Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Spaniel in the Wok

I was too young during the peak of Elvis Presley's career and too old to care about Kurt Cobain; their deaths didn't mean much to me. But I remember where I was when John Lennon was killed.

I was flying south from what was then Frobisher Bay. It was about two in the morning. The Nordair flight had been delayed, and as was the custom at the time, Nordair was serving free booze to all on board. The plane was full of workers from the Nanisivik mine heading home for Christmas, and the mood was riotous.

The captain came on the intercom and announced in a strained voice that he had just been informed that John Lennon, "the former Beatle", had just been killed. No explanation.

The guy beside me ordered another drink. He didn't seem too upset. "That last album was a piece of shit anyway," he said. As though murder was a slightly extreme form of music criticism.


He was right, I guess. Lennon's reputation may have been saved by Mark Chapman.

I was one of the few Lennon fans who thought each of his post-Beatle album marked a new decline - the "Imagine" album seemed obvious and sugary after the stripped down, confessional brutality of Cold Turkey and Plastic Ono Band. "Mind Games" and "Walls and Bridges" wouldn't have found a label if they hadn't been Lennon Albums. "Pussycats" was, at least, funny; and Rock'N'Roll was a strange monster with great moments, an overproduced ode to underproduced classics.

"Double Fantasy" wasn't the worst of the bunch, but it wasn't very good. It has always reminded me of the Christmas email some folks send out to the family and friends, a friendly 'state of the union' address. "Yup, Yoko and I are doing fine, dumped May Pang, off the heroin, love the kid, let's do lunch...". It was as irrelevant and as touching as "The Ballad of John and Yoko".

As "Milk and Honey" confirmed, he couldn't have gone much further down that path. Maybe he would have found another one.


He was really, really funny. Playful, punning, self-mocking, great gift for a phrase. That was the Irish coming through.

He was also an asshole. That, again, was the Irish coming through.


What he was, or what he seemed to be, was - honest. He worked his way through all the shit that many of us work through - a bad marriage, rage about our parents, the joyous discovery of new ideas, political confusion, self-doubt and the growing awareness of our own failure, addiction. Except he did it under the floodlights, under the scrutiny of the "rock" "press" (famously characterized by Frank Zappa as "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read"). But he kept writing about it. And he put the stuff he was thinking and living and feeling out there on vinyl.

That makes some of his thinking pretty easy to laugh at. The politics of his "Some Time In New York City" album haven't aged well. His fondness for simple political rock chant/anthems makes for easy satire.

Fuck it. He went on record. Most of us didn't.


He became an object of mockery to his successors, the punks. That was mostly the "Kill Your Father" reflex of every next generation, and partly a reaction against the Olympian stature attained by the Beatles - remember, his old backup band? Punk required that he be cast as a dinosaur trying to maintain a stature he always mocked. But he was the first, and worst, critic of the Beatles, and he put it all out there on "Plastic Ono Band" and the interviews that followed it. He dismissed everything they had done, as if the distance they had traveled between "Love Me Do" and Abbey Road meant nothing. He never believed in his own voice, exhorting the producers he worked with to "do something, make me sound good." He never believed in his guitar playing, despite the fact that he created a sound (that fuzzed out, chunky, blocky chording that kicks off "Cold Turkey" and the single version of "Revolution") and riffs as instantly recognizable as Keith Richards'.


Sidebar. If you're one of those assholes who feels compelled to dismiss the Beatles because they weren't of your generation, or because they sound like any other sixties band to you - then you're a deaf and fashionable asshole, and you do not understand music. I say that in the nicest possible way. But you REALLY NEED TO GO BACK AND LISTEN AGAIN. Or stay a deaf and fashionable asshole.


Miss ya.

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