Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Book review: "Lucy in the Mind of Lennon"
While reading Tim Kasser’s Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, a slim but detailed “psychobiography” about John Lennon and the disputed meaning behind “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, I kept veering between two poles. At many turns, I wanted to follow Kasser down the rabbit hole into Lennon’s messy, complex, deeply scarred psyche to glimpse behind the curtain of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. As much as the late Beatle has been written about and lionized over the years, he remains an extraordinarily compelling figure. Beyond the astounding talent and personal magnetism, Lennon was just so human (“insecure, anxious, and vulnerable” in Kasser’s sober estimation), and his life was riddled with fascinating twists and turns. And then there’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. What a song! Weird, eerily cryptic, and bursting with psychedelic whimsy, “Lucy” is a first-ballot Beatles classic. In contrast to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it has aged quite well. If these winning elements are in place, then what accounts for my other reaction, which was wariness of Kasser’s analysis? The problem is an off-putting interplay that’s central to Lucy in the Mind of Lennon. Kasser isn’t some run-of-the-mill rock historian or professional Beatles fanatic. He’s a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois. Per the practices of a research psychologist, his approach to scrutinizing why Lennon composed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” relies on statistical comparisons, the promiscuous use of charts, and data sets with names like “Standard Deviation of Recent Hit Songs”. It often has the feel of a plastic glove. In essence, Kasser applies very clinical and invasive methods of inquiry to something that falls into the category of art. It's rock 'n' roll meets a psychology lab. For reasons that shouldn’t be hard to grasp, this jarring clash frequently left an unpleasant aftertaste. The long and short of Kasser’s theory is that, when connected with Lennon’s distant and recent past, everything from the story, linguistic style, and word selections of “Lucy” to its key signatures and chord progression suggests that Lennon was addressing (though obliquely and at an emotional remove) his long-standing but long-suppressed hang-up with being abandoned by women. (“And she’s gone…”). This stemmed not just from the premature death of his mother, Julia, but in fact went all the way back to Lennon’s early childhood, when Julia was an on-again/mostly off-again presence in his life. The well-worn theories that involve LSD and the fanciful picture that Lennon’s son Julian drew aren’t dismissed outright, but Kasser instead ascribes them more of a facilitating function. It’s a testament to my frustrating ambivalence about this book that, even as the form and feel of Kasser’s research steadfastly rubbed me the wrong way, I couldn’t shake how convincing and at times even illuminating parts of his argument were (his conclusion being no exception). The section that compares “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to songs that Lennon wrote in subsequent years, from material off The Beatles to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is especially insightful. It appears to demonstrate the significant degree to which Lennon’s changing circumstances – Cynthia to Yoko, LSD to heroin, etc. – influenced if and how he confronted his separation demons. In novel fashion, Kasser makes sense of the tortuous journey from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to the bleak, raw, and harrowing likes of “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”. At the same time, there are many moments when Kasser overreaches in his examination or leans too heavily on a very mechanical and insular understanding of the songwriting process. Take his observation that because the imagery John chose for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” doesn’t better reflect the “typical” experience of an acid tripper, it undermines the LSD theory. Even if you accept the notion of a “typical” acid trip, who’s to say one or more of Lennon’s wasn’t wildly different because of any number of random variables? Or, even if “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a “typical” experience, maybe the words he decided on for the lyric were the product of multiple influences operating on him at once. Like too much of the book, it’s all so overdetermined, so biased toward order, so A must yield B must yield C. Kasser rarely gives any weight to chance, chaos, and the unpredictable. Some interesting questions arise: How comfortable are you with the idea of an artistic creation being so thoroughly probed and explained away that it can be reduced to a series of chartable findings? Does this rob art of its distinct magic? And, contra the conceit that everything has to bear deeper meaning and we should leave no stone unturned in arriving at a final interpretation, is there perhaps value in deferring to mystery for why specific words were chosen or how a melody was constructed? The overarching question seems to be: What is the appropriate intersection of scientific inquiry and art? How you respond to these questions may be a reliable gauge for how much stock you’ll put in Lucy in the Mind of Lennon.