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There is a demo tape of John Lennon working on the verse progression for “Strawberry Fields”. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. “Strawberry” is a personal favorite. To hear it being caressed and jostled and mocked and pleaded with and finally determinedly forced into cooperation is wonderful–and gorgeous as a work of creative process. It would be perhaps like hearing Yeats recite a line until he gets it right, the never-before-crafted phrasing first breathed, like a birth, into the world. This chord with that chord makes something phenomenal, and here it’s as if you’re hearing the birth pangs, an echo of the first urge.

Lennon’s genius was multiform, but much of it lay in his ability to persuade. It’s how he got the great band together and formed it in his image. It’s how he held on to his massive popularity through years of personal and musical change. It’s how he gave voice repeatedly to the fledgling peace movement. “Okay, so flower power didn’t work,” he says at the 1971 concert for John Sinclair, “So what? We start again.” His optimism always included accepting people’s apathy as real and legitimate. I know it’s hard but it’s not supposed to be easy, I know you’re busy, I know it hurts, I know nobody is grateful, but you’ve still got to do this. “I want you to make love, not war,” he says, but then has the mind to add, “I know you’ve heard it before.”

For all his successes, Lennon never tried to rest on laurels, or really ever stop (excepting a brief period of child-raising) creating music and art and social message. He must be one of the most prolific artists in history for the short time he was alive. From the first plagiarized rockabilly through the longer, wilder albums, back to the blues, onwards towards more blatant, honest personal reflection, the man continually crafted good songs. His love of bluesy sevenths and their full-of-yearning coupling with fifths and sixths (‘Nobody Loves You’ and ‘Isolation’ are good examples of this) endear him to his audience, which he always maintained (correctly or no) was equal parts working class and teeny/hippy-bopper. I was the walrus, but now I am John. I was a rock star, now a demonstrator, now a father; first an ignorant kid, now a wiser seeker. His life and the lives of the others in the band were so well documented you can in retrospect see their process of growing up, from the first haughty equivocating interviews to the final earnest ones. They crafted themselves as they were crafting their (now our) music. It’s fairly impressive in light of more recent young music stars how well they handled this.

A lot of it, of course, came from their collective prodigious ability to make more and more music more and more differently. A player open to a stranger chord progression might also be a man open to an unexpected life progression. Eventually, Lennon made nearly everyone with whom he came in contact feel as he did about things. Some weren’t convinced, J Edgar Hoover for example, and, for a time, Paul McCartney. Other times, his musical popularity seemed to trump his social one: ‘Imagine’-lovers all over the world singing along but not really listening to the church-less, state-less, socialist lyrics. In all of it, Lennon was nothing if not public, a man utterly comfortable addressing ‘the people’ (again, those teenyboppers and blue-collars and everyone in between). Unlike today’s celebrities, however, admitting one’s mistakes, fighting with one’s conscience, with one’s regrets, molding it into something one is proud of, ceaselessly creating to find something new and eye-opening and different, were all a part of his celebrity.

Listening to that demo, the lyrics parallel the musicianship, never quite knowing, reversing, tinkering, trying to reach consensus. “Always, no sometimes, think it’s me, but you know I know when it’s a dream.” Perhaps, but that’s a tough thing to know, even more so to accept. Luckily, we have, Nixon-like, lots of the figuring out of it on tape. “I think I know, I mean, er, ‘yes’, but it’s all wrong.”

That is, I think I disagree.

John Lennon


From → Listenings

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