John Lennon was murdered thirty-six years ago today. To commemorate this sad and tragic event, I wanted to do a little bit more than just think about it or mention it to the people who are close to me. I wanted to make public how even though I was born after he had died, his music gives me joy, makes me question life and society, makes me ponder about love, provides direction, and sometimes makes me sad. It feels like he is still with us because his music is so intimate and timeless. I also wanted to provide a review of what I consider his best album and some commentary on his musical style.
Lennon, like no other artist that I can think of, made his art and music extremely personal, but also beautiful, interesting, and relevant to others. He injected himself into the music of The Beatles since the very beginning: his feelings, emotions, convictions, life events and memories. Songs like ‘Help!’ and ‘I Am a Loser’ mark early topical departures from what his close collaborator Paul McCartney would write or sing about, even though both are still very Lennon-McCartney songs. ‘Penny Lane’ by McCartney and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ by Lennon were released as a double-A single in the UK in 1967. I consider both songs to be masterpieces, and both are about the places where McCartney and Lennon spend their childhoods. Nevertheless, ‘Penny Lane’ is an external observer description of a dynamic city and very typical of McCartney. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is an invitation for the listener to join the signer in a magical place to question what reality is. Like McCartney once said: “Strawberry Fields is sooo John.”
In 1970, Lennon released the ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ album to critical acclaim. Many people regard it as the best solo album ever released by one of The Beatles, although it faces some competition from the ‘All Things Must Pass’ album by George Harrison. Both albums are about personal introspection, but Harrison is simply unable to express himself through songs as directly and to the same degree that Lennon can. I also get the impression that ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ is close to a one-to-one mapping of Lennon: not only everything in the album is about him, but all he was at that point in his life is in the album. It is also an album that could not have been recorded as a Beatles album, so while it is sad that they broke up, a few good things came out of it and of course all things must pass away.
A few days ago, I mentioned to a friend that if my life were a record, it would be ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.’ There is no question on my mind about this. My friend thought it was interesting and made me realize that it is a little weird. The goal of most albums simply is not for people to identify with them, but it is what Lennon achieves. The album is an angry reaction to society and the world with songs like ‘I Found Out,’ ‘Remember’ and ‘Working Class Hero.’ It is an album about being confused about life with songs like ‘Isolation’ and ‘Look at Me.’ It is an album about being rational, responsible, honest, and independent with songs like ‘God.’ It is an album about regret and pain with songs like ‘Mother’ and ‘My Mummy’s Dead.’ It is an album about love with songs like ‘Hold On’ and ‘Love.’ It is a John Lennon album, just listen to “Well Well Well.”
I am John’s age when he released John Lennon/Plastic Ono band, and our lives have followed similar enough trajectories. I of course have not been as successful as a scientist as he was as a musician, but we both worked our asses off when we were young, we were both talented and believed we knew exactly what we wanted in and from life. We both made bad mistakes and sacrificed personal relationships. Then we reached maturity and understood how society works, what really matters in life, and our responsibility to try to change the whole damned world. I wish at some point my life will become good enough that I can identify with ‘Double Fantasy’ but in the meantime, thank you John for letting me know that I am not alone, thank you for your inspiring music, for showing me what I can aspire to, and thank you for being principled and always following your convictions. You were taken from us precisely because of this, but your ideas are here to stay and live in many people. We are all pissed off at him, but we understand that he is just a human, a victim of the insane. And as far as being a dreamer, you are certainly not the only one.
Originally published on December 8, 2016.