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Old Dec 04, 2005, 08:56 PM   #1
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Thumbs up What is real is almost unbearable

In John Lennon's best music, what is real is almost unbearable

By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published December 4, 2005

As geniuses go, John Lennon was no more troubled or insecure than most. He was on intimate terms with pain, and music was his way of working through it. He did so with an undiluted honesty that still can make a listener wince.

There are those who value Lennon's music as a symbol of rebellion, a protest singer who urged us to "give peace a chance" and a utopian spirit who sang, "Imagine no possessions." But those sentiments, though obviously heartfelt, have not aged particularly well. There's nothing wrong with the directness that powered some of Lennon's best-loved political anthems, but to these ears the likes of "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" just sound simplistic, the rock 'n' roll equivalent of singing "Kumbaya" 'round the campfire.

Others still idolize the freshfaced rocker who with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr made the girls scream by shaking his mop top and insisting, "I want to hold your hand." Almost all Baby Boomers can tell you where they were when they first heard the Beatles sing those words in 1964. It was a life-changing moment for a generation, but it belongs to the past, almost quaint in its innocence.

Then there was the psychedelic guru who laid siege to the doors of perception in songs such as "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Am the Walrus" and "Rain." Now we're getting somewhere. The merger of insinuating melody and abstract lyrics and textures still sounds ahead of its time.

From 1966 to '68, Lennon and the Beatles used the studio to create soundscapes that conjured another world, a sanctuary where "nothing is real." Little wonder. In his best music, what is real is almost unbearable. Yet immediately after this period, in songs such as "Cold Turkey," "Mother" and "God," he confronted that reality with shocking directness.

"Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me," Lennon once said. "It's like being possessed."

Lennon's demons are well-documented. The singer's troubled childhood haunted him all his life. His parents separated when he was 2, and he was reared by an aunt and uncle; when he was 17, his mother was killed in a bus accident. He later went through a divorce of his own at the height of the Beatles' success and grappled with heroin addiction. His second marriage, to Yoko Ono, was tumultuous; the couple splintered in the early '70s, and Lennon embarked on an 18-month bender.

All of it was fodder for Lennon's music, beginning in 1965 with the Beatles' "Help!" Lennon originally conceived the song as a midtempo ballad in which he addressed his self-doubt with unusual frankness; up till then the Beatles had been a fairly upbeat pop combo singing about adolescent love. But at this point Lennon was questioning everything -- his fame, the Beatles, his marriage, even his fluctuating weight -- and his writing became an outlet. "Help!" compressed his state of mind into a plea: "Help me get my feet back on the ground/Won't you please, please help me?"

In the studio, the band and producer George Martin revved up the tempo over Lennon's objections, and the song became a No. 1 hit while serving as the title track for the Beatles' second movie. That tension -- between Lennon's personal need to pour out his innermost emotions in song and the Beatles' collective need to keep feeding the hit machine -- played itself out until the quartet's eventual demise five years later.

In "Norwegian Wood," released later in '65, Lennon wrote the most complex narrative in the Beatles' songbook to that

point -- about an affair that reflected the state of his own crumbling marriage to Cynthia Lennon.

By 1966, Lennon's self-doubt had begun to twist into increasingly agitated and otherworldly music. The choppy rhythms and droning insinuation in Lennon's voice on "She Said, She Said" create an air of instability, which is only briefly resolved when the singer wistfully looks back to his childhood: "When I was a boy everything was right, everything was right."

The metallic brutality of "Yer Blues," which surfaced on the Beatles' self-titled "white album" in 1968, worked as a near parody of the singer's increasingly bleak, blank worldview: "Yes, I'm lonely/Wanna die."

Lennon's growing disenchantment with the Beatles was in part musical. The unvarnished directness of "Yer Blues" stood in opposition to the more elaborate production ideas of his songwriting partner, McCartney. When "Cold Turkey," Lennon's harrowing re-enactment of heroin withdrawal, was turned down by the other Beatles during the recording sessions for "Abbey Road," Lennon released it as a single under the Plastic Ono Band moniker in October 1969.

After the Beatles' break-up became official the next year, Lennon went to work in earnest on his first solo album. Fresh off four months of primal-scream therapy with psychologist Arthur Janov, Lennon let it rip on "Plastic Ono Band," still one of the most chilling albums ever made. A funeral bell tolls, and Lennon purges decades of guilt and despair on "Mother": "Mother, you had me, but I never had you." On "God," Lennon plucks out the eyes of one sacred cow after another, including the Beatles.

There was little more for Lennon to say after that. On the 1971 "Imagine" album, Lennon spit out "Gimme Some Truth," a manifesto that underscored all of his best music. It could be read as a demand to put up or shut up. By 1975, Lennon did the latter when he dropped out of the music business after reuniting with Ono and having a child. He returned in 1980 to make one last album, the blandly sweet-tempered "Double Fantasy."

When that final album was reissued in 2000, several previously unreleased songs were appended to it, including "Help Me to Help Myself." It's little more than a raw demo with Lennon alone at the piano. But it contains a wrenching premonition in its opening lines: "Well I tried so hard to settle down/But the angel of destruction keeps on/Houndin' me all around."

Shortly after singing those lines, Lennon was shot dead in the streets of his adopted hometown.

In John Lennon's best music, what is real is almost unbearable

By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published December 4, 2005

"Money (That's What I Want)" (1964) The ferocity of Lennon's vocal on this cover of Barrett Strong's Motown hit still sends a shiver up the spine.

"Help!" (1965) The sound of a man drowning inside his own No. 1 pop hit.

Rubber Soul (1965) Bob Dylan's massive influence on the midperiod Beatles seeps into "Norwegian Wood," Lennon's sitar-driven ode to an illicit affair. "Girl" contains one of Lennon's most lascivious vocals, right down to the way he inhales during the chorus. "In My Life" finds the then-24-year-old singer embracing his mortality with moving eloquence.

Revolver (1966) The audacious acid-rock soundscapes of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "She Said, She Said" perfectly suit Lennon's vision of a world losing its bearings.

"Rain" (1966) Lennon's psychedelic masterpiece driven by Ringo Starr's spectacular drumming and Paul McCartney's trampoline-like bass line.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967) An orchestral tapestry that tested the limits of the pop song and required 55 hours to record.

"I Am the Walrus" (1967) Gibberish raised to the level of wicked social commentary that all Lewis Carroll fans should appreciate.

The Beatles (1968) The quartet's self-titled "white album" provides a blueprint for Lennon's solo career. There's the delicate finger-picking of "Julia," the in-your-face drive of "Yer Blues" and the brilliant pastiche of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."

"Come Together" (1969) A prototypical stoner-rock anthem.


"Cold Turkey" (1969) Scorched-earth method-acting by Lennon as he relives the anguish of withdrawal.

"Instant Karma" (1970) Slamming, Phil Spector-produced wall of sound that cries, "We all shine on!"

Plastic Ono Band (1970) An exorcism. "The dream is over," Lennon sang, and it was.

Imagine (1971) Though the title song is hippie hokum, Lennon delivers the goods in the self-lacerating "Jealous Guy" and the snarling "Gimme Some Truth."

"#9 Dream" (1975) A strangely moving and ambitious visitation from the muse that inspired "I Am the Walrus" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."

"Stand By Me" (1975) To woo back Yoko Ono, Lennon conjures the soul singer within on this gritty cover of Ben E. King's classic ballad.

-- Greg Kot
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