Saturday, January 21, 2006

Listening to Lennon

Parts of this entry are going to be heavy on the cryptic, due to my self-imposed policy of not writing too much about my job. Bear with me.

So today I was on the second day of what amounts to a data entry task, one that I have to do twice a month at work. It used to take me about two and a half days to do the job, but with all the innovations I've made in the last seven months, I've finally got it down to just under two days - this despite the fact that the report I'm working with gets longer almost every time. Today I would have finished at least an hour or two sooner, but I made several major mistakes at the very end that were hard to track down. At one point my total was half a million dollars off! Frustrating, very.

But I got it done, and left work only about an hour or so later than usual. Had I not been so tired toward the end of the day, I'm sure I would have done better.

Now one of the innovations I've made in my approach to this task is designed to counter the tedium of the data entry, my sleepiness if I didn't get to bed at a decent hour, and the tendency of my mind to wander away from the task at hand - any task at hand. Can you guess what I use to do all that?

That's right. I play my iPod.

Back in December, around the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, I filled the remaining space on my iPod with nearly the entire Lennon box set of CDs. This is in addition to the Beatles music that was already on there, along with a McCartney song, some Harrison, a bunch of Disney, pretty much everything by The Clash, and lots of other stuff. Since then, John Lennon's music has come up a lot when I've had my iPod mini set to shuffle songs. But until today, I don't recall that it ever played two Lennon songs in a row, or even two Lennon vocals in a row.

But today I heard Cold Turkey, followed by the Beatles' And Your Bird Can Sing, with John on lead vocal. I was struck by the difference between the two songs. Cold Turkey is undoubtedly a great song, with a killer guitar riff. And Your Bird Can Sing is a good but not outstanding track from the Beatles' middle period, the bridge between "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" and the post-Pepper era of non-stop innovation. Cold Turkey is all about the misery of getting off heroin, complete with a minute or two of screaming at the end, which is painful to listen to. And Your Bird Can Sing is a fun second person song, typical of early Lennon lyrics with its mild wordplay and its interpersonal subject matter, about some girl and how she makes him feel. In this case, she doesn't impress him very much. It's a good song, better than most music by anyone other than The Beatles, but nothing special compared to If I Fell and No Reply and Norwegian Wood (for example), all of which are Lennon vocals. (Generally speaking, if John handles most of the vocals on a Beatles song, it means that he wrote most of it.)

Between Cold Turkey and And Your Bird Can Sing, I'd rather listen to And Your Bird Can Sing. I'd rather have fun than commiserate with Lennon's drug-related pain.

I was still thinking about this when the next song started. You guessed it: it was yet another Lennon vocal: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. This was the Beatles version, but I also have the Elton John/John Lennon version on the iPod. That is one pathetic recording. You can barely hear John on it. That was during his "Lost Weekend" era, and it shows, with Elton John completely carrying the performance, and John barely showing up. But the Beatles version is outstanding, Lennon at his very best. Oh, yeah, that's much better than And Your Bird Can Sing.

This little audio adventure in random synchronicity wasn't quite over yet. The next song was Angel Baby, an 1950s rock and roll song as covered by John Lennon in the early 1970s. It's not lyrically clever like either of the Beatles songs that preceded it, but Lennon clearly enjoyed singing it. That made it fun to listen to.

And oh, yeah, the iPod gave me a little Lennon encore 22 songs later, with God and Intuition back to back. That got me to thinking again about the solo Lennon era in general. For all his genius, John Lennon got in definite ruts in his solo work. His early songs without Paul are mostly either political or about his pain. And really, song after song about a rich rock star's misery and disillusionment gets to be a bit much after a while. His other subject matter, love, is less palatable than his work as a Beatle. This is because the women in his earlier work were either nameless or fictional or both. But after 1970, his love songs pretty much always have the name Yoko attached to them. Sure, she was the love of his life, and he was entitled to write about that rather complex relationship. But whereas Paul wrote lots and lots of love songs for Linda but seldom mentioned her name in them, John named Yoko many, many times. This really limits the universality of those songs.

I wrote the cover story for this.

After John Lennon died, there was a huge tendency in this country (and probably around the world) to build up John Lennon as the main talent behind The Beatles, and a better solo artist than Paul McCartney. This was a mistake. The Beatles were four talented artists, working together and inspiring each other; and the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney was more of a powerhouse of creativity, discipline and innovation than either artist managed on his own later. Yes, John Lennon wrote a number of great songs without Paul, and I won't be pulling those off my iPod anytime soon. But I have to wonder whether he would have moved beyond his pain, politics and Yoko fixations had he lived beyond 1980 - or whether his best days as a songwriter would inevitably have been behind him after April, 1970.



Carly said...

One of my favorite songs by Lennon was "Woman." It was released well after the break-up of the Beatles, and long after the "love-in" and well after the made all those disparaging remarks about his fans. He was mellowing when he released "Double Fantasy" and I believe had he lived, he would allowed himself to evolve as most artists and creative people do. A lot of elements go into the creative process...who knows what could have been. Sigh. Good post.

Gaboatman said...

I was a fan os Lennon's and The Beatles. You offer good insight here and I wonder with you what would have developed in John's music and writing had he survived. What a terrible loss.

julie said...

I'll take the Elton John/John Lennon version of Lucy over the Shatner version anytime!

Seriously, I enjoy your writings on The Beatles.