On Second Thought
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

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"I don’t believe in Beatles." When my mother first heard that line from “God” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the first proper post-Beatles album from the canonized singer, her chin must have hit the ground. She had been a Beatles fan ever since 1963 when an uncle returned from a trip to England with a copy of Meet the Beatles.

“I believe in me / Yoko and me, that’s reality,” it goes on to say. Truer or more prophetic words have rarely been spoken, because over the first half-decade of his post-Beatles life Lennon blurred the public and private with unrelenting fury, diving headlong into a two-person world and from this hallowed center trying to affect the rest of it. Hell, the name of the song is “God,” and after a rejection and dismissal of all of the tenets and structures that Lennon had theretofore held dear in his life, what emerges as the center of his universe: The self-aggrandizing egos of John and Yoko.

It’s fashionable among Beatles fans to blame Yoko Ono for the demise of the group, ignoring the other schisms and ego clashes that plagued the band for much of the late 1960s. If Ono had a negative influence on Lennon, however, it was her belief that art should be about the artist. Ono’s manipulation of Lennon’s artistic focus coupled with their ridiculous, often stagy belief in themselves as patron saints of the peace movement—which not only resulted in dreadful stunt/musical events such as “Power to the People,” the “Give Peace a Chance” bed-in, and the “plant an acorn for peace” campaign (in which for some reason they attempted to stop the Vietnam War, nay all war, by mailing acorns to a number of world leaders), but also defended rather poorly in the Beatles’ own “The Ballad of John and Yoko”—led to a decade of pontifical self-absorption.

This messianic delusion informed Lennon and Ono’s first album together, Two Virgins, the cover of which featured the two naked. They were Adam and Eve, the parents to a potentially new, peaceful world without enough vanity to think to use the damn fig leaves.

Lennon’s first proper post-Beatles album was this and, in a considerable knee-jerk reaction, it is considered a harrowing window into the surprisingly tortured soul of a brave artiste. the hangover album. This is the one on which the star wakes up in the middle of the night and vows to make a change. Unlike many who dabbled in primal scream therapy in the early 1970s, Lennon didn’t seek to exorcise the 1960s—politically, Lennon turned even further to the left and despite “God”’s laundry list of abandoned “isms,” he continued to float between philosophies, religions, ideologies, and schools of psychology, before eventually settling with Yoko in a heroin- or alcohol-fueled cocoon.

Over 40 minutes, Lennon exorcises his demons, confesses his wrongs, wrestles with his past, and praises his present. The only sacred cows not killed are the most golden of calves: himself and Yoko. In 1970, in the wake of the dissolution of the most beloved pop band in history, this was as much sociology and musicology. At the time it was a seismic cultural moment because, as he reminds us over and over—and while dismissing the Beatles, attempts to do so humility—he is “John.” The dream is over. It’s not a lament; it’s just defensive. He wove the dream, he defined it, and he’s declared it over. That’s how it is: Deal with it, folks.

In the process we learn a few things about Lennon but precious little else. Confessional music is difficult enough as it is, but Lennon was probably hamstrung by his fame. Removed from his fans and their world by wealth and notoriety and self-absorbed, Lennon offers nothing on this record that should resonate with a wider audience unless the listener is particularly interested in the artist himself. Unlike Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, or, hell, even the new Beck album, there is no transcendent experience here, only the notion of what it was to be John Lennon, circa 1970. And who doesn’t know that by now? Or better yet, when it’s presented as it is here, who should care? This is an artifact, adding little more to the much-stated Beatles dialogue than the recent oral history culled together by the rest of the band. The only difference between that book and this album is that this is set to some very plodding tunes.

Lennon the Solo Artist had made one previous attempt to be revelatory: the grating middle-class blues of “Cold Turkey.” Ever jovial and politically aware, Lennon sent back his MBE to protest the song’s failure in the UK. Having gone back to basics with these early blues and rock numbers, Lennon’s confessional work here is appropriately stark and serious—after all, how would we know that he means it unless he set his very, very important lyrics to stripped down, sonically retarded music? So out with that George Martin-aided envelope pushing and in with the directness of the singer-songwriter era.Of course, the simplicity is supposed to indicate the directness of the message but it adds nothing to the experience. Eminem at least has the decency to clean out his closet over a skittery, otherworldy beat. With Lennon we get somber, plink-plonk naivete (“perfected” the following year with “Imagine”), rudimentary blues-guitar, or busker-level, stool perching acoustic strummery.

