Monday, September 14, 2009


Since I ran down my Beatles Top 20 last week, I thought it would be fun to point people to a lengthy John Lennon piece I wrote over at my Amazon blog, which included reviews of JL’s major post-Beatles albums.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Amazon has pretty much torched the archives on their blogs (it was only a stroke of luck that allowed me to track down the Paul Levitz piece I linked to the other day), which means I either allow the Lennon essay to dissolve in cyberspace or repost it over here.  No surprise, I’m sure, that I’ve chosen to repost.  And I may do the same—call it the occasional rerun—with a few of the other lengthier essays I posted over at Amazon.  But for now (with one minor edit), here’s Johnny—


On December 8th it will be twenty-nine years since the night John Lennon was murdered.  To those of us of a certain age, and cultural sensibility, it’s a day as significant, and traumatic, as the Kennedy Assassination or 9/11.  

When Lennon died he became an instant martyr:  the peacenik saint—”Martin Luther Lennon,” as Paul McCartney famously put it—thrust up on a pedestal he would have loathed.  But the man never sold himself that way.  “Sing out about love and peace,” he wrote in “Scared”—one of the brilliant songs on his brilliant 1974 album Walls and Bridges—“don’t wanna see the red raw meat...the green-eyed goddamn straight from your heart.”   

Some people, attached to the cuddly mop-top Beatles image, are shocked that Lennon—who was, by most accounts, profoundly idealistic, generous to a fault, fiercely intelligent and a brilliant wit—could also be a perfect idiot:  rude, angry, cynical, cruel, and, on occasion, violent.  That’s precisely why I’ve always felt a profound connection to the man:  He was wonderfully, horribly, fully human—trapped in a yin-yang spiral, constantly seeking transcendence through mind-altering substances, God, politics, family.  Throughout his career, his songs painted the portrait of a man always reaching for Heaven—and often tumbling straight into Hell along the way:  forever questing—desperately, defiantly, and always with a sense of humor—to understand himself.

I was in the fifth grade—just ten years old—when the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the winter of l964.  I remember sitting in front of the television set during Week Two of the British Invasion.  The previous Sunday my mind had been completely melted by the Beatles first Sullivan appearance.  Oh, sure, if you were a guy you still had to make obnoxious remarks about their haircuts and the way the girls were squealing over them; but the fact of the matter is we were all squealing in our souls.  Sullivan and the Beatles were in Miami that second week and what I remember more than anything else is the song “This Boy.”  Lennon coming in for his solo during the middle eight.  That voice—that achingly honest, angry, wounded voice—rising above the pubescent shrieks:  “...till he’s seen you cry-hi-hi-hiiiiii!”  Unbelievable.  If I wasn’t sure the previous week, I knew it unmistakably in that moment:  I wanted to take guitar lessons.  I wanted to be in a band.  I wanted to be John Lennon.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I identified with Lennon more than the other three.  Paul was too cute, too perfect, all toothy grins and charming eyebrows.  Even his voice was perfect:  from Little Richard shrieks to the Broadway crooning of “Till There Was You,” he never wavered, he never missed.  Ringo seemed an endearing doofus, possessed of a sort of divine idiocy, shaking his head and making teenage girls faint without seeming to know why.  George was cool, very cool, there was no denying that, but he wasn’t a leader:  He was more the Tonto, or perhaps Mr. Spock, of the band.  Lennon didn’t have Paul’s good looks or Ringo’s easy charm and he wasn’t the impeccable guitarist George was; but—with that  pointy noise, those squinty eyes, and that aforementioned voice—he radiated attitude and charisma.  Plus you just knew that he was the one the other three looked up to.  

(These, of course, were just images transmitted over a flickering black-and-white screen.  Instant icons projected out of and reabsorbed into the collective unconscious of a generation.  Paul wasn’t just an eyebrow, he was a musical genius.  Ringo wasn’t an adorable dummy, he was a phenomenal drummer, and a great wit, who had the good sense to marry a Bond girl.  As for George, it always seemed he was exactly what he appeared to be:  quiet, efficient, and extremely cool.) 

I remained a Beatles diehard through the group’s awkward and ugly demise—and on into the following decades.  Beatles music—from “Love Me Do” to “I Am The Walrus,” “Please Please Me” to the grand finale of Abbey Road—is woven into my soul.  When the band split, I followed their individual solo careers with equal enthusiasm (although that enthusiasm was occasionally tested).  But the career that meant the most to me was John’s:  his post-Beatles work was more erratic than his work with the band, but it also reached levels of brilliance he never attained as a Beatle.  Taken as a whole, the material Lennon recorded between l970 and l980 is the greatest musical autobiography in rock ‘n’ roll.  His best songs were as honest, intimate—and, occasionally, embarrassing—as diary entries.  Whether he was campaigning for peace with Yoko, primalling with Arthur Janov, on a Homeric bender in L.A. or experiencing the joys of born-again fatherhood in the Dakota, Lennon’s personal story —as reflected in his music—never failed to resonate with my own life.  

