a model, a hairdresser. Yoko, whatever else you might think of her, was a rather unbirdlike original, from her mature, buxom body to her obsessive creativity. She was strong — too strong. It is possible, I suppose, that the other Beatles bore her some faint racial or (more likely) artistic prejudice, but her deepest offense was to their male chauvinism. She aroused John’s male chauvinism, too, but because he was in love with her he responded differently: he actually thought she could become the fifth Beatle. And when he found he couldn’t work her into the Beatles, he began to rework the other available myth instead. Like all artists, great popular artists not only believe their own myths but carry them to new extremes: the dream is over, long live the dream. The myth of romantic love is usually a trap for women, but a sufficiently potent woman can transform it (as has been done before, after all) by compounding it with that vague notion of the perfect equality of all free spirits that can also be described lurking around our culture. Actually, the combination isn’t so much a compound as a colloid, mixing disparate elements in suspension. Nobody just screams away his entire oedipal heritage, and even as John acts out the fierce symbiosis of his marriage, he remains a jealous guy who interrupts his wife on Howard Smith.
Paul, the born romantic, came more readily to the new romanticism, but naturally in a much more sentimental way. John has dedicated an album to Yoko, but it is hard to imagine him doing something so cutesy as concealing an Y.I.L.Y on some secret border. Paul and Linda are also much more moderate — in fact, it might be argued that they cop out on the new dream altogether. Linda is a creative partner, but in a traditionally subordinate way, not just in the view of her husband’s fans but in the view of her husband. Her work is the mod art-craft, photography, and she has looked to rock as an energy source for years; in contrast, Yoko is a conceptual artist who was completely outside the music when John came to her. John now calls himself John Ono Lennon, but it’s Paul and Linda McCartney, or even on their first co-authored song, “Another Day,” Mr. and Mrs. Paul McCartney.
In its radical or liberal version, however, romantic marriage has destroyed the group. The Beatles were an aesthetic unit, but what did they transmit in common? Exuberance, yes. Cheek, although George’s head change changed that somewhat. Youth, and then youthfulness; rock and roll, and then rock. But above all, what the unit transmitted was unity, the possibility that four very different individuals could constitute a harmonious and functioning whole. That image was very important to the way we thought in the ’60s, and Yoko and Linda have made it impossible, not only by inspiring a counter-myth but by intensifying their husbands’ divergences. John and Paul complemented each other; Paul was conservative, John mercurial; Paul was fascinated with the silly history of pop music, John with its grand future; Paul was more comfortable with money, John with fame. But their women augmented rather than complemented. In class terms, Paul married up to Linda and her show-business wealth, while Yoko married down to John, who seems unlikely to abandon his scrappy lower-middle class heritage no matter how many possessions he accrues. But psychologically, the spirit of the husband, focused by the wife, dominates each marriage.
These personal changes are reflected in their musical work, except perhaps for McCartney, which despite its melodic interludes I find difficult to take seriously as anything more than a million-selling wedding announcement. In a way, though, McCartney can be said to have provided impetus for John’s Plastic Ono Band, from egocentric title to spare production. It’s as if John is saying, “This is what personal minimum music ought to sound like.” Plastic Ono Band is conceptual in the Yoko Ono rather than the Sgt. Pepper sense. It is one of the few albums I admire that does not permit casual enjoyment. You have to listen to it. Those who can do that — and there are many not in the category — customarily praise its lyrics, whereupon those who can’t conclude that John has not only gone off the deep end but dragged his friends with him. It is distressing that anyone can take a collection of psychotherapeutic truisms as revelation, although “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” are more than that on even the most obvious level. It is more distressing, however, that others still consider John a simpleton (or perhaps a wonderful nut) who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Anyone who loves Rosie and the Originals the way John does understands the value of dumbness. Of course the lyrics are crude clichés. That’s just the point, because they are also true, and John wants to make very clear that at this one point truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else.
I am not encouraged by John’s admission that he now writes melodies for lyrics rather than the opposite, because I believe music will get you through times of no lyrics better than lyrics will get you through times of no music. I also believe, however, that music overwhelms lyrics on Plastic Ono Band. Carman Moore thinks John has emerged as the most musical Beatle in terms of chords, melodic lines, and other such arcana, which only shows what I’ve said all along — that you can perceive that stuff without analyzing it. For me, the musicality of Plastic Ono Band can be summed up in one word: strength. At first, of course, what came through was the crudity. The music sounded stark and even perfunctory compared to the free harmonies and double guitars of the Beatles’ rock and roll. But the music of the album doesn’t inhere in its instrumentation but in the way John’s greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically. Like so much great rock and roll, it depends on studio gimmickry, with the greatest of the gimmickers, Phil Spector, providing the expertise while stripped of his power to grind 16 tracks down to mush. John’s voice unadorned appears only twice: on “Working Glass Hero,” and after the nonbelieving malediction of “God,” when John says, “I just believe in me/Yoko and me/And that’s reality.” Elsewhere it is echoed, filtered, and double-tracked, with two voices sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. In addition, the guitar and even the drumming is distorted.
