[15 December 2009]
Part One: 29 Years Ago
Where were you?
I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias–the other devastating death of the decade–flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.
John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).
What else is there to say?
There’s probably been more written about Lennon’s death than any other public figure from the 20th century (except, possibly, JFK), and there is nothing anyone can say to make his premature passing sensible or acceptable. Certainly, his legacy was–and remains–quite secure, and as PopMatters recently proved, it seems impossible to say too much about The Beatles. I’ve said it before (recalling Stevie Ray Vaughn) and I’m obliged to say it again: where the younger fan might ask “what kind of God would take a person like this?” the older fan should answer “the same one who gave him to us”. That’s not good enough, not by a long shot, but Lennon blessed us with as much remarkable music (and joy, and inspiration) as any artist we’ve seen or heard, so it is childish to begrudge what we didn’t get: we ought to celebrate what we did get.
Part Two: The Lennon/McCartney Matter
McCartney’s shell-shocked, refreshingly curt response (everyone wanted to hear what he would say, and the reporters were, I reckon, only doing what they get paid to do…but one watches this now and appreciates the guarded and honest reaction: no camera-friendly crocodile tears or mawkish speechifying; this was one-half of Lennon/McCartney coping with the staggering news that his artistic soul mate (sorry Linda, sorry Yoko) had been killed: in many regards, the day that Lennon died was the first day of the rest of Paul’s life).
I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous canonization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9″ you are a weird person…just kidding–sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more serious Beatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.
To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.
It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.
Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people”—not that there’s anything wrong with that—are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).
Check this out: “Hey Bulldog” (a rare YouTube instance of archival video that consists of actual footage from the recording session and not clever cut and pasting: this was one of the unfortunately rare instances when the band filmed themselves in the studio). This, above all, is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: it is priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (aka The White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.
In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary—and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).