What follows is one Lennon Freak’s tour of those extraordinary—and shockingly brief—solo years.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band  A+
After several experimental albums with Yoko Ono and a trinity of brilliant, unforgettable singles—”Give Peace A Chance,” “Cold Turkey” and the Phil Spector-produced “Instant Karma” (all of which are available on Working Class Hero and other Lennon compilations)—Lennon went into the studio and created his first “official” post-Beatles album:  the result was one of the greatest rock albums ever made.  Forget the multilayered production of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road:  This was music stripped down to bare essentials, with Lennon screaming his way through childhood pain and adult madness.  Along the way he managed to put the final nail in the coffin of the sixties and anticipate most of the major musical trends of the seventies—from singer-songwriter confessionals to punk’s naked rage—all in eleven glorious tracks.  (Each one is first-rate, but “Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” and “God” are the three monoliths that overshadow everything else on the record.)  The dream was over—but Lennon’s idealism wasn’t easily extinguished, as the title track of his next album would make clear.    

Imagine  A-
“Imagine,” the song, has deepened in meaning and significance as the decades have gone by:  it’s become a kind of planetary anthem—and deservedly so.  The more our world appears to spin out of control, the more we need its optimism and hope.  Imagine, the album, is the one time John managed to be both Lennon and McCartney.  In fact, he managed to embody everything the Beatles stood for, offering up angry rockers, idealistic anthems, political diatribes, and heartfelt love songs—with “Jealous Guy,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Oh, Yoko” the real standouts.  (“How Do You Sleep?”—Lennon’s infamous attack on Paul McCartney—may have been cruel, but it certainly made for a great track, especially with George Harrison’s vicious slide guitar added to the mix.)  For all that,  there’s something strangely distant about Imagine:  Lennon seems just out of reach.  It’s almost as if, having revealed himself so nakedly on his previous album, he wanted to hide himself behind the album’s icy, ethereal production.

Some Time in New York City  C-
Not quite the disaster it seemed back in l972 (I remember it being one of the first Beatles solo albums—along with McCartney’s Wildlife—that left me feeling both disappointed and depressed):  there’s some great material alongside the political self-indulgence.  “New York City,” “Woman Is The Nigger of the World” and “John Sinclair” are great—and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a fierce, honest piece of outrage.  Yoko has one amazing song, “We’re All Water,” and another, “Born in a Prison,” that’s a terrific composition, but a clumsy performance.  The rest of the material fails because it sounds like the Lennons are simply going through the motions.  There may be political conviction at work here, but there’s precious little emotional conviction.  And John Lennon without a heart is a musical Tin Man.  

Mind Games  B+
There’s great writing to be found on Mind Games.  Where Lennon failed himself was as a producer and arranger:  it sounds as if he wanted to get in and out of the studio as fast as possible and couldn’t be bothered building a musical environment worthy of his material.  (Given that, at the time, the U.S. government was hounding him and his marriage was falling apart, perhaps that’s understandable.)  That said, the title track and “Meat City” are certifiable classics, “Out The Blue” is one of the most touching love songs Lennon ever wrote and the rest (with the exception of “Intuition”—a gentle, introspective song that’s undone by a truly dippy arrangement—and the forgettable “Only People”) are all first-rate.  A few years ago, Ono released a remastered version of the album that was spectacular, bringing out a richness in sound and texture that wasn’t there in the original.  Which only makes one wonder what this album could have been had Lennon taken his time.

Walls and Bridges  A+
Plastic Ono Band is a grander artistic statement, Imagine more universal in its appeal, but Walls and Bridges, a product of Lennon’s so-called Lost Weekend away from Yoko, combines the emotional nakedness of POB with the melody and warmth of Imagine to create an album that sounds better every year.  Each song—even the wonderfully goofy instrumental, “Beef Jerky”—is a gem, with “Going Down on Love,” “Bless You,” “Scared” and the Beatles-esque “#9 Dream” real standouts.  The album closer, “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)” is one of the most magnificent songs Lennon ever wrote:  every bit as majestic as “A Day In The Life” and “God.”  It’s Lennon utterly lost at sea:  washed overboard, encircled by sharks, yet clinging to the life raft of his music with his sense of humor miraculously intact.  The production—which has more in common with George Martin than Phil Spector—is perhaps the best of any Lennon solo album.