This trickery slips by because Plastic Ono Band just isn’t a tricky album. It does sound strong, even primal; there really is something quintessentially raw about it. Yet it isn’t. John is such a media artist that even when he is fervidly shedding personae and eschewing metaphor he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. Separating himself from the homemade pretensions of, say, McCartney, he does not bullshit himself or his audience about where he is in the world — namely, on some private pinnacle of superstardom. As always, he wants to reach us with a message that is also a medium and really equals himself. Like any great artist, the great popular artist feels compelled to embody his myth in a form that offers its own pleasure. Plastic Ono Band had to be a one-shot, and Imagine follows it as inevitably in retrospect as New Morning followed Self-Portrait. Its myth is twofold: Yoko plus the movement. The word “imagine” is a Yokoism crucial as well to Marcusian theory, which regards the ineluctable utopianism of the artistic imagination as essential to social transformation — we cannot change unless we can envision change. If “Working Class Hero” is John’s movement credo and “Power to the People” his movement marching song, then the title cut of the new album is his movement hymn.
Chances are the movement is just another of John’s phases, though he has always shown that mix of genius, indignation, and pugnacity that characterizes the movement media heavy. In any case, it is certainly an invigorating development for those of us who have been straining to link rock and politics. Yet the movement’s ability to get across to masses of people has proven so sporadic that a part of me suspects John’s new stance is a portent. The thing is, Imagine doesn’t quite make it. At its best it is richer and more exciting than Plastic Ono Band because its potential appeal is much broader. “Gimme Some Truth” is the union of Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland word play, the kind of venom Dylan never quite managed to spew. “It’s So Hard” is the perfect blend of big blues and metapolitical despair. “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is a proper Spectoral extravaganza. “Oh Yoko!” is pure spontaneous joy, and captures more of the spirit of fun than all of Ram. And other songs succeed, too. But the combination of nasty lyric and good-timey ricky-tick on “Crippled Inside” has been exploited by every ex-purist folksinger since Phil Ochs, and “How?” is so psychotherapeutically lugubrious that it might not even have worked on Plastic Ono Band. Nor are these mistakes simply bad tries. They are symptomatic of Lennon’s limitations as an individual artist, limitations which contrary to suggestion are not musical. John’s music suits his vision perfectly. It’s his vision which is lacking.
As indicated, I think Ram is a very bad record, a classic form/content mismatch. If music is just gentle, fey, and occasionally funky, then why labor over it so assiduously? If you wanna have fun, then have it, don’t just succumb to conspicuous consumption. I am infuriated by the McCartneys’ modern young marrieds image — just normal folks who happen to have a wee recording set-up on their Scottish estate. Since Paul’s political perspective seems to be limited to Zero Population Growth, the production lavished on this album amounts to an ecological obscenity. Yet Ram is far from Muzak, and offers amenities that John could use. Paul’s voice conveys a warmth and sophistication that might make John’s manic-depressive extremism more palatable at those times when we just feel like lying around and listening to the stereo. Also, Paul uses Linda well. John seems unable to understand that although Yoko is a good artist, all that distinguishes her from a number of her fellows is access to media. This is indeed an important, and legitimate, distinction, but it ought to demonstrate once and for all that the function of avant-garde art is to inspire other artists, not the public. Yoko has entered John’s music successfully only once (on “Do the Oz” by the Elastic Oz Band) and although her own records are interesting they will never reach a large public unless she makes the move. But Linda’s participation on Paul’s records works in a good way, another example of the trend to allow women as well as men to sing in their everyday voices. It is not his commitment to yesterday, or another day, but to everyday, that might eventually render Paul’s music pleasant again. Let’s hope so.
What John needs most, you see, is just that acceptance of the everyday that in Paul-without-John appears to us as repellent complacency. He needs continual reminder of his pop heritage, to balance his oedipal heritage and his lower-middle class heritage. That balance is what the Beatles always reflected back to us, because we’re all like that and tend to forget it. It is missing from the New York artistic/political avant-garde, which is why that avant-garde never lives up to its genius. John really does need it. But it’s obvious that John will never get it from Paul again. “How Do You Sleep” is the kind of public act committed by a lover who wants to make sure he will never return in momentary weakness to the one who has rejected him so cruelly, the best proof yet of how deep the Beatles’ unity once was. Perhaps he’ll find it in himself, or in George, who is capable of songs of rare beauty, or elsewhere, but although I’ll always love him I wouldn’t be surprised if it were lost to him forever. It is strange to foresee the artistic death of an artist who is still so vital, but I often do.
What the break-up of the Beatles represents on the largest symbolic scale is a central social problem of our time — the inability of couples to coexist within cooperative groups. Perhaps they’ll all survive to lead happy truly productive lives, or perhaps like so many of us they will be trapped by this dilemma. John will be a tragedy, George and Paul something not so affecting. But for Ringo it will be worst of all, and since Ringo is all of us, we’d better figure out what there is for us now that we can’t be Beatle fans any longer. Find our own love, maybe — and form our own group.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2020