So it’s all about the message, then? Well, so long as you enjoy what it feels like to be John. Instead of saying something meaningful in a very direct, simple way, he merely says quite a few simplistic things.Let’s have a look:

Lennon on love: “Love is real / Real is love / Love is feeling / Feeling love.”
Lennon on loss: “My mummy’s dead / I can’t get it through my head.”
Lennon on loneliness: “When you're by yourself / And there's no-one else / You just have yourself / And you tell yourself / Just to hold on.”

OK, I’m not one to divorce lyrics from their musical context as proof of their validity or inanity, but remember: What music?

When Lennon does manage to escape sub-Hallmark sentiment and get a little more ambitious, he didn’t do himself any favors by keeping his audience at arm’s length, only occasionally brining them near enough for a condescending pat on the head. Guilt-ridden with his upward mobility, Lennon whined about fame and began a decade-long process of using his wealth to shelter himself from a world in which he professed to have so much hope. “Don’t give me no brother, brother, brother” he asks the “freaks on the phone” on “I Found Out.” Another checklist of dismissed ideas and ideals, Lennon starts the song by casting aside the common man before “working up” to more worthy targets such as patriarchy, Hare Krishna, and Paul McCartney.

If any proof of the disdain that Lennon feels for his fans is needed, they’re revealed on the Romulus and Remus of smug: “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero.” On “Isolation,” Lennon humbly refers to he and Yoko as “Just a boy and a little girl / Trying to change the whole wide world.” (But in “Ballad of John and Yoko” stylee, referring to this “whole wide world” as merely “a little town” when he feels it is catty.)

Plainspoken about his paranoia and desire to remove himself from a world he claims he is trying to change, John admits they’re “afraid of everyone” and are isolated by omnipresent cruelty. In one of many Us vs. Them moments in his solo career, Lennon charms the listener by telling him and the rest of the world that, “I don’t expect you to understand / After you’ve caused so much pain / But then again, you’re not to blame / You’re just a human, a victim of the insane.” Just human?! So what does that make you, John? A victim of a messiah complex, I guess.

Over and over, when he addresses his audience, he posits himself as a deified figure. Never mind that the most well-known act of protest that this “boy and girl...trying to change the whole wide world” could manage was inviting his third-tier celebrity counterculture friends by his apartment to arse about in bed and sing tuneless dirges in front of a few members of the media.

This was the model that Lennon offered. The most lyrically ambitious and beloved song on Plastic Ono Band, “Working Class Hero,” is, like “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” taken at face value and assumed to be the insightful work of “two liberals in the sun,” when it is instead a convoluted guilt trip. Lennon can’t even turn this into an “us vs. them” song because his idea of protest was jet setting to media events. So instead he occupies a special, particular place above either “us” or “them.” In his exalted spot he can offer a birth-to-death timeline of the tragedy of the working class, place blame on the haves (except himself and Yoko), and then offer his expert analysis. First offering hopelessness and then the chorus’ flippant praise, Lennon then, naturally, offers himself as the sole model of escape and perfectionism: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see...If you want to be a hero just follow me.” That’s the sound of the rug being pulled: Thanks for the advice, John, but the working class didn’t exactly have that luxury, did they?

After another record of still-born music and looking-glass lyrics, things went even further downhill for poor John. With few exceptions, he phoned it in—like many of his contemporaries, he tossed off an album of rock covers, and even managed to record an album, Walls and Bridges, that not even his most Pavlovian fans will cop to enjoying. After co-writing another bloody song complaining about his “Fame,” Lennon admitted that his heart was only in one place. In 1975, Lennon retired and his reality was finally reduced to “Yoko and me” only to emerge five years later to re-tell the world what it felt like to be him and shower Susan Schultz Polisesque love on his family before tragically having his legacy secured by death.

Blasphemy? Maybe, but with Lennon’s ideological oscillation and penchant for personal revision, were he to have lived longer it’s possible that he may have even partly agreed—if he took the time to climb down from his ivory tower. Either way, I believe more in Beatles than I do in him, which is fine because he rarely cared about anyone but himself.Mother, you had Lennon, but he never had you.

By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01
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