Rock ‘N’ Roll   B
A heartfelt, but somewhat slapdash, journey through the past.  Lennon is clearly having a great time singing Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino—and it’s great to hear him so relaxed and playful; but the only really memorable tracks are the album closer, “Just Because”—at the end of which Lennon bids adieu to the audience he would soon abandon for five years—and “Stand By Me”:  the definitive version of an already-classic tune.  

Double Fantasy  A
The first thing to realize about Double Fantasy is that it’s not a John Lennon album, it’s a John and Yoko album:  the first musical union between the pair that succeeds as a sustained work of art and entertainment.  DF  is a concept album (a more sustained concept than Sgt. Pepper), about the Lennon-Ono marriage, with husband and wife offering up alternating glimpses into their lives.  What’s fascinating is that John plays McCartney to Yoko’s Lennon:  she’s the hard-edged rocker (and her music, for the most part, is terrific here), he’s the reassuring balladeer (although the bluesy edge still cuts deep in “Losing You” and the introspective inner-space traveler is very much evident in “Watching The Wheels”).  Taken as a Lennon album, it’s a little disappointing.  Heard as the genuine collaboration it is, Double Fantasy is just about perfect.  Whether the Lennon-Ono marriage was as perfect as the image the pair presented to the world in l980 is—according to some biographers—up for debate.  The power of the music they created together isn’t.  

The John Lennon Anthology  A+
Of all the posthumous Lennon releases, The John Lennon Anthology is far and away the best:  We get startling alternate versions of familiar songs and home demos that reveal the inner workings of the Lennon psyche.  The alternate studio tracks are stripped down and in some instances—most notably the Rock ‘N’ Roll excerpts—they actually improve on the “official” versions.  The home demos are magical:  My favorites are “Real Love”—Lennon, alone at the piano, singing  the song later recorded by his three former band-mates for The Beatles Anthology—and “Serve Yourself,” a gleefully nasty—and sadly prescient—rant against the dangers of religious fanaticism.  

That’s the solo tour.  One of these days—soon, I hope—I’ll recount my close encounters with John Lennon.  Yes, I actually met my rock and roll hero, twice, in the mid-1970’s.  And I didn’t even embarrass myself.  


©copyright 2009  J.M. DeMatteis


  1. I've been threatening to write about my two encounters with JL for years now, Nicholas. (Imagine sitting about three feet away, in a smallish rehearsal space, while John Lennon jams with your friend's band. Or spending a long afternoon in the mixing booth, watching JL film two videos.) I'm hoping to get to it sooner than later. Fingers crossed!

  2. Epic my brother.

    For the record I've always identified more with Lennon as well.

    Thank you for saying that Ringo was a great drummer. As a rock n' roll musician myself I can say that Ringo was one of the best. When people bag on him I see it as fightin' words!

  3. Ringo is an astonishing drummer: creative and tasteful, with the best fills in the business. I played in bands for years and I was always telling drummers, "Do it like Ringo." I suspect many of the folks who think Ringo isn't much of a drummer aren't musicians. Musicians totally get how brilliant Mr. Starr is.

  4. Walls And Bridges must be one of the most under appreciated albums ever - one of my favorites - glad you agree!

  5. WALLS is one of those albums that actually sounds better every year. I never get tired of listening to it. It remains sharp, inventive and deeply heartfelt: essence of Lennon.

  6. Thanks for reminding me to follow up on these albums (particularly as we get ready to record), J.M. Did you ever write about your Lennon encounters?

  7. Lucky indeed! All these years later, I still can't quite believe it.

    Good luck with the recording!

  8. What a beautiful tribute to John and a great primer for his music. Agreed on the Beatles' distinctive personalities: George was clearly Spock to John's passionate and sometimes foolhardy Kirk. One of my favorite anecdotes about John concerns his love for corn flakes and milk. It reminded him of his youth and served as a gateway to that part of his life which he couldn't revisit anymore. John was a man of many contradictions, but along with George, his search for spiritual fulfillment never quite ceased right up to the end.

  9. You're right, Joseph: John and George were definitely the seekers in the band. George found his answers, John was constantly searching; but if you read through his final interviews, it becomes clear that Lennon, in his own way, was just as spiritual as George was.

    His disavowing of God, religion -- and all authority -- in the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band period was a necessary dismantling of life's structures. Once he tore those structures down -- razed the ground and cleared the landscape -- he was able to rebuild them in a way that made sense to him.