Live streamed under the aegis of the 92nd Street Y.
Tonight’s selected 1970 album is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first solo effort after The Beatles separated. Its raw sound and extremely personal lyrics reflect just having come through Primal Scream Therapy.
“We usually don’t think of John Lennon as a singer/songwriter, but that’s what he became in 1969,” begins host Louis Rosen. “I’m not going to go through his history with The Beatles because we all know that. I am going to tell you a little about their break up. In January 1969, the group recorded an album that was such a miserable experience, they decided it shouldn’t be the last thing they did. (It would later be released as Let It Be.) At Paul’s urging they got back together to record what became Abbey Road, which is brilliant and polished.”
“John left his wife for Yoko Ono. The pair moved to a Georgian mansion near Ascot with 72 acres, a garden, and servant cottages. At the time he was interested in a book by Jean Cocteau called Opium the Diary of His Cure. John felt a strong connection with Cocteau and had himself become a heroin addict.” In an effort to show he was in control, the artist would say he and Yoko only sniffed the drug, they didn’t inject it. Later, he rationalized its use as reaction to the couple’s arrest for drug possession, Yoko’s miscarriage, and his band mates not accepting her.
Resolving to kick the habit, John was aware of what the press would make of their signing in to rehab. He and Yoko decided to go cold turkey in their new home. When they got sober, he wrote “Cold Turkey” about the experience. He suggested it to Paul who didn’t think it was Beatles material. We listen to the song. It’s forceful, twangy and repetitive, rather like an old fashioned blues with a capella lyric answered by guitar riff and vocal moans. Rosen calls it “naked.” At the time, it peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #14 on the UK Singles Chart.
Invited to play Woodstock, the group demurred. John volunteered The Plastic Ono Band and was rejected. When he and Yoko were asked to host a Canadian rock n’ roll revival featuring Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley – many of his music heroes – he took the opportunity to showcase the band. It featured John, Yoko, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Alan White. The group’s first album was scheduled for release.
Serious business issues plagued the Fab Four even after they’d agreed to part. Apple (their record label) was hemorrhaging money. Its new head, Allen Klein, whom Rosen calls unscrupulous, nonetheless made an unexpectedly good deal with the American subsidiary of EMI for royalties. Klein called a meeting at which John declared, “I started the band. I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that.” It was important that no one know The Beatles had broken up until contracts went through. John agreed to stay silent and was outraged when “seven months later, Paul let it slip in a mock interview he did with himself included with press copies of his solo album, McCartney.”
In December, Rolling Stone named John “Man of the Year.” “John was not just a musician,” Rosen reminds us.“He was an enormously influential cultural icon who embraced causes without setting himself up as a figurehead.” The article itself noted, A five hour talk between John Lennon and Nixon would be more significant than any Geneva summit conference between the USA and Russia. During a later interview with publisher Jan Wenner, the artist said, “I was a fool not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record.”
Next we listen to “Instant Karma” which was recorded in ten takes over one night and released shortly thereafter. The song is almost entirely hook/chorus: “We all shine on/Like the moon and the stars and the sun…” Back-up is comprised of a bunch of strangers rounded up at a local pub.
John Lennon had a difficult childhood. His merchant seaman father, Alfred, disappeared, “absent without leave,” when the boy was five. Six months later, the sailor returned. Pregnant with another man’s child, wife Julia sent him packing. Her sister Mimi complained to social services that John slept in the same bed as the adults and was given custody. “…all the other boys’ parents – including Paul’s father – would say, ‘Keep away from him’ … The parents instinctively recognized I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did…” (John Lennon)
Through childhood and adolescence, he stayed with his aunt and uncle, but Julia and her son spoke often and visited each other establishing a powerful bond. She taught him banjo, ukulele, and bought his first guitar. In 1958, John’s mother was killed by a car while crossing the road near her sister’s. He was shattered. Biographer Ian MacDonald wrote that she was, “to a great extent … her son’s muse.”
John and Yoko connected with author/psychologist/psychotherapist/Arthur Janov, originator of “The Primal Scream” theory of exorcising trauma. Janov believed almost all neurotic behavior stemmed from a childhood denied love, security and attention. As adults, unvalidated people would look to ameliorate pain with fame, money and sex. The doctor’s methods were designed to break down repressed feelings, taking one back to early youth. After spending three weeks with the couple in England, he went back to California. John and Yoko followed.
Janov wrote that John’s psychological state was as bad as he’d ever seen. “The level of his pain was enormous … He was almost completely nonfunctional. He couldn’t leave the house, he could hardly leave his room. … This was someone the whole world adored, and it didn’t change a thing. At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.”
Lennon said the process was excruciating. “It forced me to confront all that God shit and face up to reality…I had to look into my soul. This time it was just me and the mirror.” The couple stayed five or six weeks until immigration started harassing John for overstaying. “We opened him up, but had no time to put him back together again,” the therapist said.
The resulting album was John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Featuring John, Yoko, Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, and Ringo Starr, it’s stripped bare to the bone. “John was not a big fan of the heavily produced and arranged part of The Beatles’ output,” Rosen says cuing the music.
“Mother” begins with heavy, funereal church bells. “Mama don’t go/Daddy come home,” repeats nine times like keening. “Hold On” seems like an attempt at self-assurance. For a moment, we hear less angst. The punk sound of “I Found Out” turns its back on Jesus, his parents, Hare Krishna, and heroin. “God” contains a litany of rejections including The Beatles.
“Working Class Hero” might be Woody Guthrie if not for some updated language. In Rosen’s opinion, its last verse, “If you want to be a hero well just/follow me” is sarcastic. (I don’t hear it.) “Love,” to classical piano accompaniment known as Alberti Bass, and “Look At Me” stand out as melodic.
“John had been overtly influenced by Bob Dylan since 1964,” Rosen comments. “They had respect for one another’s skills. Dylan was intrigued by the chords on `I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ but found its lyrics trivial. When The Beatles listened to him, they heard subjects that had never occurred to them. John’s rockabilly `I’m a Loser’ was the first with Dylan’s influence. Listen to the phrasing on `You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.’” Dylan helped open the door that allowed Lennon to become the songwriter he became. Yoko helped him be an “artist.”
Rolling Stone ranked the album fourth in its list, “The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years.” Two weeks later, George Harrison released All Things Must Pass which skyrocketed to #1 overshadowing John’s work. “Nothing suggests he was trying to produce something for the market place,” Rosen observes. “He had very little piano skill, yet there he is front and center; nor had he ever played lead guitar. John lays down the gauntlet. It’s not an easy album to love, I wouldn’t take it on a car trip, but I find it very affecting and timeless. I feel it.”
(As a reviewer, I’d’ve admired Lennon’s courage but not most of the songs.)
All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen
LOUIS ROSEN’S NEXT SINGER/SONGWRITER CLASS: Wednesday July 1 at 7:15.
John Lennon image: Shutterstock