Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The dream is over"

I didn’t bestow many flattering words on Double Fantasy when I wrote about it a while back. A discussion of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) will balance the scales. Not only is this raw, stripped-down album - John's first after The Breakup - considered one of the finest Beatles solo releases, it usually compares well with the top rock ‘n’ roll LPs of all time. While I don’t consider myself qualified to touch that topic, I can submit that JL/POB is my favorite album by an ex-Beatle, delivering a listening experience that's very much its own.

John once remarked that separating from The Beatles allowed him to write “first-person music.”* Partly inspired by his experience with primal scream therapy, JL/POB set the template for rock ‘n’ roll confessionals. It’s a vivid, angry and honest confrontation with reality.

Foremost, John addresses the trauma he endured after his mother Julia abandoned him, which in a way happened twice: once when she transferred care of him to her sister Mimi and again in his teenage years when she was fatally struck by a car. JL/POB is bookended by songs about this loss. The opener, “Mother,” leaves a deep mark with its heavy-handed funeral bells and desperate lyric, the last line of which John repeats with increasingly helpless, anguished tones: “Mother don’t go/ Daddy come home.” At the other end is “My Mummy’s Dead,” a macabre little nursery rhyme that makes your heart ache for young John Winston Lennon. Julia’s death was undoubtedly the formative event in John’s life. It supplied the anger that would fuel his art for many years.

More generally, JL/POB finds John crying out with indignation against forces that, in his view, manipulate us and thwart happiness. He rages against religion (“I Found Out”); class subjugation (“Working Class Hero," complete with two f-bombs); childhood myths (“Remember”); and false idols (“God”). On “God,” he famously recites a laundry list of religions, fads, and luminaries that he rejects, capping it off in emphatic fashion with, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” He saw his former band as a lie that needed to be exposed. Though he continues by saying, “I just believe in me/ Yoko and me,” he stresses elsewhere that the human condition is one of loneliness and isolation. He affirms that love can blunt the pain, but - as his life had demonstrated - it could also betray you. Facing such a cruel world and in a position to be fiercely honest, John is forced to lament, “The dream is over.”

Complementing these raw emotions is a minimalist rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic that essentially consists of John on vocals, guitar and piano, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Ringo on drums. There are no frills or flourishes that might distract from John’s jarring urgency; it’s just the basics. Against this uncluttered canvas, John's voice - so natural and immediate - brilliantly shines. It powers JL/POB. And despite the album’s overall severity, it does so by more than just expressing anger. “Love” and “God” contain some of John’s most delicate and beautiful singing. “Love” is a ballad for the ages, adorned with simple, vulnerable couplets that John hypnotically coos. (“Love is wanting/ To be loved.”) On the latter, John scorns The Beatles and then, with a pristine, almost ethereal delivery, reclaims his identity: “I was the dreamweaver/ But now I’m reborn/ I was the Walrus/ But now I’m John.” The vocals are potent across all eleven tracks, furnishing heavy-impact bludgeons and sublime grace notes alike. I would venture to say that JL/POB represents John’s finest album-length work as a singer.

Lastly, I can’t talk about JL/POB without highlighting two throwaway moments that very much speak to who John was. There’s the guttural growl of “cookie” during a break in “Hold On,” and there’s the explosion that tops off “Remember,” coming after John exclaims, “Remember/ Remember / The fifth of November.” Both provide touches of surreal humor - something that was characteristically John. Within him, oddball laughs and lightheartedness lived side-by-side with deep-seated anger and profound sorrow. He had a messy and chaotic personality that encompassed many qualities. On JL/POB, he abandoned the tactful balance of those qualities and the restraint that The Beatles had demanded of him, and let his anger and tears flow. Neither he nor any of the other ex-Fabs - not Paul with Band on the Run or George with All Things Must Pass - were ever better.

* - I encountered this quote in Classic Albums: John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band, a documentary about the album.

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